Tonight’s game saw the return of Danilo Gallinari to the starting lineup after a few absences, but his presence wasn’t enough to bring the Nuggets to form. Denver came out flat, flat-lined in the second quarter, then showed up in the third before flat-lining again in the fourth. It was an ugly game in which the Nuggets showed minimal effort, and as a result Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic and Wayne Ellington walked all over them in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated.
Miami controlled the tip and from the get-go it was clear that Hassan Whiteside gave them the best chance to win this game. Faried drew an early and-one on the Heat big man, but from then on Whiteside was careful not to foul. Jameer Nelson had the hot hand early hitting a couple of threes, and quickly the Nuggets offense focused on drawing Whiteside out of the paint, force switches and exploit the mismatch. Nikola Jokic came off the bench and scored nine straight points that way.
Defensively, however, the Nuggets were spotty from the start. Whiteside had his own touches to the tune of 10 first quarter points, but what killed the Nuggets was their man-to-man defense. Goran Dragic in particular had his way in cutting to the paint for easy buckets, and others were quick to follow.
The second quarter belonged to Miami and Miami only. The Heat came out physical, and Denver played soft to match. The Nuggets turned it over often and shied away from attacking the paint, and the Heat went on a 21-4 run to take a clear lead. Denver went on a little run of their own to end the quarter, and despite playing atrocious basketball went into the half only down by five.
In the third Denver became a bit more aggressive, drawing fouls and slowing the game down. Slowly but surely the Nuggets climbed their way back in, going on a nice run to take the third quarter. Gallo, Jokic, Nelson and Chandler all contributed to a five point lead after winning the quarter by ten points. Denver’s momentum would not last, however. Miami came out in the fourth on a 17-4 run behind Wayne Ellington, while Denver’s offense remained stationary and to no one’s surprise failed to put up points.
Gallo hit a three to bring the Nuggets within five for a time, but Malone had Kenneth Faried in at center, and guess what? Hassan Whiteside feasted on the obvious mismatch for several quick buckets. With a few minutes left Jokic finally came back in, but by then it was too late as Wayne Ellington hit four three-pointers in the quarter. Jamal Murray made things interesting by nailing a few threes of his own, but when Denver had the chance to narrow the gap even further and steal the momentum Jameer Nelson took an awful contested three as he is wont to do late in games, and the Nuggets lost 106 to 98.
Box score via ESPN.com
I’m going to make this quick: this was an absolutely pathetic effort by the Nuggets. They played their worst basketball of the season and still only lost by six in a game they should have won easily. They didn’t come out prepared to play (how many times will this happen?), they turned the ball over 19 times for 28 Miami points, they looked stagnant on offense and porous on defense, they missed free throws, and they were scared of Hassan Whiteside. They played down to their opponent and this was the result.
One thing that is so painfully obvious is that Nikola Jokic needs to be starting instead of Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic has so much potential but instead of rising to the challenge of Hassan Whiteside, the Bosnian Beast shrunk into a soft teddy bear. He had just four points and six rebounds and didn’t play hardly at all in the second half. Jokic, meanwhile, came off the bench with 17 points and 14 rebounds and was really the Nuggets best player tonight. He’s earned the starting spot (and quite frankly has for a while now) and can be a difference maker for a lineup that too often has come out flat. Something needs to change, and this should probably be the first move Malone makes.
At some point one would think the Nuggets will turn things around. Tonight would’ve been a great time to keep the momentum going before embarking on a very winnable road trip this weekend, but instead the team took a huge step back. The season is still not over and I want to give Denver the benefit of the doubt, but it’s very clear: Malone needs to figure out a way to get his team ready to play because these kinds of performances are unacceptable.