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Kyle Kuzma sprayed Gary Harris’ reverse layup off the backboard in the first quarter and sent Monte Morris’ floater out of bounds in the fourth quarter, but the most jarring denial of Thursday’s game between the Nuggets and Lakers occurred as halftime approached when Paul Millsap got stuffed by the rim.
No Lakers challenged Millsap as he cocked the ball behind his head and uncoiled. What should have been an easy two yielded nothing.
Millsap has gotten out of the gates slowly in his 13th NBA season. In five games, he is averaging 10.2 points on 37.2 percent shooting and has nearly twice as many turnovers (nine) as assists (five). So far, the four-time All-Star hasn’t looked like himself — at least on the offensive end.
“I’m thinking too much,” Millsap said following practice Saturday. “I’ve just got to get out there, let my natural instincts take over and play basketball.”
Millsap is 1-for-8 from behind the 3-point arc. But what’s more concerning is his lack of touch around the rim. Millsap is shooting 44 percent from 4 feet and in, according to Cleaning the Glass. He’s 8 for 18 on shots in the restricted area, according to NBA.com. His post moves have looked clunky, and he’s lacked explosiveness.
The Nuggets were trying to put the game away Thursday when two possessions involving Millsap helped turned the tide in the Lakers’ favor. With 4:17 remaining, Millsap backed Kuzma down and threw up a shot that didn’t graze rim.
On the Nuggets’ next offensive possession, they went to Millsap down low again. He put the ball on the floor and got stripped by Lonzo Ball.
The Lakers closed the game on a 17-6 run over the final 4:33 of regulation. Denver made plenty of other mistakes during that decisive stretch, but those were two of the biggest.
“You stay positive,” Millsap said. “There are times when you want to slap yourself. You don’t understand why, how, what, but you stay positive. You get in the gym tomorrow. You work. You continue to do all the little things to try and help this team win.”
Thursday was the first time this season Denver’s starting five didn’t finish as a net positive. The Nuggets got outscored by eight points in the 19 minutes Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Millsap and Nikola Jokic shared the floor. Millsap and Craig combined to score eight points on 4-of-14 shooting. Meanwhile, the other three starters combined for 59 points on 23-of-47 shooting.
“You look at our percentages across the board, a lot of guys are struggling to make shots right now,” Malone said. “You hope that changes sooner rather than later. We’re executing. We’re playing with pace. We generated a ton of wide open shots. They just didn’t go down. I have no doubt those shots will start to go down for us.”
The Nuggets are still 4-1 despite Thursday’s hiccup. Their offense might not be firing on all cylinders, but they’re still ranked third in defensive efficiency. No player deserves more credit for that than Millsap. Denver is allowing 92.0 points per 100 possessions with Millsap on the floor; that number jumps to 112.9 points per 100 possessions when Millsap sits.
The Nuggets needs Millsap to get going at some point, especially with starting small forward Will Barton sidelined until at least early December. Millsap has not gotten off to the start he would’ve liked scoring the basketball. He’s not about the hit the panic button, though.
“I feel like I’m just rushing everything,” Millsap said. “Everything is rushed. That’s not how I normally play basketball. I don’t rush anything in life. But I’ll find my rhythm. I’ll slow down a little bit.”