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The Nuggets have held three straight opponents under 100 points, but are just scratching the surface of what they’re capable of

Harrison Wind Avatar
October 22, 2018

Michael Malone’s wildest dreams are coming true.

The Denver Nuggets are winning games, not with their high-flying offense, but with their defense. Sunday’s 100-98 win over the Warriors, which moved Denver to 3-0 on the season, was their latest defensive showcase.

“This is the defense I’ve dreamt about ever since I got here,” Malone said after the win.

For the third consecutive game, Denver held its opponent to under 100 points. The Nuggets only did that once all of last season. The three teams Denver has faced this year — the Clippers, Suns and now Warriors — have combined to shoot 35.1 shooting from the field and 27.1 percent from three. The Nuggets are the best defense statistically in the league by a wide margin a week into the regular season.

Denver, for all intents and purposes, returned the same roster that last season was the 23rd-ranked defense in the league and lost Wilson Chandler this summer, who was arguably its most valuable defender from a year ago.

So what’s changed?

“The mindset is different,” said Paul Millsap. “Teams talk about it. We talked about it last year, but this year we’re putting it in full effect. Guys are scrambling. Guys are trying. Guys are getting stops, especially when we need them.”

Millsap did a lot of talking himself throughout the preseason.

The 33-year-old was the best defensive player on the 2015-16 Hawks, who were the second-best defense in the league. But Millsap missed 44 games last season with a wrist injury, and without its defensive captain, Denver fell apart on that end of the floor.

However, Millsap came back to Denver this fall fully healthy and in pristine shape. On the Nuggets’ third day of training camp, he proclaimed that his personal goal was for Denver to be a top-five defense in the league.

“It’s not just talk,” Millsap said around 30 minutes after he anchored the Nuggets’ defense to a third-straight win. “We’re not blowing smoke.”

Denver is falling in line behind Millsap. Jamal Murray chased around Stephen Curry Sunday for 26 minutes while fighting multiple leg injuries including a left tibia contusion and found a way to limit the former MVP to 10-23 shooting from the field. Gary Harris’ 28 points carried Denver on the offensive end of the floor, but he did it with his defense too, holding Klay Thompson to just 15 points on 7-16 shooting.

Nikola Jokic also got in on the fun, battling Draymond Green on the glass on his way to 11 rebounds. Juancho Hernangomez, who’s struggled as a defender throughout his Nuggets’ career, recorded the game-sealing block on Warriors center Damian Jones. Torrey Craig, who started for Will Barton at small forward after Denver’s starting three suffered a right hip injury Saturday, grabbed nine rebounds of his own and shadowed Kevin Durant for 27 minutes.

“We know what kind of talent we’ve got on this team,” Craig said. “If we defend, we can pretty much outscore everyone in this league.”

That’s what’s hard to believe about Denver’s hot start to the season. Its offense is yet to piece together four quarters of efficient offensive basketball. Through three games, the Nuggets are scoring just 105.5 points per 100 possessions, good for 24th-best offense in the league. Last season Denver averaged 111.3 points per 100 possessions.

“Coach, imagine when we start making shots,” Harris told Malone.

Murray, who was a trendy pick for most improved player before the season began, is shooting 12-39 from the field and 4-16 from three. Millsap has hit just 16 of his 52 attempted shots through three regular season and five preseason games. Barton, who averaged 15.7 points per game last season, is out “for the foreseeable future,” according to Malone. As a team, the Nuggets are shooting 43 percent from the field and under 30 percent from three, which is fine with Denver’s coach as long as they keep winning.

“I firmly believe in defense being the corner piece to being a championship-level team,” Malone said.

The Nuggets’ win over the Warriors was their most impressive victory of the young season. Sunday’s matchup came just 23 hours after the Nuggets hosted the Suns on Saturday. The win also came on the heels of the potentially serious injury to Barton.

But Barton, a respected veteran voice, rallied Denver in its locker room before Sunday’s matchup, and the Nuggets responded with the mental toughness and fortitude of a playoff-tested team.

The scariest part: Denver is just scratching the surface of what it’s capable of.


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