The Denver Nuggets came out sloppy on defense and lacking the energy necessary to defeat a talented Atlanta Hawks squad, and lost a snoozer in Atlanta 116-98. It was bad from the jump as Atlanta went up 10-2 out of the gate and almost never looked back. Denver's bench and starters split the scoring duties with 49 points for each unit, but the Hawks had 8 players in double figures led by a season-high 21 from Tim Hardaway Jr. and outscoring Denver by 18 points from deep. The Hawks wanted it more and took it - a theme of this road trip.
Denver's starters were obliterated by Atlanta's, however, and that accounted for the blowout nature of this loss compared to the prior two. It was 31-15 Atlanta in the first quarter with the starters on the floor, but Denver managed to take the lead for the first time at 46-45 thanks to the efforts of the bench and a last push by the starters in the second quarter. They gave it up again with a 9-2 run by the Hawks right before halftime, however, and then Atlanta showed Denver what a team that could shoot and trusted its passing and offensive principles could do to an opponent playing at about 85% commitment. Atlanta had 30 assists on 38 made baskets and took care of a lottery team the way a playoff club should beat down a lottery team.
Nikola Jokic needs more of Nurkic's fight in him. On nights like this when an experienced big man casually gets a double-double while making a talented rookie look just like a regular newbie, the question is why. Jokic had trouble asserting himself early against the shorter, stouter Millsap and looked timid out there for much of his court time. Jusuf Nurkic on the other hand made a fairly triumphant return for Denver after missing a couple of games with knee soreness and was intimidated by nothing. He and Joffrey Lauvergne played hard on the second unit and toughened up Denver's interior presence until they got gassed in the second half because Malone over-played them. With the lack of fight shown early by the starters, though, I don't blame him much.
Jokic needs to bring his own fire from the start. He may be hitting the famed rookie wall now, but he and Darrell Arthur looked awful together on the starting unit. An offseason to build his body will help I'm sure, but Jokic has to figure out how to deal with more pressure and higher expectations, both from the team and his opponents. He's not sneaking up on anyone any more and teams are pressuring him more when he has the ball and rolling second defenders to him. Jokic will adjust on offense, but it's his defensive presence in the paint that needs serious work. He's not a jumper or a rim protector, but he's giving up position far too easily right now Consider this an offseason request to put in some work on that.
The starters got laid out again, and it was mostly effort. I said before the game that the Nuggets might not be better than the Hawks at any position right now. They weren't. The experienced bigs took advantage of Denver's young bigs and their guards destroyed Denver.The Nuggets gave up 49 points to Atlanta's guards tonight. Hardaway Jr had a season high in points and even without Bazemore the Hawks cut up the Denver defense again. Harris, the defensive stopper, was definitely not that, though he fought back on offense even though his shot wasn't falling as he'd like.
But there is no way Denver can take down the precision passing of Atlanta by playing laid-back defense and just having a general person in the area. The difference between much of Atlanta's pressure and presence and Denver's was extreme. Denver played hard on defense and ran on their rotations for about 8 minutes of the game, and it wasn't anywhere near enough. The Spurs are the masters of passing the ball until the defense gets tired and Atlanta, with their coach off the Pop tree, picked up a lot of that. They were crisp in their passes and cuts, and the Nuggets were... lax. Being generally in the right spot in basketball is a lot like being nowhere near it at all. The Nuggets were a step slow with their rotations, with their crossing of screens and close-outs, and that's all it took. Atlanta very casually out-executed Denver, hardly breaking a sweat in the process. That's got to feel pretty humbling.
The Nuggets have a bit to go still in order to give a team with commitment to its principles and good talent any sort of fight in a playoff series. That's the next step for the organization to take, whether with added personnel, increased experience amongst the young players or more finely-tuned coaching. Rough outlines are great, but fine-tuning and time playing together makes all the difference. The Nuggets aren't there yet. Here's hoping we don't have to wait a couple more years to see the interesting sketch become a more polished finished product that stands a chance in these sorts of games.