First, the matchup began as a homecoming of sorts for Monte Morris, Will Barton III, and the Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr.; all of who were a part of the Nuggets organization in recent years. All throughout pregame warmups and during the game itself, there was a clear connection between both franchises.
Barton (22 points and seven assists to go with four 3-pointers made) and Morris (20 points and seven assists on 7-11 shooting including four 3-pointers made) each thrived individually in their first return to Denver, where they each received their own video tribute in the first quarter, but back-to-back Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic had the last laugh.
Not only did Jokic accumulate 43 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists, four steals and one block in 33 minutes, but he did so on 17-20 shooting from the field. Despite how impossible it sounds, Jokic was 17-18 on two-point shots.
“Guy is a back to back MVP winner for a reason,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after the game. “He is really good...He is just a great player and I am thrilled to coach him. It is a privilege.”
Jokic’s performance helped the Nuggets score a never-been-seen amount of points in the paint and place their performance as a team among the greatest ever in that regard.
“It started with Jokic being dominant down there and not settling and going at those guys and setting a tone,” Bones Hyland told reporters after the Nuggets victory. “I feel like we came out sluggish, but he scored like eight or 10 straight. He set a tone for us as a team and let us know we are not dropping this game.”
From start to finish, it was Jokic who carried the Nuggets through this battle. He scored or assisted on 16 of the Nuggets first 20 points to begin the game and then, coming out of halftime, Jokic scored or assisted on the first 17 points of the second half. He was dominating the painted area and putting the Nuggets on his back.
“I was attacking,” Jokic explained during his postgame presser. “They were missing a couple big guys so I was attacking the paint and be there as a presence.”
In total, the Nuggets had 98 points in the paint against the Wizards in just 64 shots which equates to a seemingly impossible 76.6% shooting in that area.
“I had no idea we were close to breaking the record,” Malone said during his postgame press conference without realizing Denver had actually posted the highest total of paint points ever recorded since the stat was instituted. “DeAndre Jordan pointed it out with about 3:30 left to go in the game. I was shocked. You do not see that number very often. I wanted us to get 100 (points in the paint), but I was not going to take a shot that last possession. That is not how you play the game; especially when you have a friend on the other end. Incredible number.”
It is not just an incredible number, but a historic one. 98 points in the paint is not only a franchise record, but it is the most points scored in the paint by any team in the NBA since the stat has been tracked going back to the 1998-99 season. So, in the last 25 years, no team in the NBA has every reached 98 paint points.
After the game — before Malone walked to the podium to speak with the media — the Nuggets presented Jokic with the first-ever Michael Jordan MVP trophy after his MVP-worthy performance. While Jokic flat-out asked to not to discuss what getting the award and being celebrated by his teammates meant for him, Malone stepped up to paint a vague picture of the scene.
“We had a really cool moment giving Jokic his MVP trophy in the locker room,” Malone said. “The first ever Michael Jordan MVP award. That is pretty neat to give him that and for all of the players to give him as much love as they gave him.”
Still, even with so much excitement in the air, there was an elephant in the room no one could avoid. Sure, the Nuggets won the game, but giving up 128 points to an 11-18 Wizards team without their two best players despite them playing on the road is a horrid outcome. Denver’s defense was abysmal from start to finish.
“Obviously, there was no Defensive Player of the Game tonight because there was no defense in the game,” Malone stated with a slight chuckle in his voice.
“It is something we are talking about non-stop,” Malone told reporters. “...you can win regular season games like that, but you are not going to win a playoff series or go deep in the playoffs if your recipe is to outscore teams. We know that and we have talked about it. It is disappointing because it started from the very beginning of the game. Right away I had to call a quick timeout. I think in the third quarter it was a quick timeout. It is not for a lack of effort and it is not for a lack of doing drill work, reminding guys, group film, one-on-one film, talking about it, preaching it. Hopefully at some point it is going to happen.”
While some; myself included, are looking at this somewhat sad start to the Nuggets season on defense simply the season being too long. This is a veteran roster that knows when these games matter and right now, they unfortunately do not carry enough gravity on a nightly basis for the Nuggets to play at their best. While an understandable feeling, that is a slippery slope.
“Maybe four years ago it was just like ‘alright, hey; let's just get to the playoffs and start that’, but we are well past that point,” Malone explained. “And it is tough because we have the fourth- or fifth-best record in the NBA and our defense is 28th. Our offense is third. We are winning games and finding ways to win and, at the end of the day, you have to win games. We are 8-3 at home and have a winning record on the road. So, not to be Debbie downer because we are doing some good things when you look at your record, but big picture, to win the Western Conference, it is not going to happen. Just look at the conference finalists last year. They were all in the top-five in defensive efficiency.”
“I dont know if we can get there, but I know we cannot stay at 28th.”
That is why, when Hyland was asked about the Nuggets lackluster start on defense, he immediately noted that the Nuggets have the capability to play defense when the choose to do so, but right now — from his perspective — the roster is just not locked in on that end of the floor and not giving maximum effort on a play-by-play basis.
“We are a good team defensively when we put our mind to it and really lock in,” Hyland stated. “Obviously, a lot of guys try to explode at the rim on us, but we need to do a better job going up vertically and taking charges. Just setting the tone at the rim whether it is getting a block or just going up and showing them it is not sweet down there when we are defending.”
Following that response, I asked him during his press conference with all of Nuggets media what it takes for the Nuggets to be that good defensive team. His answer was plain and simple.
“We are not locked in. When we are not playing defense, we are late on rotations or we are not giving 100% effort. Knowing that we can lock in on the defensive end, I feel like sometimes we think we can just outscore certain teams, but it is the NBA; everybody can score and it can be anybody any given night,” Hyland explained. “We cannot take anyone for granted. We have to go out there and compete on both ends of the floor. That is something we have to lock in on every night.”
While a win is a win, and the Nuggets franchise is without a doubt happy about them being just one loss out of the Western Conference’s first seed, there is this feeling of concern and inevitability if they continue to not play defense. Everyone on the roster and coaching staff — from Nikola Jokic to Bones Hyland to head coach Michael Malone — all shared their happiness with the wins, but their worries that this will be unsustainable when the games become more meaningful.
“It is a win, but how many of these wins have we had where we are winning with our offense? The offense is elite. Our offense right now would have been number one in the NBA last year and it would have been a record...but I do not like winning games when it is just offense,” Malone explained. “That has to change at some point.”
“We got the win...but we are wining games with our offense. I guess that is better than losing with defense,” Malone said with a light laugh.
“We are not where we are supposed to be of course defensively, but we are winning games which I think is more important,” Jokic said. “Defense is something that we have to find a way...I do not know. Something has to change.”