Stop me if you've heard this one before. The Nuggets show moments of brilliance. They compete with one of the league's best teams for long stretches of the game. They have a short stretch where they completely blow a double digit lead with a mixture of bad fouls, stagnant offense and just a pinch of JJ Hickson. In crunch time, the Nuggets struggle to get easy looks, while giving up open shots on defense with poor pick and roll coverage. Sound familiar? At this point, writing a Nuggets recap is like writing a Mad Lib. Just fill in the opponent, the size of the run the Nuggets allow and the final score.
The Nuggets played an impressive first half, led by Kenneth Faried who dominated the boards, and made a few impressive plays in the open court. They held the Chicago Bulls to just 42 points in the first half and controlled the tempo of the game, while holding Derrick Rose scoreless. Wilson Chandler even provided a nice boost, scoring 14 points in the 2nd quarter, helping the Nuggets establish an 11 point half time lead. The Nuggets continued that same effort to start the 3rd quarter but the wheels came off when Denver started to commit some awful fouls, including a few in transition and in the back court. Chicago scored 11 points at the free throw line in the 3rd quarter and were able to grab a three point lead heading into the 4th. The Nuggets rallied back and took a 86-85 lead halfway through the 4th quarter with just under seven minutes left in the game.
Jusuf Nurkic continues to improve before our eyes and provided some great defense throughout the game, frustrating Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah with a couple of impressive blocks in the post. There was a stretch in the 4th quarter when the Nuggets posted up Nurkic when they needed a score. It is rare for any team to lean on a rookie in those situations, and it is a testament to Nurkic that the team is beginning to trust him in those situations. Perhaps the most impressive stat in the box score was Nurkic escaping with just one foul. The Bulls were very aggressive posting up Gasol and Nurkic showed great balance and discipline by keeping his back straight and contesting shots without fouling.
Faried was also a bright spot throughout much of the game. Faried's energy and hustle seemed to give the Nuggets a spark and he added a few highlight dunks that really put an exclamation point on their 2nd quarter run. Faried was the first one substituted out in the first quarter and Shaw seems to like playing him in short, productive stretches.
At this point in the season, with the Nuggets now 4.5 games back of the eight seed and unlikely to make the playoffs, every loss improves their odds of landing a top 3 pick.
The worst of the worst
Teams have taken notice of Faried's poor pick and roll defense and look to put him in high screen situations late in games. Late in the 4th quarter, Rose called for Faried's man to set a high screen on four straight possessions and the Bulls scored six points on those possessions. Faried has a tendency to drop back too far on the ball handler and gives up either an open mid range jump shot or a short push shot like the ones Rose scored during that 4th quarter run. Faried's energy and hustle have been great over the last week or so, but he really needs to improve his positioning going forward or teams will continue to exploit it for easy points.
Mozgov had an incredibly frustrating game and a lot of that had to do with a tough matchup for him against a very crafty post player in Pau. Mozgov has always struggled with foul trouble and a lot of it has to do with his footwork that is always a step behind. He is relatively good about staying down on shot fakes and keeping his body upright, but he gets into trouble when he gets beat to the spot on one dribble drive moves. Gasol repeatedly attacked Mozgov's shoulders on his drives knowing that Mozgov is often late to move his feet and seemed to draw fouls on him whenever he wanted.
Hickson was absolutely brutal in his 14 minutes. He was unplayable and thankfully Shaw seemed to recognize this, albeit a little later than Nuggets fans would've liked. With injuries to Javale McGee and Darrell Arthur, Shaw didn't have a whole lot of options but with the effort and impact Nurkic was having on the game it would have been nice to see him get more minutes.
The Nuggets may very well continue to struggle with the same things all season: silly fouls, half court execution, and pick and roll defense. Injuries make it awfully difficult for Shaw and the coaching staff to come up with variety in their offensive and defensive schemes, but things like Faried's footwork in pick and roll, Mozgov's footwork in the post, and late game execution should show some signs of improvement over time. So far this season, that just hasn't been the case.