The Denver Nuggets were looking to close out their 8 game homestand with a victory against one of the better teams in the NBA. Unfortunately, the Atlanta Hawks had other ideas and they backed their ideas up with effort, something that was continuously missing from the Nuggets performances. Turnovers, lackadaisical defense, poor ball movement and a dash of small ball ended up spelling ruin for Denver.
The Nuggets opened the game with a turnover which was foreshadowing for what was to come. However, for the first quarter they looked like the team that had been going punch for punch with some of the best teams in the NBA the last two weeks. Nikola Jokic was showing off his guard like abilities with some excellent passing from the top of the post that led to easy buckets for Danilo Gallinari. Gary Harris bolstered the youth effort with outstanding defense and shooting. He hit his first four shots of the game and added two steals in the first frame.
The Nuggets had a chance to jump out to an early big lead but their efforts on offense (excellent ball movement, finding easy shots) were offset by numerous turnovers, including four in the first five minutes of the game. Kenneth Faried also struggled to defend the multi talented Paul Millsap. The second thing that prevented the team from creating a big lead was Randy Foye and the bench. It's very noticeable that when Foye comes in to play point guard the offense really struggles. Suddenly all that excellent ball movement evaporated and in its place was Foye handing the ball off to Will Barton 2 seconds into the possession and Barton either trying to score on five Hawks at once or making a last ditch pass to Darrell Arthur for a contested mid range jumper. At one point Denver went 4 minutes without a point and finished the quarter with 7 turnovers.
The second quarter was highlighted by Jusuf Nurkic's return to the active lineup, however Nurk would struggle to defend the quicker Al Horford. In fact, the Hawks quickness overall was a major struggle for Denver the rest of the game. Part of that is to blame on a lack of effort as the Nuggets were consistently losing the man to man match ups and the Hawks were getting easy points in the paint. Reserve point guard Dennis Schroder was especially difficult for Foye to cover and he utilized his speed to penetrate Denver's defense at will. The Nuggets would also get no help from the zebras in this one, they made a particularly egregious call against Nurkic where apparently he breathed and that mighty exhale blew over the flimsy Tiago Splitter.
Via An Nguyen of BSN Denver
The second half started like the first half, with a Denver turnover. Only this time they doubled down on that and followed the first turnover with a second. There was no pep talk to rally the troops at halftime (or at least none that worked) and Denver came out as flat and effortless on defense as they were in the first half. The offense at one point reduced to Emmanuel Mudiay jacking up a three about 5 seconds into the shot clock...he airballed it. On the defensive end Atlanta continued to get to the paint with their quicker guards and the Nuggets had no answer. A scary moment where Millsap collided head first into Faried's shoulder seemed to give Denver a moment to breathe and get their bearings.
Mudiay started attacking again and Nikola Jokic was working hard around the basket securing rebounds and getting tip ins. The pace started coming to a halt and the Nuggets admirably started scratching and clawing their way back into the game. They weren't getting the pretty ball movement that they had in the first quarter but they were making some tough shots and had tightened up on defense to get the deficit down to 11. It wouldn't last. The Hawks responded with a three pointer from Kent Bazemore followed by an and 1 by Schroder and the lead was back to 17 like that.
The fourth quarter started off with, that's right, a Denver turnover. Sean Kilpatrick chipped in some buckets and showed that quick release from three to get the Nuggets within 13 but it was too little too late. Every basket Denver made was met with two from the Hawks. Every time their intensity on defense would pick up the Nuggets would turn the ball over and give Atlanta an easy basket. The game quickly degenerated into garbage time and before you knew it it was over. Hawks win 119-105.
Key Matchup: Emmanuel Mudiay vs Jeff Teague
Teague definitely got the better of this one tonight. Mudiay had a classic Mudiay game - 10 pts, 6 asts, 4-13 shooting and 3 turnovers. All that I can live with, but the terrible defense on Atlanta's guards extends to Mudiay as well (Harris was the only one playing good D out on the perimeter tonight). Schroder and Teague were just too fast for any of the guards to stay in front of them. It also seemed that pretty early on Mudiay, Foye and Barton realized this and decided to only put forth a half hearted effort in trying to defend them. Teague ended the game with a double double, 12 pts and 10 asts.
Key thing to watch for: Bench play
The bench had their second forgettable performance in a row. The starters came out of the gate playing really well but once the bench came in Atlanta started running away with it in the second quarter and Denver never recovered. Foye managed to score 0 points and record one assist in his 18 minutes of service and Arthur chipped in with 1-7 shooting. To their credit, Barton did get 21 points in his general "me against the entire other team" style and Kilpatrick got his first game scoring double figures in a Nuggets uniform. He really was the highlight for the bench tonight.
Speaking of Nurkic
Maybe coach Michael Malone doesn't like Nurkic, maybe he's easing him back in to the rotation, maybe the match ups weren't good or maybe Joffrey Lauvergne has embarrassing photos of the coach but for whatever reason Malone chose to give Nurkic just 7 minutes tonight. And you know what? I'm fine with it, Nurkic was struggling against Horford and was picking up fouls at his usual alarming rate. What I'm not fine with though is this insistence to play small ball or give Lauvergne nearly as many minutes as Jokic when Nikola is clearly one of the best players on the floor for Denver. Jokic backed up his great game against the Pistons with an even better outing tonight, recording 15 points and 10 boards in just 18 minutes of play, for you aspiring math majors out there that equates to a 30-20 game if Jokic plays 36 minutes.
Prediction: Way off! I have tried to lay off the Zach Mikash preview curse talk lately but I think I'm going to stop picking against it, the Nuggets have just one victory in games I previewed this season...a last second victory against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Boxscore via ESPN.com