The great irony of sports fandom, and in some ways the beauty as well, lies in the absurdity of our favorite distraction. We’ve chosen Nuggets basketball as our escape from the madness of everyday life. Yet here we are, bracing ourselves for a 48 hour stretch of hot takes and bubbling angst; driving ourselves insane as we cycle through various conclusions to draw from one game of basketball. We do this not with reason, but with emotionality at the wheel. And we do it knowing full well that the difference between our optimism and our pessimism is as thin as the rim that denied Denver time and time again on Saturday night.
Had a couple more shots fallen in the Nuggets’ game one loss to the San Antonio Spurs—namely Jamal Murray’s wide open look with time winding down in the fourth—we’d be having a very different conversation over these next 48 hours. But those shots did not fall in game one, and now the doubters appear prescient. At least for the time being.
Much of that doubt is warranted. The Nuggets are inexperienced. The playoffs are indeed a different animal. And some of Denver’s potential shortcomings on this stage did, in fact, manifest in this loss. But if one more shot falls on Saturday night, you’re reading a different article right now.
For all the noise we make about basketball’s complexity at the highest level, and for all the strings at which we pull in search of hidden truths, sometimes it really is just as simple as the object of the game itself.
Putting the ball through the hoop.
While fielding questions following the first loss of his postseason career, head coach Michael Malone was clear in what adjustments must be made to change the outcome in game two.
“Make shots,” Malone calmly explained to the media. “I think simply stated, this is a make or miss league. You look at the numbers, they shot 48 from the field (and) 47 from three. We shoot 42 from the field (and) 21 from three. Field, three, free throw line—we have to be better.”
The numbers go deeper than that. Denver was outshot by such a margin despite generating more quality looks than San Antonio as well, per Second Spectrum.
Second Spectrum shot quality (likelihood of average player converting)— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 14, 2019
DEN 49.3, SAS 46.1
Difference between probability and actual eFG: -3.9, SAS +6.3
Spurs’ differential largest of today.
“No, I didn’t think it was nerves,” Malone responded when asked if their inexperience was a factor in their poor shooting. “I didn’t sense it. I didn’t think we struggled to make shots because of nerves, I think we struggled to make shots because we struggled to make shots. I think after the first couple of minutes we settled in and we played our game.”
It appears that the strangest subplot of the season is rearing its head at the most crucial time. Malone’s right, this shouldn’t be chalked up to nerves. Denver’s guards can’t cash in on their open looks and that’s been the case for most of this campaign.
On Saturday night, that dynamic allowed the game’s greatest coach to find a crucial advantage by keeping it simple: get the ball out of Nikola Jokic’s hands and force his teammates to put the ball through the hoop instead.
Jokic’s shot selection and assertiveness have been under question all season long and it’s sure to come up again after this performance. He only took nine shots, but he racked up 14 assists despite the poor shooting as the Spurs doubled him on nearly every touch. Jokic runs on instinct and his instinct is to hit the open man. San Antonio used that against him as his trust in his teammates never waned.
“Every time he put it down there was somebody right there,” Malone said of his superstar. “They trapped him every time. I think Nikola has a high IQ, he’s going to make the right play and unfortunately, we didn’t make them pay for double-teaming enough.
I think if we’re making shots, it becomes a lot harder to double team him consistently. They stuck with it because we couldn’t make a shot. But I loved Nikola’s approach, I loved his playmaking, and I loved his passing.”
Malone has trusted his star every step of the way this season. That hasn’t come naturally to him, but in year four he’s taken every opportunity to back Jokic and his approach as a pass-first player. Perhaps that’s because Jokic has earned his trust with newfound attention to other areas of the game, like the defensive end of the floor, where he more than held his own on Saturday night.
The Nuggets haven’t quite looked themselves since the All-Star break but they’ve managed to stay above water by grinding, particularly on the defensive end, where their jump from last season’s dismal display, frankly, should be getting more attention. It’s allowed them to stay in games when their offense isn’t clicking—games like this loss to San Antonio.
It’s dumbfounding as to why the shots aren’t falling, but it’s clear that is what ails them. We can discuss their seeming lack of counters and the occasional lapses in off-ball movement, but how different does it all look if these shots are going in?
This is the question that will determine Denver’s first-round fate. The Spurs will likely continue sending doubles at Jokic until his teammates prove they can punish them for it. As Malone said, Denver need only make one adjustment here, and that’s to make their open shots.
It all came down to an open look. It all came down to a quality shot from a highly capable shooter.
The shot didn’t go in.
This will shape the narrative as the Nuggets wait for a chance at redemption, but it won’t shake Malone’s confidence in Denver’s approach.
“Jamal’s look was an uncontested pull-up jump shot,” Malone said of the game’s pivotal play. “A shot that he’s made a thousand times.
And he’ll make it again.”