For as disappointing as the Nuggets played throughout most of Tuesday’s 48 minutes vs. the Detroit Pistons, Denver had a chance to secure a win late in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets had the ball trailing 104-103 with 1:55 left in regulation. There was still time for Denver to close out the lowly Pistons.
But the Nuggets’ clutch offense sputtered. Denver came up empty on its next two possessions. By then, Detroit had gone up by five points. The Nuggets eventually found Nikola Jokic, who scored four straight points to make things close. But it was too late. Detroit won 110-108 after Aaron Gordon misfired on a jumper that came off a purposely missed free-throw from Jamal Murray, and the Nuggets fell on their home floor to the worst team in the NBA.
Here were those two-straight costly empty possessions:
This Jamal Murray missed layup against the entire Pistons’ defense that came on the heels of a really rough night from Denver’s point guard.
Then this Gordon 3 off a play that looks like it broke down. There was a lot of confusion after Denver wasn’t able to get Jokic the ball.
“Even late, we’re trying to run plays that we’ve run for years, and we had a hard time running them,” Michael Malone said. “And when we did run them, we just had a hard time making the right reads and the right passes.”
The Nuggets have valid excuses for dropping this game. It was Jokic and Murray’s first game back after COVID protocols. They were clearly a little rusty. Their rhythm was off. Gordon just came off an illness that cost him three games too. Michael Porter Jr. has been in a shooting slump, but I thought had a really nice game vs. Detroit. The bench….well….was terrible. Denver has been outscored by 127 points in the 375 minutes its played without Jokic this season (with Jokic on the bench last night, Detroit went +15 in 11 minutes.) The Nuggets also turned the ball over 18 times. The Pistons scored 26 points off those giveaways.
But the Nuggets’ late-game offense Tuesday night furthered a trend of Denver not scoring efficiently in close games this season. On the year, the Nuggets’ clutch offense ranks 25th in the NBA (93.7 Offensive Rating). In the last five minutes of games decided by five points or less, Murray is shooting 2-9 from the floor. Jokic is shooting just 6-16. It has not been pretty on the offensive end. The reason Denver is 5-2 in clutch games this season is its defense. The Nuggets held the Pistons to 1-6 shooting and a 77.7 Offensive Rating in the clutch and still lost. On the season, Denver’s 77.8 clutch Defensive Rating leads the NBA.
You’d think this would be among the best clutch offenses in the league. The Murray-Jokic two-man game is unstoppable when those two are firing on all cylinders. Put Porter in one corner, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the other, and stick Gordon in the dunker spot, and you’re going to get a wide-open look every time out of that two-man action.
I think the Nuggets’ offense will gradually improve late in games this season. We have to remember that Murray is returning after an 18-month layoff, although I was surprised he played as much as he did (34 minutes) coming off a two-game absence. He struggled through a 3-12 shooting night. The Nuggets didn’t find out he or Jokic were going to play until around 55 minutes before tip-off. Bones Hyland, who was questionable coming into Tuesday night with a non-COVID illness, could have been on the floor late but didn’t play in the second half.
It was quite the vibes reversal from Denver’s win in Dallas on Sunday where an undermanned Nuggets team frustrated Luka Doncic (Malone’s bunch shot just 1-7 from the floor in the last five minutes of that win without Jokic, Murray and Gordon.) The Nuggets pivoted quickly from their best win of the season to an awful loss.
The bottom line is that right now, Denver needs to keep the ball in Jokic’s hands as much as possible late in close games. The Nuggets and their coaching staff have to make sure he’s the one deciding these games on the offensive end of the floor.