PHOENIX — After the Mat Ishbia flop, after a jaw-dropping, historic, all-time 53-point performance from Nikola Jokic, and after the Nuggets walked off the floor at Footprint Center and silently trudged back to the visiting locker room, veteran Jeff Green offered some words of wisdom about how Denver needs to approach a pivotal and potentially series-deciding Game 5 Tuesday at Ball Arena.
“It’s about pride. It’s about effort,” Green said in a near-empty Nuggets locker room that filtered out quickly after a 129-124 loss. “And it’s about wanting to take on the challenge.”
I don’t know if Green was calling anyone out with those comments — his stern tone certainly suggested he was — but the veteran did pinpoint what needs to change in order for the Nuggets to regain momentum in a now-tied 2-2 series.
The Nuggets have got to take some pride in their defense again. They’ve got to ramp up their overall intensity. The Suns have become way too comfortable in their last two wins as Denver’s defense has fallen way off. The Suns worked the Nuggets again for 20 fast break points in Game 4, just like in Game 3 when they scored 23 points in transition.
Not getting back on defense is just unacceptable at this point in the series. Devin Booker has gotten way too many easy points in transition.
Now, Phoenix has its confidence again, and it means Denver has to go back to the drawing board. Right now, it feels like the Suns know what’s coming on both ends of the floor, especially in regard to how Denver is guarding them.
Everyone on the Nuggets has to be better. That includes Aaron Gordon, who’s done a solid job on Kevin Durant in this series. That includes Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, and Christian Braun, Denver’s defensive trio that’s tasked with checking Booker. That also includes Jamal Murray, who ducked out of the arena and declined to speak with reporters after Game 4.
“I feel like they’ve kind of figured out what we’re trying to do,” said Michael Porter Jr.
You’d have to think significant tweaks are in order ahead of Game 5, both in terms of game plan and maybe personnel. Prior to Game 3 of Nuggets-Suns, Denver’s bench had been the story of its playoff run. Throughout the Nuggets’ first seven playoff games (five vs. Minnesota, two vs. Phoenix) Denver outscored its opponent by 34 points in the 82 minutes that Jokic had been off the floor. But since then, that differential has flipped. The Nuggets are a -19 in the 15 minutes that Jokic has been on the bench over their last two games. Those splits have reverted back to regular-season form.
Can Michael Malone continue to trust his same bench? I don’t see how he could with the momentum the Suns have now grabbed and how fatal those minutes have been to the Nuggets over their last two losses.
“We’ve got to back and look at what we’re doing and who we’re doing it with,” Malone said after Game 4.
Braun, who for my money is the Nuggets’ best matchup on Booker, only logged eight minutes in Game 4. That minute total needs to climb in Game 5. If Denver wants more defensive versatility on its second unit, Zeke Nnaji, Vlatko Cancar, or rookie Peyton Watson would be Malone’s other possible go-to options if he’s thinking about a rotation change (inserting Nnaji and Watson would be my personal choice.) I don’t think Malone can risk another debilitating performance from the same bench unit. The Suns have solved that lineup and the Nuggets need to adjust.
The casualty in those scenarios would be Green, who due to Gordon’s foul trouble in Game 4 played way too many minutes. Across Games 3 and 4, Denver has been outscored by a staggering 36 points (65-29) in Green’s 33 minutes.
It’s too bad Denver couldn’t bother Booker or Durant much in Game 4. The Nuggets wasted a magical Jokic night where he was the best player in a game that also featured special performances from Booker and Durant. For all the hype about Booker — he’s been incredible and deserves the praise he’s gotten — Jokic has outscored him 146-145 in the series.
The Nuggets will need more of that Joker magic in Game 5.