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Recap: Nuggets defense lost at the airport, Denver also loses the game to Atlanta 117-106

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If anyone finds that defense, please mail it back to the team ASAP. They’ve been looking for it. Will pay reward.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets forgot to unpack their defense for the first game of this road trip, coughing up 72 points in the first half on their way to losing 117-106 to the Atlanta Hawks. Offense wasn’t the problem. Nikola Jokic had 18 points and 15 rebounds but just 3 assists, while Wilson Chandler poured in 24 and 8. It was not enough to over come the 23 points from Paul Millsap, 24 from Dennis Schroder and 7 Hawks in double figures.

No one could stop Atlanta’s transition game or paint points, and the Hawks used their backcourt speed to dismantle Denver’s poor attempts at defense for most of the game. Denver made a spirited run at the end but it was too little, too late. To add injury on top of insult, the Nuggets lost forward Kenneth Faried to a lower leg injury in the first half and he did not return. More on that as we get details.

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UPDATE ON FARIED:

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Two careless turnovers from Denver to start the game were an ominous sign, and Bazemore hitting two threes for Atlanta started the ball rolling the wrong way. Wilson Chandler crushed a great dunk to try to spark the team, but it was slow going early. Bazemore earned his second foul just 3 minutes into the game but Atlanta led 10-7. The Hawks kept taking advantage of sloppy play, especially Dwight Howard with several dunks. Jokic countered with some three inch jump-tips to clean up Faried misses, but trailed 18-13 halfway through the quarter after a Chandler putback.

Chandler was crucial in keeping Denver in touch, putting up 12 in the quarter, but Atlanta hit everything (61.5% for the quarter) led by Schroder's 12 off a blizzard of pull-ups. Denver's sloppy turnovers didn't help as they gave up 9 points on 4 turnovers. Atlanta was the faster team and the fiercer team, trapping Denver all over the court while running the break on every Nugget miss and turnover. Atlanta led after one 39-30.

Barton provided a bit of a spark at the end of the first on offense and the bench started the second quarter hedging harder and whipping quicker passes. Not making shots created other problems, though, and Kenneth Faried went down with a right foot injury just a couple of minutes into the quarter. Denver fell into a three-point jacking habit (4-for-16 to that point) but only Atlanta could hit from all areas, going up 52-38. Coach Michael Malone got a tech on an illegal screen call, expressing the frustration of many people watching this game.

Barton blew a bunch of threes with poor decisions and Jokic got his third foul with 6 minutes to go; nothing was going right. Barton couldn't score but he did get the third foul on Dwight Howard to get the shot-blocker out of the lane and open the floor for Denver. Juancho Hernangomez came off the bench and hit a 3 to close it to 59-49 but Denver had no defensive answers for Atlanta's attack and few points in the paint themselves. Atlanta crushed Denver with easy, effective offensive plays made by the entire team, and led at halftime 72-55.

Barton started the third quarter at SF, in an attempts to slow some of that perimeter penetration that the slower SFs on the team cannot help with. Instead Millsap and Howard took the reins to start the quarter. Jokic and Nelson hit back-to-back threes to cut the lead to 80-66. Barton cleaned up Jameer's missed layup with a skying tip-in, and the careless-turnover bug bit Atlanta as they committed 7 turnovers in the third. A pair of Chandler threes cut it to single digits at 88-79, and then a transition jam from Harris showed Denver had not quit on this game. Atlanta had a pair of transition buckets and several blocked drives even without Howard in the game, but Denver remained within striking distance at 98-87.

Harris and Kris Humphries exchanged threes at the beginning of the fourth. In fact Denver jacked 5 threes in a row to start the quarter, but couldn't get the lead back under double-digits until Murray's three finally fell. Juancho made a layup and a free throw to cut the lead to 6 at 107-101, and Jokic took a quick seat to get a breather. Jokic came back in after a minute and blocked Dwight's layup, but Barton missed another 3 to go 0-for-8 to that point. The Nuggets went cold from both the line and everywhere on the floor, but kept Atlanta from scoring and the lead remined 6 for Atlanta at 109-103 with three minutes to go. Gary Harris got a transition bucket to cut it to four. That was as close as they'd get, though, as the brickfest continued while the Hawks managed to scrounge up enough points to take it home. In the end, that 72-point first half was too much to overcome and Denver fell 117-106. Sorry Gary - this would have been a nicer highlight in a win.

Three thoughts:

- You can't give up 70 point halves. This seems obvious, but Denver seemed pefectly happy to be run by, laid-up-over, dunked on and shot past with impunity. The Hawks shot 55% in that first half while Denver went 6-for-22 on threes - in a half - with Barton going 0-for-6. That's a lack of effort on stopping penetration or creating your own. No Nuggets guard can stay in front of any other team's quick backcourts, and Atlanta has one of the quickest. Their guards and wings can fly, and the Nuggets encouraged them to do so with sloppy turnovers and a refusal to get back after misses. It was a miserable half despite some good things offensively, and it set the team up for failure. Can’t leave the defense in the luggage, fellas, and you have to bring the aggressiveness the whole game.

- No quit. The Nuggets played hard over the last 30 minutes. They fought the whole second half and played better defense, managing to turn the tide with turnovers and more aggressive play. The three point chucking would have been better if Denver could have hit its open shots, but it’s a make/miss league as they say. Regardless, the team could have rolled over in the third and fourth very easily and did not do that. The hole was just too big for a young and injured team to climb out of.

- Still can't finish. The Nuggets cut the lead to 4 but lost by 11 because they could not run a crunch-time offense (just 3 points scored over the final 3 minutes) and had to foul Atlanta down the stretch. Jokic was frozen out from running the point to allow Barton and Nelson and Chandler to dribble the air out of the ball. Guys stopped cutting and Denver's response was hero ball. Jokic walked to the far corner in disgust on the last possession and then headed straight for the locker room at the buzzer, which is not his usual style.

Malone left all his trust vets in and let them decide how they wanted to play, and Barton rewarded him by going 0-for-9 from downtown while Jameer made several crucial (and incorrect) decisions, any of which would have had Mudiay getting reamed. Malone didn’t have a lot of options with the injury to Faried, but hero ball and lack of execution failed Denver again. That song is getting old.