© 2024 ALLCITY Network Inc.
All rights reserved.
Michael Malone gathered his team in the locker room following the Nuggets’ fourth-straight win, a 103-88 victory over the Jazz that moved Denver into a tie for the second-best record in the league, and delivered a simple and succinct message.
“We are 8-1 for a reason, and it starts with our defense. Here’s another night, fellas, we go 9 of 28 from three and we win going away,” he said.
It’s true. The Nuggets won again, as Malone said, going away, without their three-point strokes.
Saturday night’s Northwest Division showdown with the Jazz was tight until the opening minutes of the fourth quarter when Denver blasted off on a 30-5 run behind a mostly bench unit consisting of Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley, Trey Lyles, Mason Plumlee and starter Jamal Murray.
It was arguably one of the Nuggets’ most impressive stretches of basketball this season. Denver held Utah to just two field goals in nine minutes. The Nuggets outrebounded the Jazz 15-6 in that span. The multiple-effort defense that Malone has dreamt about for the last three years and has carried the Nuggets to an 8-1 record, was the difference again.
“I don’t know what changed,” Plumlee said. “But we took away easy ones at the rim. We held them to one shot and the 30 comes off of playing on the break. Hitting early, open threes, guys attacking the basket, but our defense really started it.
The Nuggets are the third best defense in the league through nine games. Denver’s holding its opponent to just 44.7 percent shooting from the field, good for ninth-best in the league and 33.1 percent from three, also the ninth-best mark. Last season, Denver ranked dead last in both categories.
Is it sustainable? That’s what I asked Malone following another pristine defensive effort, this time against a team most picked to finish third in the Western Conference.
“We’re going to find out,” Malone said. “Obviously, we’re 8-1 and we have one of the best defenses in the NBA. So why not? Why can’t we do it?”
There’s reason to think Denver’s defense will fall off. Few times if any has a team who was so poor on the defensive end of the floor one season returned the same rotation the next and had a defensive climb like the Nuggets are currently experiencing. Sure, Denver tweaked its scheme and have Defensive Player of the Year candidate Paul Millsap healthy again. But there’s little precedent for the Nuggets’ unexpected defensive rise.
But what if Denver’s defense is here to stay? What if the loss in game 82 last season in Minnesota on the final night of the regular season really did light a fire in Denver’s locker room, like so many of its players say it did. What if the devastating loss that Will Barton still thinks about eight months after the fact really did bring a renewed sense of commitment to Nikola Jokic and the rest of Denver’s roster?
The Nuggets care about their defense this year. They’re taking pride in their play on that end of the floor. That’s what defense comes down to, right?
“You can talk game plan you can talk strategy,” said Malone. “At the end of the day for me, defense comes down to pride.”
For the ninth time in as many tries this season, the Nuggets failed to eclipse their season average of 11 1/2 threes per game from a year ago. Gary Harris, who shot roughly 40 percent from three last year, was 1 of 4 from distance Saturday and still is shooting under 30 percent from deep to begin the season. Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, and Torrey Craig can’t find the range either. One player who did have a good night shooting the ball? Mason Plumlee, who hit his first career three in the fourth quarter, which ignited the sold-out Pepsi Center crowd.
As a team, the Nuggets are shooting 30.6 percent from three, good for the fourth-worst mark in the league.
Denver doesn’t need to panic and trade for a sharpshooter like Kyle Korver, who’s rumored to be available in Cleveland. They don’t need to veer off course. Prior to its win over the Jazz, Denver was shooting just 32.5 percent on wide open threes per NBA.com, when the closest defender was at least six feet away. The Nuggets are generating open looks. They’re just not going in. Good shooters like Harris and Murray don’t forget how to shoot overnight.
“Just imagine when those threes start falling,” Malone said.
When they do, that’s a scary thought not just for the Nuggets, but for everyone else in the Western Conference.