The Denver Nuggets decided to send a surprisingly energetic crowd home disappointed as they blew an 8 point lead with under 2 minutes to go – without giving up a single made basket. The Hawks scored the last 9 points of the game from the free throw line to heist the victory right out from under Denver’s nose, 109-108. Dennis Schroder and Paul Millsap were great for Atlanta, while Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler helped pace Denver for 3+ quarters before becoming non-factors at the end. Nikola Jokic fouled out of the game in just 19 minutes, though, and that was huge at the end.

Both teams worked inside to start the game, Atlanta with dunks and Denver with some tougher paint shots. The Nuggets looked a little out of sorts with some bad jumpers and Gallo turnovers, but they remembered to go back to Jokic to run the offense four minutes into the game. Millsap's 3 put Atlanta up 15-11 but Chandler kept Denver in it with 5 early buckets.  The paint defense for Denver was atrocious with Humphries pounding the basket and Denver turnovers (7 in the first half) turning into fastbreak points for Atlanta. Denver's offense refused to quit, however, and this oop from the 3-point line put Denver back up 23-22.

That was Jokic's fifth assist of the quarter, but neither that alley oop nor Jameer Nelson’s shortly after could help Denver pull away, and the teams were tied at 29 after one.

Denver's offense abandoned the post entirely in Jokic's absence, but Barton make it work with a couple of long jumpers and even an assist to Faried on a break. Luckily Denver found a way to stay in front of Atlanta and the Hawks went ice-cold, missing 11 of 14 as Denver took a 39-33 lead. Each team took turns bricking threes, though, slowing the game down in the middle of the quarter. Jokic committed two stupid fouls in 10 seconds after a silly turnover, and Denver's offense stagnated.  Harris broke them out of a slump with a strong drive and finish through contact to put Denver up 47-39 with 3 minutes to go.

Sefolosha hit a pair of threes to keep Atlanta in touch, though, and Denver's bricked free throws didn't help. The Nuggets only led by four at halftime after a Schroder three-pointer, 55-51.

Jokic picked up his third foul on Atlanta's first possession of the second half, but his look-off bounce pass to Gary Harris was another passing highlight.  Jokic's fourth foul took him out of the game just two minutes into the quarter though.  Gallinari had trouble with his handle all game and looked slow, but he had a nice block and was unstoppable going to the foul line as he and Mudiay put Denver up 6, 65-59.  Harris got a steal to start a Mudiay-to-Chandler fastbreak and Denver finally got a double-digit lead.

Atlanta came right back though with Schroder leading the way. Atlanta was out-rebounding the Nuggets to that point in the third quarter and Denver could not shake them. The Hawks took a 73-72 lead with 3 minutes to go, on a 14-3 run.  Jameer Nelson hit a drive and a pull-up to end the quarter and Gallo traded awkward three-point plays with Bembry to leave the teams tied at 82 after three.

Darrell Arthur and Jameer Nelson both hit from behind the arc to start the fourth and put Denver up a quick six.  Denver netted 4 quick team fouls and continued to struggle to hold onto the ball or even control a dribble until Jokic came back in at the 8 minute mark. Gallinari made sure to play some beautifully ugly ball, though, getting to the line even as Atlanta's defense got swarming and chippy. Jokic had some nice plays and a block but picked up his fifth foul with five minutes to go. The Nuggets did a good job of cutting off initial penetration and Mudiay snagged more free throws and finished this fast break layup:

The Nuggets put up more fastbreak points than any team this season had against Atlanta, but in the end the game came down to free throws. Atlanta had 14 in the fourth and Denver had 11 as the refs called fouls for heavy breathing and side-eye, but the back-breaker for Denver came when Jokic fouled out with 42 seconds left and Malone got a tech as well with Denver up 4, 108-104. Those 3 free throws from Schroder cut the lead to just 1. Chandler airballed a runner, Denver couldn’t corral an Atlanta miss, and The Hawks scored the last 9 points of the game – all at the foul line – and snuck out a victory 109-108. 

The Atlanta announcers said it best: "The Atlanta Hawks have absolutely stolen one here in Denver."

Can't argue with that.

Final thought:

Does Denver ever plan to finish a close game strong? Denver couldn’t draw up an out of bounds play or even get back to the line – though even if they had they’d probably have missed the shots unless it was Mudiay, who was a perfect 10 for 10 from the stripe. Mudiay and Gallinari carried Denver’s offense without Jokic and they did it by shooting free throws, but Gallo was not in the game for the last 4+ minutes – when Denver really needed another scorer. In the last 5 minutes of the game the only Nuggets to score were Barton (on a tech and a Mudiay-assisted jumper) and Mudiay. When asked why Gallo was benched, Coach Malone had this response:

Well coach, it was a poor decision – as most of the late-game decisions have been. Malone’s tech was the difference in the final score. The disorganized foul-fest didn’t help. Jokic fouling out really didn’t help. But all of that comes back to organization and execution – two things Malone continually preaches but still struggle to come out when it matters.

The referees started the game by swallowing their whistles but by the end it was, “Loose shoe laces! Two shots.” That can be hard for a team to adjust to – all players really want from refs is consistency. But knowing the game has turned into a foul-shooting free-for-all, not putting your leading scorer in the game who is also the floppingest-flopper on the squad was a mistake. Gallinari had 21 points on 10 shots, and snuck in 11 rebounds. His 12th might have been the one to secure the victory, if he’d been allowed to get it.

Denver was the better team for 46 minutes tonight, but they couldn’t put Atlanta away and they couldn’t finish. That’s the story of these close, bitter losses from ahead that Denver has provided all season, and I’m tired of the ending.

When Jokic stops fouling like he’s having a religious experience in the middle of a good game, and Malone figures out how to get execution from everyone including himself, the Nuggets will have something. Right now all they have is another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

Merry Christmas, Nuggets fans.