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Denver Nuggets whiff on their checklist in Utah

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Malone felt the Nuggets needed to play a “clean game” and “defend at a high level” on Wednesday night. They failed on both accounts.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

“To me, this is one of the toughest places to play in the NBA. You have to play a clean game and you have to defend at a high level.” That’s what Michael Malone told the media following shootaround on Wednesday morning when he was asked what it takes to get a win in Utah. Play a clean game and defend at a high level. The Denver Nuggets failed to do either of those things in their 114-108 loss to the Utah Jazz that night, their eighth straight defeat in Vivint Smart Home Arena.

“Playing a clean game” entails protecting the basketball and finding cohesion on the offensive end. The Nuggets turned the ball over 16 times on Wednesday night, gifting 21 points to the Jazz. The turnovers were a result of a disjointed effort. Torrey Craig started at the small forward position, and Utah appeared disinterested in guarding him as they packed the paint, making things harder for the likes of Jamal Murray and Paul Millsap.

Those latter two players struggled mightily, combining for just 11 points on 4/19 from the field. Millsap logged only 18 minutes and wasn’t on the floor as Denver closed the game. The starters just never found their groove offensively.

Denver was able to find some offense with their second unit, particularly Will Barton, who recorded 22 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and dished out six assists in 29 minutes while shooting 8/13 from the floor. It was the closest he’s looked to being ‘Thrill’ since the season opener, but several mental mistakes down the stretch marred his strong performance on that end. Barton was guilty of not one, but two fouls on a three-point shooter in the fourth quarter and both shots found the bottom of the net anyway.

At the 1:14 mark, trailing by six points, Barton was inbounding the ball out of a timeout, and he had another timeout in his back pocket should he need it. He needed it, as it turned out, but he never used it and was called for a five-second violation that slammed the door shut on a comeback. Hardly the stuff that comprises a “clean game.”

The loss doesn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of Barton, in fact, the Nuggets’ might have been out of the game completely without his and Nikola Jokic’s offensive performances. But their efforts fell short as the Jazz put up 117 points while shooting a ridiculous 19/46 (41.3%) from deep.

Utah’s half-court offense is far from deadly, and that type of shooting performance is exceedingly rare for them. Frankly, it doesn’t happen if the Nuggets defended at a high level. But the first half was one of Denver’s worst defensive showings of the season.

“We just were not mentally prepared, some of us tonight,” Malone told reporters after the game. “Some of us were not mentally ready to play this game, some of us were not in tune to what we were trying to do defensively, and we just had breakdown after breakdown after breakdown.

“I got on guys at halftime. I said we’re on pace to give up a record number of threes in a game, and that’s not who we are. We’ve been a very good defensive three-point team.”

The team responded to that message. Utah shot just 6/20 from deep in the second half, but they had to play catch up, and the mental mistakes down the stretch kept the game out of reach.

It was a surprisingly strong defense that propelled the Nuggets to such a scorching start this season. It was their identity, as Paul Millsap has said on multiple occasions. But Denver is experiencing an extended slide on that end.

“Communication is such a simple thing,” Malone continued. “And we don’t honor it. And if we are talking we are not listening. You can’t leave Kyle Korver wide open. Too many breakdowns in the first half, second half was better, but you don’t want to dig yourselves a hole.”

The Nuggets have built a small cushion between themselves and the fifth seed out West, but if they hope to finish with home court advantage in the playoffs, they have to recapture that defensive ability.

“We have a very difficult schedule remaining and as great as it’s been seeing our offense take off and playing at a high level like this, the defense is kind of the invisible man right now. It’s vanished,” Malone told reporters prior to tipoff.

“You have to try and come out with a mindset of defensive dominance. So, we are aware of it, we know where we are at. I know full well moving forward, down the stretch, the defense is going to have to get back to where it was early in the year.”