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"It's the same story every night": The Nuggets are winning but what's behind their propensity to blow leads?
Before you could say “the ball is popping” the Nuggets were out to a double-digit advantage over the Timberwolves. Denver opened Friday’s matchup by draining six of its first seven shots from the field, three of its first four 3s, and led Minnesota 17-7 after just four minutes of action. The Nuggets expanded their lead to 13 after 12 minutes of play.
Then, a familiar story. The Timberwolves, who were losers of eight-straight before tonight and were without the services of Karl-Anthony Towns, stayed in the range and trailed by 10 at halftime. Minnesota then cut Denver’s lead to two late in the third and stayed within single-digits until the middle of the fourth when the Nuggets’ starters returned to the floor and iced their 19th victory of the season.
“It seems like it’s the same story every night,” Michael Malone said after Denver’s fifth-straight win. “Get off to a great start, build a lead, give it back, then play better and get the win. So hopefully we stop giving it back.”
It was another ugly victory, a type of win the Nuggets are used to this season. Nikola Jokic tallied 22 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists, good for his 33rd career triple-double which tied him with Bob Cousy for 10th place on the NBA’s all-time triple-double leaderboard.
Denver is also quietly exceeding last season’s 54-win pace and the Nuggets are 5-0 in the division after already getting victories over Portland (twice), Oklahoma City this homestand and Minnesota once earlier this season. Jamal Murray tallied a game-high 28 points to go with six rebounds and five assists 48 hours after he scored 33 to lead the Nuggets past the Magic.
Forty eight hours ago against Orlando a similar story also unfolded that centered around the Nuggets giving up a lead. Denver got out to a first quarter advantage but found themselves trailing by 15 points at the half and then by 19 in the third. Like Friday’s win, the Nuggets were able to rally to avoid a home loss to a below-.500 team. Against Oklahoma City last week it happened again. Denver opened up a 22-5 lead and then took their foot off the gas, allowing the Thunder to stay within striking distance for the rest of the game.
“For some reason we have this propensity to get lackluster when we build big leads,” Malone said after Denver’s win over Oklahoma City.
So what gives?
“I don’t know,” Barton said in regards to what’s behind Denver’s habit of giving away leads. “It’s something we’re going through right now. Maybe we let our foot off the gas a bit?”
Pressed on the Nuggets’ tendency to give away leads Malone offered a theory.
“It’s a mystery,” Malone said. “I love the great starts, how ball is flying. We get big leads, but for some reason—I think we’re a young team. I think it speaks to our maturity a little bit where every night we get these leads and all of a sudden we let go and, ‘Oh we got this. It’s going to be easy.’ And it’s never easy. Teams are going to make runs. This is the NBA. They’re pro players. You’re not going to beat a team by 20 points the whole night.”
I asked Barton in an almost-empty Nuggets’ locker room if he thought Denver’s “maturity” was a factor like Malone said.
“That ain’t no excuse,” Barton told DNVR “Who’s young? Jamal’s four years in. (Jokic) has been in the league five years. That ain’t no excuse. We’re young in age but we’ve got experience. This is my eighth year, Gary’s sixth, Paul’s 14th. That ain’t no excuse.”
Maybe it’s something else entirely. The Nuggets’ core — Jokic, Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, and Barton — reached the playoffs together for the first time last season. They experienced the heightened level of play, the pressure, and the bright lights. Now, they have an 82-game regular season to wade through and opponents like the Magic on a Wednesday in December to do battle with before getting back to playoff basketball.
The Nuggets are talented and they know it. They’ve yet to get humming on offense this season and still sit second in the West with a showdown with the top-seeded Lakers looming on Sunday in Los Angeles. Great defense, in fact the second-best defense in the league to this point, is the reason for their hot start.
One veteran told DNVR after Denver’s come-from-behind victory over Orlando that he knew — even when down 19 in the third — that the Nuggets would come back. They’re that deep and that capable.
“It just seems like we can be two totally different teams within the same half,” Malone said. “That’s why I have to help that second unit, remind our starters the importance of understanding why we built that lead in the first place, and not go away from that. Sometimes ball movement—we’ve got the lead. ‘OK, now that we got the lead I’m going to do my thing.’ And that cant happen. We’ve got to stay true to form and remember who we are and how we play.”
Getting the bench on the same page would help too. Take a glance at the Nuggets’ boxscore from Friday and each player’s plus-minus numbers. It gives you a good indication of how Denver’s latest win transpired. The Nuggets’ starters have been dominant and Malone has leaned on them this season. He’s leaned on them so much that the Murray-Harris-Barton-Millsap-Jokic lineup has played the most minutes of any five-man lineup in the league, and it hasn’t been close. They’ve been dominant too, posting a 112.6 Offensive Rating, a 100.7 Defensive Rating, and 11.8 Net Rating in 464 minutes. Denver’s bench? Not so much.
Every Nuggets’ starter finished at least a plus-11 against the Timberwolves except for Barton who played several minutes alongside the second unit. Every bench player was in the negatives minus Malik Beasley who finished a plus-12 in 14 minutes and provided a second-half spark for the second-straight game.
A five-game winning streak is just what the doctor ordered after a 1-3 East Coast road trip earlier this month, and it’s incredibly valuable to bank wins at this point in the calendar. The Nuggets, along with every other playoff team in the West, should focus their attention on getting one of the top two seeds in the conference because there’s a big difference between playing the current sixth-seeded Jazz in the first round and the seventh-seeded Thunder come April. Oklahoma City is 14-14 overall and the eighth seeded Trail Blazers are at 13-16. It’s a long ways away but there’s a good possibility that the seventh and eighth seeds in the West could come in below-.500.
At 19-8 the Nuggets are off to their best start to a season through 27 games since 2009-10 (19-8). Not giving away first-half leads would make banking those wins, which will come in handy later in the year, little bit easier.