The Denver Nuggets were blitzed in the second half in their return to official basketball today. The final score of 125-105 doesn’t do it justice. The Nuggets stopped scoring offensively, and the Miami Heat opened up the flood gates in the second half when their shooters started getting hot. Kelly Olynyk dropped 20 points in the 4th quarter alone. Until the Nuggets hit some shots in garbage time, that would have nearly matched Denver’s team totals in each of the third and fourth quarters.
There were several takeaways to be had in our first true look at Nuggets basketball since March. Here are five of them:
It’s just one (shorthanded) game
It’s easy to be caught up in the excitement of basketball being back, wishing the best for the Nuggets as a fan, and to be disappointed when they don’t reciprocate that level of excitement in their performance on the court. It’s true, the Nuggets were bad today, and it’s too bad. The Nuggets won’t be changing any national narratives after a 20-point loss that felt worse than the final score.
Good thing it’s just one game.
It’s important to have perspective rather than making sweeping proclamations on the Nuggets playoff chances. With Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton sitting out of this one, it was really impressive that the Nuggets went into halftime with a one point lead. Strong minutes from PJ Dozier gave the Nuggets a lift off the bench, and Nikola Jokic made some great plays on both ends. Unfortunately, the Nuggets ran out of gas in the second half against a good Miami Heat team.
Would the result have been different if Murray, Harris, and Barton were healthy and playing? Probably. Unfortunately, the Nuggets don’t have a lot of time to waste before they need to rack up some wins to maintain a reasonable first round matchup. Starting on Monday against the Oklahoma City Thunder the Nuggets will really have to lock in and find another gear.
The Nuggets missed Jamal Murray badly
When looking at Monte Morris’ box score, it would appear that he filled in pretty reasonably for Jamal Murray today. 13 points and five assists on seven field goal attempts is solid, three turnovers isn’t perfect but still manageable. In truth, it was a solid game from Denver’s replacement point guard in the starting lineup; however, the Nuggets needed more dynamic playmaking off the dribble all game, and there was only so much Morris could do.
Denver’s offense was stuck in the mud in the second half, and it would have helped to have another shot creator on the floor. That’s what Murray has shown time and time again he can provide. The Nuggets only scored 12 points in the midrange today, and the 35 threes the team attempted today—while great on paper—were generated through the result of bad offense most of the time. Torrey Craig was attempting step backs, Michael Porter Jr. was shooting threes in contested iso situations, and the Nuggets weren’t breaking down the defense in any way.
When Murray returns, Morris will become the primary playmaker on the bench unit. That should benefit both players immensely and give the Nuggets the leg up in perimeter creation they need. Until that time though, it’s going to be a slog.
Nikola Jokic was good, but he needs to be great
19 points, seven rebounds, and 6 assists isn’t any sort of statistical production to scoff at. Jokic was good today. He generated his own offense, threaded the needle on several passes, and even defended Bam Adebayo well today in 1-on-1 coverage. Adebayo’s stats were good, but the majority of his production came when he wasn’t going directly at Jokic.
But with Murray, Harris, and Barton sidelined in this game, Jokic needed to be better than he was. In the second half, while the Nuggets were letting things slip away on both ends of the floor, Jokic was 2/6 from the field for five points, attempted no shots in the paint, and dished out just two assists. The Nuggets need him to take control in these situations, call for the ball in the post, and bully a mismatch to force double teams and take the pressure off of his teammates. There were several instances in that second half when Morris, Craig, Porter, PJ Dozier, and Jerami Grant were asked to do more than they were capable of as initiators.
If the Nuggets are going to be without multiple starters for additional games, Jokic will have to kick things into overdrive sooner rather than later if the Nuggets are to win some games.
The Nuggets defensive woes were a team effort
While Michael Porter Jr. gets plenty of the blame for his defensive missteps from game to game, today was a shining example of the entire team taking an L defensively. From the rookies to the veterans, the Nuggets as a whole let go of the rope in the second half.
Here, Mason Plumlee offers little resistance in 1-on-1 coverage when switched onto Jimmy Butler in isolation. The first time was understandable given the quick and decisive move by Butler, and Jerami Grant was blocked by Kelly Olynyk from giving any help. The second play is an egregious play though. With four seconds left in the third quarter, Plumlee cannot stay in front of Butler and prevent an easy layup attempt as time expires in the quarter. Giving up two uncontested drives in a row is not the kind of defensive effort Malone was yearning for postgame.
Here, Paul Millsap gets caught watching the ball for the second possession in a row and gives up a three because of it. The first time, Kelly Olynyk relocated to his left and drilled the opener jumper with Millsap closing late. This time, Olynyk again relocates to his left, something Millsap should be prepared for after he digs toward the ball handler. Similar shot, similar result.
It’s not just the rookies or young players anymore. The Nuggets have to remain accountable in this environment from top to bottom, and veterans like Millsap and Plumlee should be expected to set a better example for the rest of the roster if the Nuggets want to retain good habits on both ends of the floor.
Michael Porter Jr. gets a wake-up call
Porter’s second career start was much more difficult than his first, and the pressure of expectations looked to be weighing on him heavily. 11 points on 4/11 shooting and 2/8 from the three-point line with three turnovers encapsulated some of the offensive struggles he had. Matched up against Jimmy Butler, likely an All-NBA player and All-Defensive team candidate, Porter struggled to get to his spots in the paint or in the midrange, settling instead for contested three-point jumpers. His shots were a product of wanting to be impactful but not fully knowing how best to do so. Settling for jumper after jumper wasn’t going to get it done today.
Defensively, though the entire struggled as stated above, Porter also struggled consistently. He and Torrey Craig both consistently lost Duncan Robinson on the perimeter, who had 17 points on nine total shot attempts and went 3/7 from distance. There were moments where he got caught on screens he needed to avoid, wasn’t hustling back on defense, and above all, he wasn’t making an impact as a rebounder. When the shot isn’t falling, Porter has to find different ways to contribute. He had some positive moments defensively, but the overall picture was cloudy in terms of legitimate impact.
Consider this a wake-up call for Porter, who needed to be challenged so he can appreciate just how difficult winning in the NBA really is. He had an opportunity to establish a hold on a playoff rotation spot today, maybe even a starting spot. What happened instead was the textbook image of a rookie with sky high potential failing in a playoff environment.
Will Porter use this as an opportunity to learn and get better? That’s what separates the talented players from the great players.