Well, that sucked. The Nuggets were up big for a long stretch against the Portland Trail Blazers at Pepsi Center in their season opener. Then, what happened next confounded me.

At the 4:27 mark in the fourth quarter, Nikola Jokic picked up his fifth foul against Al-Farouq Aminu. The Nuggets were in the penalty, so Aminu went to the free throw line and sunk the first shot to make the score 100-92 Nuggets. Michael Malone decided to remove Jokic from the game, who was displeased with the substitution.

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Rather than inserting Jusuf Nurkic, the Nuggets’ starting center who had accumulated 12 points and nine rebounds in just 22 minutes, Malone decided to sub in Wilson Chandler and go with a veteran frontcourt featuring Danilo Gallinari, Chandler, and Kenneth Faried at center.

This was the second game in a row that Faried was used as the center to end the game, and while Faried was playing incredibly well throughout the game against the New Orleans Pelicans, there will still problems. With Faried at center to end the game, the Nuggets were a minus-3 in point differential, and they were a lot worse offensively than that sounds. They needed some lucky bounces and misses by New Orleans to win that basketball game.

Fast forward to 4:27 in the fourth quarter against the Blazers, and the Nuggets have an eight point advantage. After the made free throw by Aminu, the lead was 100-93 Nuggets. Here are the last possessions of the game:

4:10 to play – Chandler blocked shot by C.J. McCollum. It was a good take by Chandler on a drive to the rim, but he just had it stripped by the defender. Okay possession.

4:00 to play – Aminu missed three point attempt. It was contested well by Chandler and defended well all around. Good defensive possession.

3:51 to play – Will Barton missed two point jumper. This was an open jump shot from the midrange area. There were 16 seconds left on the shot clock. Here’s what the spacing looked like on the play:

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I would call it an OKAY shot attempt. It was open, and Barton has improved in the in-between area, but with so much time, it might have been better to work for a three or a layup.

3:39 to play – Lillard missed three pointer. This was very well contested by Mudiay, and while Lillard makes some of these, Mudiay forced him into a tough look. Good defense.

3:15 to play – Gallinari made a two-point jumper. This was a classic play by Gallo. Get the switch at the top of the key onto a smaller player and just shoot over him. Late in the shot clock too. Not necessarily a good possession, but a good crunch time look.

The score is now 102-93 Nuggets.

3:00 to play – Mason Plumlee offensive foul. Mudiay drew the charge on an aggressive backdown by Plumlee. Maybe a flop on Mudiay, but it looked good. Good defensive possession.

2:41 to play – Gallinari missed three pointer. It’s easy to blame Gallo for missing this, but this was the scene just four seconds earlier:

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Yes, that’s Mudiay trying to take Aminu off the dribble, a long defender with great defensive acumen, while Gallo is standing with Lillard at his back. This is nearly identical to the previous possession in which Gallo scored easily, but Mudiay made a rookie mistake looking for his own offense here. Him dribbling and getting nowhere put Gallo in a late shot clock. Bad possession.

2:31 to play – McCollum made two point jumper. He put Mudiay in a pick and roll situation, forced the switch onto the slower Chandler, and did a dribble step-back pull-up on the baseline to create just enough space. This is a good defensive possession, just better offense. 102-95 Nuggets.

2:06 to play – McCollum shooting foul. Barton was isolated on the wing with McCollum and created a post-up opportunity. Tough turnaround jumper in which he was bailed out by free throws, but he made both, so it’s a good offensive possession. 104-95 Nuggets.

2:00 to play – Lillard missed layup. High pick and roll caused Gallo to switch onto Lillard. The Weber State product took the ball into the paint, but Gallo contested very well. Good defensive possession.

1:35 to play – Chandler missed three pointer. This is where I believe the game went downhill for the Nuggets, and it starts at the beginning of the possession:

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The Nuggets have completely spaced the floor for a Mudiay-Faried pick and roll. It’s a reasonable idea, but my biggest problem with it is that Faried is not on the floor to perform it, not Nikola Jokic.

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This screenshot makes it real easy to figure out why Jokic would be ideal here. Mudiay is going to be trapped by the ball-handler defender and roll man defender, so what should happen is a pass to Faried on the elbow. The problem is, Faried is uncomfortable with that shot, so he rolls to the rim. Jokic is very comfortable, and very good, at taking that midrange jump shot when it’s open.

As Faried rolls to the rim, Moe Harkless completely takes away the passing window. Now, the elbow is wide open, and Jokic in the game makes even more sense.

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The Nuggets are left to scramble, and after an unsuccessful attempt to break down his defender, Barton throws the ball to Chandler in the corner in a wonderful situation.

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1.3 seconds left on the shot clock, defender in his grill. Can’t blame Chandler for that, but a bad offensive possession all around for the Nuggets. (editor’s note: the worst part of this sequence is the poor floor balance. Leads to a transition opportunity.)

1:26 to play – Faried shooting foul. Harkless draws the foul after McCollum easily gets by his defender in transition. Faried goes up to contest and concedes a foul. Bad defensive possession, but Harkless only makes 1/2. 104-96 Nuggets.

