From the second the final buzzer of Game 2 sounded, the Denver Nuggets conveyed a relaxed and at-ease emotional reaction despite getting stomped on. They refused to get too high or too low and had admitted early on that this series was going to be a battle from start to finish.
Yes, Malone and his team were adamant that Denver has a multitude of issues to address if they hope to beat the Utah Jazz in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs, but the Nuggets knew, and still know, they have the talent to defeat the Jazz.
In Game 3, Denver’s confidence proved to be a farce. Not only did they lose in embarrassing fashion to the Jazz, but they quit. They folded and gave up in Game 3 of the first round with the series tied against a divisional opponent that they knew well. Now the Nuggets trail 2-1 in the series and need to win three of the next four games to get to the second-round of the playoffs.
There are plenty of schematic issues and problematic matchups to discuss, but that truly doesn’t matter at this point. No amount of recalibration on either end of the floor can make up for a roster full of bad habits and no passion.
There was no bigger culprit than Nikola Jokic, who was throughly abused on both ends of the floor by Rudy Gobert. Jokic had the defensive impact of a traffic cone and moved his feet about as often; as in his only movement came when being bodied by Gobert in the paint. Possession after possession, the Jazz would put Jokic in a pick and roll with Gobert and attack him with fantastic results. When they weren’t directly going after Jokic, he was getting manhandled by Gobert who was grabbing seemingly every available offensive rebound as Jokic’s only attempt at a box out was to throw his arms skyward and hope for the ball to magically bounce his way despite his feet never leaving the floor.
To make matters worse, his offensive success did not exist and any on-court accountability for his role in Denver’s offensive struggles was unmistakably absent. His aggressiveness getting into offensive sets was at an all-time low, his chose not to attack mismatches and clearly did not take it upon himself to pull the Nuggets out of their disastrous play.
Jokic simply looked like he did not care and played in the same manner. And because Jokic is unquestionably Denver’s best player, the rest of the roster followed suit as lethargy and apathy overtook all nine members of their playoff rotation.
It did not matter if it was the bench unit or the starters; almost everyone was standing around and watching on offense or rushed to find their own looks instead of trusting each other and working through their offensive sets. They walked the ball up the court, lackadaisically set screens, and when their initial offense predictably fell apart in their hands, they began forcing bad shots.
Denver has the likes of Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr., Jerami Grant, Monte Morris and Paul Millsap on their active roster. Every last one of those players have a high level of offensive skill and it has meant absolutely nothing through Denver’s first three playoff games. Their offense is stagnant and discombobulated while also being played at a snails pace. The only way that will change is if the players take it upon themselves to reignite this dormant Nuggets offense.
On defense, it seems as if the Nuggets admitted defeat. Denver routinely gave up easy baskets in transition, refused to box out allowing second-chance points, failed entirely to contain any threats on the perimeter, and made things exponentially worse by not communicating which drastically slowed their rotations. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for Denver on defense, but once again it had almost everything to do with their effort as opposed to the scheme. Almost all of those issues could have been remedied if Denver dedicated themselves to the defensive scheme and executed it to the best of their ability.
To be clear, this has much less to do with Nuggets head coach Michael Malone and much more to do with his players. While some would argue a coaches main job is to motivate his players, that is also an unfair statement. Anyone who thinks Malone is sitting by silently and willingly watching these struggles is wrong. Malone is addressing these issues regularly with the roster, but clearly his words are either being ignored or the Nuggets are refusing to put the effort towards fixing their mistakes. Regardless of what that answer is, it is an indictment on the players much more so than Malone.
So where does this leave the Nuggets?
To put it simply, there is no amount of adjustments, changes to personnel, matchups to hunt or rousing halftime speeches that can make a team play hard and care about the game they are taking part in. Until Denver can reach the bare minimum in terms of effort and urgency, they are nothing more than the frauds they were billed as.