The Atlanta Hawks wrapped up their road trip with a win, pounding a listless Denver Nuggets squad that looked like it expected a scrimmage and was not prepared for a real contest 110-97. Atlanta played harder, executed what they do well better, and took both the crowd and Denver’s hearts out of the game. Dennis Schroder had a double-double and 6 players in double figures, while Denver had just 4. Gary Harris came to play, scoring 25 and adding 7 rebounds and 3 assists, but Nikola Jokic went 0-for-8 from three and shot just 4-for-21, negating the impact of his 12 rebounds and 7 assists. The Hawks shot 50% from the field, made 12-of-27 three pointers, and got to play the game they wanted.

Denver’s Plumlee beat Atlanta’s Plumlee for the opening tip, one of the few victories in the game. Wilson Chandler missed the first shot of the game for Denver but Gary Harris hit a three for the second, and Jamal Murray followed up with a three of his own.  Denver threw a couple of lazy passes but got away with them, then exchanged steals with Atlanta. Chandler botched an easy layup and a three, but Murray made another for an early 9-4 Denver lead. Taurean Prince made a trio of threes, though, to get the lead for Atlanta. Jokic missed a pair of threes but hit a layup assisted by Harris to get on the board.

Denver couldn’t make open threes for a few minutes, though, and Atlanta had better energy with Dedmon doing work in the paint and Schroder running the offense. Kenneth made an early appearance and Trey Lyles made a couple of free throws and a throw-in fadeaway to cut the deficit to 6 at 25-19.  Faried drew a charge on Prince but missed a putback dunk, and the Nuggets fell back on their missed-threes offense. Denver trailed by 8 after one, 29-21.   

Chandler and Barton finally hit threes to open the second quarter. Faried’s dunk tied it at 31, but Atlanta made a 7-0 run capped by still-wide-open Prince’s three. Jokic came back in the game and immediately assisted Chandler’s layup, and while he couldn’t hit a three he did get a steal and a putback of his own paint miss.  Bazemore punished the Nuggets with another three, though, and Atlanta took a 46-37 lead.  Harris hit a beautiful reverse, though, and the Nuggets found some energy as Jokic got about 5 rebounds on one play before finally putting the ball home. 

Barton hit a three but no one could stop Atlanta from driving the basket or hitting threes at will, and with soft defense and terrible shot-making – especially from three – the Nuggets wound up trailing Atlanta 54-46 at the half.

Denver’s starting guards remembered they were playing in the third after skipping the second quarter, as both Harris and Jamal Murray drove the lane for tough baskets and in Gary’s case, a nice one-handed jam as well to close the gap to three. A few bad plays ballooned the lead back to 8, though, before Chandler got a hard-fought putback and the Jokic-to-Harris connection had a beautiful back-court dunk.

Jokic hit a nice flip hook but Schroder continued punishing Denver. Gary Harris his a three for his 17th point to cut the lead to 4, then made a layup and a fade-away, but the Nuggets couldn’t clamp down on players like Schroder and Marco Belinelli which kept them from retaking the lead. Torrey Craig’s late pressure steal on Belinelli for a clear path foul was outstanding, but Denver was 8-for-14 through three quarters on free throws and botched the final possession to stay down 82-78 after three.

Irsan Ilyasova hit a three to open the scoring in the fourth and Michael Malone immediately called a timeout. Apparently “guard the three point line” is a tough message to get across between quarters. Jokic blew two shots within 6 feet of the basket, continuing a miserable night of shooting for him, Harris and Barton had a bad turnover between them, and Chandler blew an easy layup. Barton finally hit a layup for Denver’s first bucket of the quarter to cut the lead back to 6 at 87-81 with under 8 minutes left. Atlanta pushed it up to 12 with ease, but a back-cut from Harris and steal-and-dunk by Plumlee cut it back to 8 with just over five minutes to go.

That was as good as it got. Denver went down by 15 with three-plus minutes to go and the hole was too big to get out of for a team that was ambivalent about winning for all 48 minutes. Final score,

Final Thoughts

You can give Denver a game against an inferior team, but you can’t make them care enough to win it. Jokic had one of his worst games of the season against a team that couldn’t stop him from doing anything he wanted to do. He simply didn’t want to do anything other than brick threes. Nobody but Gary Harris could make free throws, or threes, or play defense. The team came out slow and careless, and finished that way. The Nuggets didn’t care about winning tonight, came out with no effort at home and laid another egg against a non-playoff team. These are the games that cost playoff positioning, or in a worst-case scenario a playoff spot.

Denver has the talent to make the post-season dance, but whether they have the will is another matter. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the easy part of the schedule if they give that kind of effort. Atlanta wanted it more, and they took it. For as long as Denver is willing to be bullied by lesser squads, this will keep happening – and it’s ridiculous.