In a complete faceplant to begin the stretch run, the Denver Nuggets lost to the Sacramento Kings 116-100. Denver lost this game before they ever stepped on the court. They did not come ready to play, the Denver bench was outscored by 30 before garbage time, and the veterans apparently forgot the entire offense over the All-Star Break. Willie Cauley-Stein had 19 points by halftime (a new game-high for the entire season) and finished with a career-high of 27. Denver gave up 21 points off of 11 turnovers by halftime, and Nikola Jokic and Kenneth Faried had 6 points in 40 combined minutes. Who needs DeMarcus Cousins when the Denver Nuggets are in town to give away games?
(Editor’s Note: there will be no highlight clips for this game. Nothing in this game warranted watching again.)
Former Nuggets Koufos and Lawson started the scoring for Sacramento. Gallo and Harris both hit buckets, and Jameer Nelson hit a three to go up 9-4. A couple of non-calls on Denver scoring attempts and attempted charges didn't help, but Denver came out with a brief spurt of good energy. Faried showed rust on offense after missing time with that ankle injury but Gallo looked in fine form, abusing Ben McLemore inside and scoring at will with 9 early points. He only scored 6 the rest of the game and Sacramento's inside scoring brought it back to a 19-15 Denver lead, though.
Jamal Murray came in off the bench before Emmanuel Mudiay in a bit of a surprise with an entire bench change at the 4 minute mark sans Gallo. Denver's bench issues continued, with Skal Labissiere and Tyreke Evans hurting them and tying the game at 23. Will Barton got blocked, Cauley-Stein and Labissiere hit shots and Sacramento led Denver 29-26 after one.
Buddy Hield put in a transition bucket and another paint layup made Malone call an early timeout - Denver's paint defense was abominable. Hield's 3 put Sacramento up 36-28. Denver had no answer for the pick and roll and the bench could not match Sacramento's energy. The starters came in with 8:30 to go but Jokic was left out of most offensive possessions with a lot of isolation play by the other starters. Turnovers and poor play and effort by Denver left all the openings for the Kings who led 49-36 with just over 4 minutes to go after a poor quick 3 by Jokic.
After he was pulled the turnovers and ridiculous waste of possessions continued. Bricked threes and honestly a lack of motivation or pride left Denver down an unreal 17 points, 61-44.
Denver came out of halftime missing shots and getting techs (well, one tech by Faried) while falling further behind. They finally found a little defense and Harris hit a couple of buckets, then Jokic got an assist and a bucket, and a Chandler drive cut it to 12 at 73-61 halfway through the 3rd. Chandler swished a three to cut it to 9 but Sacramento then went on a mini-run to push it back to 16. Denver had chances to finish at the rim and just couldn't get it done. The bench came in and couldn't do anything again. Barton's pair of airballs in the last minute of the quarter were a perfect analogy to Denver blowing this game. The Kings led 87-70 with one quarter to go.
Denver at least started with energy in the fourth, forcing a couple of turnovers and getting a pair of buckets from Chander to cut it to 12. Immediately Denver had fouls and turnovers to kill their own momentum. The Nuggets played a game of tug-of-war with themselves the rest of the game, scoring just enough to make Sacramento take them seriously while still failing to dent the lead in any significant way.
Final thought (I'm not wasting 3 thoughts on this game):
Play through Jokic, dammit. Nobody is here to watch a Jameer-Nelson-led offense brick and snooze its way through a game. Jokic was iced out as a ball-handler early and had to get offensive rebounds in order to find touches for himself in the first half. He worked in dribble handoff situations and the Kings jumped the cutters but his teammates never looked for him, preferring to throw cross-court turnovers or take running hook shots over shot-blockers rather than pass to an open Jokic. It's ridiculous. Whether Jokic’s poor game caused his teammates to ignore him or if not being in the flow hurt him is a matter of interpretation, but that style of play cannot continue if Denver wants to make the playoffs.
This is when Nikola not having an ego hurts the Nuggets. A "star" goes into a timeout and rips people for not getting him the ball. His coach would run plays specifically to get him involved in the offense. Instead, on the fringes of a dead offense Jokic had 2 points, 5 rebounds and 1 lonely assist in the first half. If shooters shoot themselves out of slumps then Jokic passes his way out, so taking the ball out of his hands defeats the very thing you are trying to accomplish.
It wasn't just him either - Mason Plumlee was rarely an intentional facilitator on the bench squad either. If Denver is setting its identity as a center-fulcrum team for the next 4 or 5 years then this game is a terrible example of executing that gameplan. The turnovers happened by getting away from their actual offense and the vets taking precedence over the gameplan. If you know your identity, Denver, then play like it.
And maybe consolidate your roster next time you get the chance instead of packing it full of players who are never going to get as much playing time as any of them want or deserve. Just a thought.