1:17 to play – Mudiay missed dunk attempt. This is a mistake attributed to youth, but it’s not the worst one. Mudiay does get right to the rim, but there are 15 seconds left in the shot clock. There’s no reason to settle for a contested shot like that. Fortunately, it bounced out to Barton.

Here’s where the clock was:

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Conceivably, the Nuggets could run the clock down to below 55 seconds and still get a good shot, but unfortunately, Gallo gets pressured by Aminu on the ball. His response is to shoot the ball 8-10 seconds earlier than he should.

1:03 to play – Gallinari missed two point shot. It was contested at that. Bad, bad decision making by Gallo here.

0:55 to play – Faried steal, then Faried turnover. Here’s Faried getting the ball:

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And here’s Faried missing Barton and trying to hit Mudiay on an outlet pass for reasons unknown to me:

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Really bad look here.

0:47 to play – Lillard made three point jumper. Oh hey, that’s absolutely not shocking at all after a costly open court turnover. 104-99 Nuggets. Timeout.

0:26 to play – Gallinari missed two point jumper. There’s so much wrong with this. The Blazers used a full-court press to pressure Mudiay, Barton, and Chandler in the backcourt, and they barely crossed half-court. Gallo received the ball with 12 seconds on the shot clock on the right wing, and he proceeded to take a tough two point jumper with three seconds left.

Part of the blame falls on Gallo, but it certainly seemed like the group of players lacked a plan during this play. It devolved into Gallo creating against the best wing defender, which certainly makes zero sense. Chalk it up to poor judgment on his part and a poor ability of the other players to dribble around the press. Bad possession.

0:15 to play – McCollum and-1. After his transition opportunity was thwarted, McCollum receives the ball above the break and sees this landscape in front of him:

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For whatever reason, Mudiay is giving him the middle of the floor to drive into, but two players I want to highlight for poor effort here are Barton and Faried. Barton is in what amounts to a pick and roll, and as the roll man, his responsibility is McCollum. Instead of shielding the paint, Barton joins Allen Crabbe on the wing and leaves the paint wide open.

Once this happens, it’s Faried’s responsibility to protect the restricted area based on where the action happens, but he makes a half-hearted effort to get in front of McCollum.

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No hands up. No jump. Positioned on the side of his body rather than the front. This is just bad. Chalk it up to him playing the previous 17 minutes in a row, but that’s a coaching problem then too. Bad defense from Mudiay, Barton, and Faried puts the game at 104-102 Nuggets.

0:13 to play – Barton fouled. Not over the limit yet. Still side out of bounds.

0:12 to play – Just look. Here’s the screenshot of Jokic posting up Crabbe for Mudiay to throw the inbounds pass.

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And here’s where Jokic first makes contact with the pass.

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Jokic has to travel nearly 15 feet to grab Mudiay’s absolutely horrid inbound pass, and he can’t come up with it. Turnover.

0:06 to play – Mudiay steals the ball from Lillard, instantly becoming the hero after being the goat. It was a great play in which he put his hand exactly where Lillard brought the ball up.

All Chandler has to do is make two free throws…but he misses both.

0:02 to play – Lillard two point layup. This was a great design by Terry Stotts to take advantage of the worst defenders on the floor.

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The play utilizes Plumlee as the inbounder, defended by Chandler, and puts Crabbe on the far side of the court, defended by Gallo. Both players are away from the main action as Stotts predicted. Faried defended Meyers Leonard at the elbow, while Barton followed McCollum and Mudiay followed Lillard.

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Crabbe crosses under the basket to move Gallo away from the play, McCollum comes to the top of the key to settle on the left wing, and Lillard gets a down screen from Leonard. Mudiay is following Lillard, but Faried’s eyes are still on Plumlee inbounding the ball. Instead of coming to the ball, Lillard starts to curl around the screen toward the basket.

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The result of the play was an alley-oop from Plumlee to Lillard, designed to take advantage of Mudiay’s large frame and Faried’s lack of awareness defensively. He had absolutely no idea what was going on around him, and it’s evidenced by him not even having a foot in the paint. He was the only player capable of coming between Lillard and the hoop, and he was 15 whole feet away from Lillard. He might as well have not even been on the floor. 104-104 tie.

UPDATE: Here is Damian Lillard himself talking about the great play design by Stotts and why it is so difficult to defend.

I’m not even going to bother diagramming up the last shot attempt by Jokic. The point is already made. The Nuggets execution down the stretch was nothing short of putrid, and it came when Jokic was subbed out of the game with 4:27 left to play in the quarter. Malone basically went on to play Jokic the entire overtime period, so it wasn’t as if he took out Jokic to prevent him from foul trouble in the fourth.

It was his decision to put Faried at center. Not Jokic. Not Nurkic either. Faried. For the second game in the row, the Nuggets have gone away from their strength. Malone has repeatedly said that the strength of this Nuggets team is their size and versatility. Through two games, Malone has failed to use either when the game mattered most. The Nuggets need to execute better, but Malone needs to put them in the best position.

In my opinion, taking out two of the best players on the team does not accomplish that. Jokic put up 23 points and 17 rebounds this game, and he absolutely deserved those minutes at the end. One of the two big men, surrounded by Mudiay and three floor spacers, is the blueprint for success in crunch time.

This is certainly something to watch over the five game road trip, and if the Nuggets don’t go big, they may go home with a poor record.