Tick tock. Tick tock.
Another game, another loss, another defensive effort that just wasn’t good enough. The Nuggets played inspiring defense for parts of their 116-115 loss to the Mavs, Denver’s third-straight defeat. But again, it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t the full 48-minute effort that the Nuggets needed.
The Nuggets currently have the 26th-ranked defense in the league. Only the NBA’s four bottom-feeders — the Magic, the Rockets, the Pistons and the Spurs — are worse this season. Dallas shot 50% from the floor Tuesday night. The Mavs went 17-36 (47.2%) from 3, hitting one open triple after another against a scrambling Nuggets defense that blitzed and trapped Luka Doncic all night. The Nuggets’ 17 turnovers, which led to 23 Mavs points, killed Denver too.
You could feel the frustration emanating from the Nuggets’ locker room after this one. Denver has now allowed 115+ points in three-straight games.
“We’re losing games that we’re supposed to be winning,” Bones Hyland said. “We know we’re not giving a sense of urgency to defend and go out there and compete every night. The locker room’s definitely frustrated.”
“We’re just giving up games. Literally. It’s stuff that we can control. It’s not out of our control. Bruce hit the dagger 3, and then the second that they come down, it’s just miscommunication.”
Here’s the play Hyland’s referring to that came after Bruce Brown’s triple that gave Denver a 112-111 lead.
It doesn’t get any easier for the Nuggets either. They’re back on the road Thursday in Portland against a Blazers team that put 135 points on Denver in the two team’s first meeting of the season back in October. That’s the game where Anfernee Simons poured in 22 points and six 3s in the third quarter alone, in case you forgot.
This loss to Dallas hurt the Nuggets’ spirit, and you could tell. Denver’s last two defeats — in Atlanta and New Orleans — were hard to swallow, but they weren’t on the Nuggets’ home floor. Tuesday night’s loss was. This was a game that Denver was in position to win. The Nuggets scored 115 points. They shot 41% from 3. A revamped second unit featuring Hyland, Brown, Christian Braun, Jeff Green and Zeke Nnaji looked competent. The Nuggets even defended Doncic well enough and limited him to 22 points on 5-17 shooting. Doncic also went 8-9 from the free-throw line,
“He knows how to seek fouls,” Hyland said of Doncic. “If he feels any touch, any hands, he’s going to go up. And I call it a flop, but he’s been doing it for so long, it’s not a flop to a lot of people.”
Denver just couldn’t come up with the necessary amount of winning plays and stops down the stretch.
“I think the focus needs to be much better on defense,” said Aaron Gordon, who did his part against Dallas scoring 27 points on 10-13 shooting while checking Doncic for much of the second half. “We need to be much more defensively oriented going into this next stretch of games and really make that the priority.”
Gordon’s frustration after this loss was obvious. After Jamal Murray missed a half-court heave at the fourth-quarter buzzer, Gordon was one of the first Nuggets to walk off the court. You could tell he was aggravated and ticked off. Honestly, it was somewhat settling to listen to his comments late Tuesday night. At least you know that Gordon cares and is annoyed at Denver’s defensive effort as of late.
Care is a key word when it comes to this Nuggets’ defense. Rotational tweaks like adding defensive-first players like Braun and Nnaji to the lineup will help, but those additions won’t magically cure Denver’s defensive woes. The Nuggets just need more buy-in on that end of the floor. They need everyone up and down the roster to take more pride in their defense than they have so far this season.
It’s a message Malone has been trying to get through to his players. After arriving back in Denver from New Orleans on Sunday night after an 0-2 road trip, Malone initially planned to hold a practice Monday morning. Denver typically never practices the day after a road trip regardless of the length. Malone ended up audibling and only held what he described as an “animated” film session, breaking down the Nuggets’ defensive shortcomings against the Pelicans, and then sent his players home to recover and get ready for Tuesday night.
In the end, the Nuggets’ defense against Dallas was better than the numbers showed. Turnovers are what really did the Nuggets in. Still, wasn’t good enough.
“We’ve had moments, we’ve had quarters, we’ve had half, we’ve had some games,” Michael Malone said regarding his team’s defense. “But it just hasn’t been consistent enough to string enough stops together.”