The more things change, the more they stay the same.
After almost blowing a 4th quarter lead in the season opener against the Pelicans, and then blowing a big lead in the game against the Portland Trailblazers, the Denver Nuggets once again failed to close out a game in which they held a lead in the final minutes. This time, that loss came at the hands of DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors.
This game followed many of the same beats as the two games that came before it including funky rotations, a 2nd half rally, and a 4th quarter collapse. The Nuggets started off slow behind the awkward pairing of Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic, falling to a 17-23 deficit before Malone went to his bench. Unlike the two games before, however, Malone elected to bring both bigs out after the first substitution, electing instead to go to his super small lineup with Kenneth Faried at center. That lineup continued the team’s struggles, falling behind 24-33 to end the quarter.
In the 2nd period, it was more of the same as the Raptors lead grew as high as 19 points. DeRozan led the Raptors in scoring, dropping 20 of his 33 points before halftime. The Nuggets found a bit of a rhythm late in the quarter after going to their best lineup, featuring Emmanuel Mudiay, Will Barton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Jusuf Nurkic and cut the lead down to 13 points at the break. More on this later.
The Nuggets opened the 2nd half on an 9-2 run to cut the lead down to six. Later in the quarter, the Nuggets went back to their best lineup, the one mentioned above, and went on another mini run before Barton was forced to leave the game with an ankle injury.
After not playing a single minute in the previous two fourth quarters, Nurkic got the nod to start the 4th and stayed in the game for the entire 12 minutes. The Nuggets rallied to go up by as many as five points midway through the 4th and looked to have taken the momentum behind some solid defense and very unselfish basketball. Unfortunately, the lead was fairly short lived.
The Nuggets scored just three points in the final 5:56 and DeRozan and Kyle Lowry hit big shots down the stretch, polishing off a 105-102 win for the Raptors. Gallo and Mudiay each missed a game-tying three-pointers, both of which seemed forced and contested and the Nuggets left Toronto with their first losing streak of the season. Nurkic looked pretty gassed down the stretch, playing a team-high 38 minutes including nearly 23 minutes in the 2nd half.
The Nuggets Death lineup
The Denver Nuggets have their own death lineup that utilizes their best players’ best attributes. It begins with just one center on the court, whether that is Jokic or Nurkic. I personally prefer Jokic more frequently in that spot but both guys have been great when given minutes in this “death” lineup. Secondly it features Gallo and Chandler as interchangeable stretch forwards. Neither is really a power forward but both guys are very good at defending most perimeter players and can hold their own down low in a pinch.
Lastly, the lineup features Mudiay and Barton in the back court. When Gary Harris returns from injury, he too will be an option in this lineup, interchangeable with either Will Barton or Wilson Chandler, depending on the match-up.
That lineup, featuring four of the guys mentioned above and any one of Jokic or Nurkic, has outscored opponents 60-43 in 22 minutes this season. That’s a HUGE advantage for such a small sample size. The problem is, it’s such a small sample size! Why have the Nuggets only gone to this lineup for 22 minutes? I’ve be patiently waiting for this combination for over a year, knowing that the lineup takes advantage of Mudiay’s strengths by stretching the court with three capable three-point shooters. It also takes advantage of the two bigs’ skill set by allowing them space to operate on rolls to the rim. For Nurkic, this means one-on-one matchups rolling to the rim where he can carve out space and create gravity at the rim or grab offensive rebounds. For Jokic, it means rolling to the rim and being able to finish with soft touch or kickout to open cutters and three-point shooters.
What’s worse is, Malone seems to be rewarding whichever center he feels plays the best, yet the center who plays the best in all three games has been the center that was lucky enough to get minutes alongside that lineup. Against the Trailblazers, that was Nikola Jokic, who stayed in with those guys in the 3rd quarter when the team pulled away. Against the Raptors, that was Nurkic.
With Gary Harris and Darrell Arthur returning to the lineup soon, the roster may have enough perimeter talent to create two of these types of lineups, with Mudiay, Harris, Chandler, Gallo, and Jokic making up one, and Nelson, Barton, Chandler/Gallo, Arthur, and Nurkic making up the other. With a little tinkering and some overlap, the Nuggets could have two optimal lineups to run with. So far, Malone doesn’t seem to agree with my assessment and has instead elected to play a majority of the minutes with either both bigs on the court with fewer shooters, or no bigs on the court at all.
Harris coming back as Barton exits
Barton’s injury looked bad at first because of how much pain he seemed to be in. X-rays reportedly came back negative but Barton is probably going to be out of the lineup for at least a few games. With Gary Harris set to come back any day now, Barton’s injury will keep Nuggets fans from witnessing their fully operational battleship. This will likely mean more minutes for Jamal Murray so if there is a silver lining, that is it. But Barton has proven to be one of the team’s most irreplaceable players, providing scoring, playmaking, and some much needed calm whenever the turnover bug pops up.
The Nuggets are so close to being a good team
Despite the turnovers, the subpar shooting, the funky rotations, some preseason injuries, and an unfavorable opening schedule, the Nuggets are still just a few seconds away from being 3-0. This team has shown signs of being a good team and I’m convinced that there is a very good team in this roster that will break out at some point this season. It’s a long season and three games hardly mean anything in the grand scheme of things but it is encouraging that despite all of the adversity, the Nuggets can say that they’ve hung tough with two top-10 teams in the NBA. For now, that’s something they can hang their hat on.