The Nuggets returned back home from a five-game road trip, had two days of rest, but lacked the mental discipline to play a full game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, losing 111-103 Saturday night.

Jamal Murray lead the Nuggets in scoring with 24 points, but had to take 22 shots to get there, missing seven of his nine 3-point attempts as the entire team struggled to score from the perimeter.

Collin Sexton and Darius Garland combined for 43 points, outplaying the Nuggets starting backcourt despite the Nuggets edge in experience.

Coach Malone talked about how important it was for the Nuggets to not overlook the Cavaliers before the game, and yet, the team went out there and was outhustled, outrebounded, and embarrassed in front of their home fans.

The Nuggets offense started out slow, with the team missing their first five 3-point attempts and nine of their first 13 shot attempts. They weren’t getting into their sets with a sense of urgency, and they were settling for a lot of shots off the dribble, with no assists on their first four field goals. The best option for the Nuggets to get points, as usual, was to get Jokic the ball in the post, with the rest of the starting lineup struggling to even get shots that looked close to being able to fall. The Cavaliers were able to get Kevin Love some shots, and he was able to drive past Jerami Grant for a layup, as the visitors built a small lead early. Will Barton battled in the first quarter, making a couple tough runners and beasting on the boards to the tune of six rebounds. Darius Garland knocked down a floater at the buzzer, and the Nuggets finished the first quarter down 23-18.

The Nuggets started the second quarter by allowing the Cavaliers to get a bunch of layups and dunks, with a bunch of defensive breakdowns leading to easy points. The Nuggets were able to force a couple turnovers, leading to a Gary Harris dunk and a Monte Morris 3-pointer, the Nuggets first of the game coming on their twelfth attempt.

The Nuggets defense couldn’t keep the intensity high, and they started allowing the Cavaliers to get out into transition and finish uncontested at the rim. To make matters worse, they couldn’t hit water if they had been tossed out of a boat, continuing to miss shots on offense. Everyone not named Nikola Jokic finished the first half 14-47 (29.8%), including a stunning 2-16 from behind the 3-point line. If the Cavaliers guards had stuck to attacking the rim, the lead would have been higher, but thankfully the Nuggets were only down 51-42 at halftime.

The Nuggets came out of the locker room with the same amount of energy as they had in the first half, giving up a couple offensive rebounds and letting Tristan Thompson do work. The Cavs were outplaying the Nuggets, and Coach Malone decided he’d seen enough from his starters, subbing out Will Barton, Jamal Murray, and Nikola Jokic early after Cleveland increased the lead to 15 points. The Nuggets shooting woes became so pronounced, the Cavaliers switched over to a zone defense, knowing that they’d be able to force them to shoot jumpers while also being able to gather rebounds. The Nuggets bench countered by going zone, and got a couple stops, but weren’t really able to capitalize on them. Malik Beasley had a really boneheaded play at the end of the quarter, pulling up for a 3-pointer too early and giving Cleveland a chance to score right at the buzzer, and own a 85-71 lead after three quarters.

The Nuggets started the fourth with Plumlee and Jokic on the court together, but it was Will Barton who stepped up with a big block that sparked the team. The Cavs coach, John Beilein, had to bring Kevin Love back early, but their starting power forward turned the ball over, and Barton was able to clang home a layup on the other end to cut the deficit to 10 points. Jamal Murray hit his first 3-pointer of the game, and Jokic completed an and-one to cut the lead to six. Murray poked the ball away, and was able to beat the defense down the court for a high-flying dunk, then caused a turnover on the inbounds play, but Jokic couldn’t score.

Collin Sexton was able to knock in a long 3-pointer, ending the Nuggets run, but Jamal Murray was able to counter with a 3-pointer of his own, tying the game up at 93 with 6:26 left on the clock. Jokic hit a 3-pointer, giving the Nuggets their first lead of the game, and then both teams started swapping baskets. Denver started running out of gas a little, and Cleveland was able to get buckets by having Sexton and Garland go 1×1 and get points against the Nuggets bigs in isolation. The Nuggets couldn’t knock down any more 3-pointers in the final minutes, and they suffered another humiliating loss to a team they were much more talented then.

Three things of note

It’s not an overreaction to say that Nuggets aren’t serious contenders. The Utah Jazz are streaking, the Clippers have one more win and come to Denver tomorrow night, the Rockets have the same record, and the Nuggets have losses to the Hawks, Pelicans, Wizards, and now the Cavaliers. As the season continues, it’s nice to see the Nuggets play well against most of the teams in the league, but as they continue to crap their pants against teams that they really need to beat in order to secure home-court in the first and potentially second round, well, they lose. Let’s not pretend like the Nuggets can beat the Lakers, Clippers, or Rockets in a seven game series, and lower our expectations for the team as the trade deadline approaches and the season continues to grind it’s way out. Let’s hope that players like Jamal Murray and Gary Harris can figure out how to make 3-pointers, Jerami Grant can figure out how to get a defensive rebound, and Michael Porter Jr won’t make shockingly bad defensive rotations.

If you can’t rebound, you can’t play. The Nuggets lose games when they get beat on the glass. When the guards can’t secure long rebounds and Jerami Grant finishes with two rebounds, that’s a recipe for disaster. That’s the reason why Grant was glued to the bench in the fourth quarter — at least Mason Plumlee has a shot at getting a rebound. It’s inexcusable to see Grant watch players dive past him for offensive boards.

The hero ball needs to end. The Nuggets offense was so bad in the first quarter, and it set the mood for the rest of the game. Nobody is cutting, screening, or passing the ball. Jokic checks out, the guards feel like they need to take over, and before you know it, you’ve scored 18 points in 12 minutes against the Cavaliers. Well done, everyone. Let’s see how they respond in less than 24 hours against the reigning Finals MVP.