There’s a lot that’s concerning about the Denver Nuggets right now.
They’ve lost five of their last six games. The defense is cratering to the embarrassing level it was at to start the season. The bench still sucks. And the Nuggets still have two more games left on this road trip before they return to Ball Arena.
After Saturday’s 116-110 loss in New York to the Knicks, the West-leading Nuggets’ are just 3.5 games up on the Kings and Grizzlies for the No. 1 seed. That advantage was 7.5 games on March 7 when this slide started. Denver’s only win since then was over the tanking Detroit Pistons.
The Nuggets look like a team right now that’s lost their mojo. They’ve forgotten their identity and who they are. They’re playing with no joy, no swagger, and no heart. They’re coasting to the finish line. Right now, the Nuggets are stale.
“We’re in chill mode,” Michael Malone said earlier this week.
It’s natural for NBA teams to let up like this late in the year. The regular season is a grind, and for this group, it’s always been about getting the playoffs in one piece. They’ve almost accomplished that. But now the Nuggets have created a new narrative and question that’s going to follow them until the games really start to matter in a few weeks.
Can the Nuggets flip the switch? Can they suddenly turn it on again in the playoffs? Can they get their mojo back?
I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know if the Nuggets do either.
Ish Smith was one of the veterans who spoke up in the locker room after the Nuggets fell in Toronto to start this five-game road trip. Smith’s message, according to Malone, was that Denver has too many players that rely on their offense to get them going. Those vets were concerned enough at this point in the season that they felt they needed to say something.
The Nuggets flashed some encouraging traits Saturday in New York. Jamal Murray got in a nice offensive groove, scored 25 points on healthy efficiency, and went 5-of-7 from beyond the arc. Bruce Brown gave Denver great minutes off the bench. Aaron Gordon had a well-rounded 14-point, 5-rebound, 7-assist game. Nikola Jokic went for 24 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists.
But the Nuggets didn’t quite want this one enough. Denver got out-rebounded 43-33. It wasn’t pretty. Mitchell Robinson had seven offensive rebounds alone. That’s more than the Nuggets had as a team. Former Nugget Isaiah Hartenstein straight up out-worked Denver’s bigs on the glass.
In clutch time, Michael Porter Jr. got iced out of Denver’s offense entirely. After his 3-pointer with 5:12 left in the fourth, Porter didn’t touch the ball on the Nuggets’ next seven possessions. Denver shot 2-9 in the last five minutes of Saturday’s loss.
Since the trade deadline, the Nuggets have tried and failed to incorporate their two new pieces: Reggie Jackson and Thomas Bryant. Jackson fell out of the rotation after nine games. Bryant has been a non-factor in the majority of his minutes and a shell of the player he was for most of this season with the Lakers. It looks like he might be another backup center who just doesn’t work in Denver.
“We need to be concerned,” Jokic told reporters after the Nuggets’ latest loss. “We need to try to win the next one.”
Of course, there’s a scenario where none of this actually matters. That’s still the way this thing could go. The Nuggets checked every box over the last few months. Their offense is elite. They were steadily improving on defense. They had playoff-level wins over championship contenders. They still have the back-to-back MVP and a more than capable supporting cast. This is simply Denver, a bonafide, complete, title-chaser on cruise control with a lead…that’s quickly dwindling…in the West.
Let’s hope that’s it.
We’ll find out what this is soon enough. Only 11 games stand between the Nuggets and the playoffs.