The Denver Nuggets had a 17 point lead at one time in the first half but coughed it up and wound up losing to the Milwaukee Bucks for the second time in two weeks, 104-98. Denver didn’t have its shot early and couldn’t find it late, and in between struggled with fundamentals and purposeful play. Jamal Murray had 17 points, 8 rebounds and 9 assists but his 5 turnovers were extremely costly. Nikola Jokic put up 20 / 5 / 5 but the offense was an off-kilter mish-mash for much of the game, and nobody could stop the Bucks when it counted. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 29 / 12 / 6, Eric Bledsoe had 23 and 5, and both men were huge down the stretch for Milwaukee as they slammed another nail into the coffin Denver has buried its good start to the season in.
Denver opened with a three from Juancho Hernangomez, Eric Bledsoe finished a drive, and then teams traded missed and turnovers for a couple of minutes. The Nuggets started 2-for-11 but the game was still tied at 5 almost four minutes in with Denver doing this:
Then Denver had a beautiful steal-and-finish, and both teams started attacking the rim, with the Bucks running in transition and the Nuggets trying out their cutting game. Milwaukee was up 15-13 when Monte Morris came in the game and Denver worked out a floater shot rotation to push it to 21-15 Denver, but the rest of the bench gave the lead back. A huge flurry in the final minute including an oop to Plumlee and a beautiful off balance transition finish by Murray left the Nuggets up 29-25 after one.
The Nuggets snagged the opening bucket of the second quarter and then forced a 24 second violation on Milwaukee as Denver’s energy was up. Murray his a baseline fadeaway and Giannis traveled leading to a Beasley three and a 36-25 Nuggets advantage. Murray and Malik Beasley both buried threes to push it to a 15 point lead, and Trey Lyles got a paint finish before Giannis could dunk and slow the onslaught. Lyles hit a three in response, and Denver was in control for the middle part of the quarter.
Juancho fought for rebounds, Millsap finished a Jokic assist but Milwauke scored a quick 7 points to cut the lead back to 10. Denver’s cold streak ended on a Jokic three that Brook Lope matched and Denver took a 56-46 lead into the half.
The Bucks cut the lead to five in the first couple minutes, but Denver fought back with a nice Millsap finish. Hernangomez was called for an offense foul on a three-point attempt, and Michael Malone got a technical foul arguing. Murray hit a three, Jokic banked in a shot that didn’t count due to basket interference, and Hernangomez forgot to leave the ground in a weird jump ball that Denver somehow got a turnover on anyway. It was a weird few minutes, but a Giannis dunk cut it to a 64-60 advantage with six minutes to go in the quarter. Murray had the ball stolen and a 24 second violation on back to back plays as Giannis kept attacking Denver relentlessly.
Denver had a quick couple of buckets and some free throws to push the lead back to 8 at 70-62, but Denver gave up a three point play on a free throw rebound and then airballed a three as the Bucks closed to just one. Denver settled for covered threes while the Bucks drove the hoop at will and demolished the Nuggets in the paint. Beasley hit a three, but the Bucks answered and even a last second bucket from Murray wasn’t enough. All of Denver’s good work for the first 30 minutes of the game were squandered with the Bucks leading 78-77 after three quarters.
Monte Morris directed traffic to start the fourth, hitting buckets and causing others, but it took three Milwaukee turnovers and a Beasley three to let Denver resurface at 87-86. The Nuggets bricked several shots, however, and the refs let contact go for a while which favored Milwaukee. A Bledsoe three put Milwaukee up 95-89, Jokic fought for a three point play but some poor execution from Denver, a Brook Lopez three and a Giannis dunk made it 100-92 Milwaukee with two minutes to go.
Denver simply could not make shots or execute down the stretch until Gary Harris buried a three. Jokic - who struggled with his shot all night - followed up with a three of his own to take it to two. It wasn’t enough though as the dagger three from Khris Middleton put Denver away, with a final score of 104-98.
Denver plays like a young team - and they can’t afford to do that any more. The Nuggets started the year at 9-1 and it felt like they had learned the lessons of the past two years when their inexperience and youth cost them in key moments and kept them out of the playoffs. The Nuggets are 1-6 since and are losing games in every conceivable way. The offense does not stay consistent quarter to quarter let alone game to game. The defense can be terrific for stretches, or it can devolve into a layup line as happened in the second half tonight. They are careless with the basketball at inopportune moments and they lack someone with the will or ability to put the team on his back when needed. There is no Jimmy Butler on this team, for better or worse.
Jokic is an undeniable talent. Murray and Harris are young scoring guards with lots of promise. But if that is the core of the Nuggets moving forward then someone will need to step up and deliver in the big moments, and right now none of them is. The team makes the same silly mistakes and coach Michael Malone cannot find the right strings to pull as the team sputters to the end night after night.
Denver’s terrific start is now squandered, with some tough stretches ahead. The Nuggets are talented enough to make the playoffs and even make some noise, but talent isn’t enough. Right now the Nuggets aren’t taking the same approach to any of their contests, looking instead like a squad throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping something sticks. There are a lot of noodles on the floor and not a lot of promising trends right now, Nuggets fans. Something needs to change, fast.