The Denver Nuggets fought valliantly but just could not get stops when they were needed and fell to the Miami Heat 124-119 in a matchup that neither team could be proud of defensively. Kenneth Faried was huge early with 14 points in the first quarter and 24 for the game on a perfect 11-for-11 shooting performance and 11 rebounds on top. Mudiay had his third career double-double with 23 points and 10 assists, but the bench struggled to contain the Heat (as the + / – on the night can attest). Hassan Whiteside started slow but finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and the two rookies for Miami helped Joe Johnson send Denver on to Orlando with a loss. The Heat were exceptionally well-rounded in fact with six players netting between 17 and 20 points on the night and Miami shot almost 60% from the field.

I missed the first few minutes of the game when Denver got out to a 19-13 Nuggets lead. Faried had 10 of the Nuggets first 19 and Denver had 11 fastbreak points early as they really pushed the action. Mudiay went to Faried for several early assists as the Nuggets destroyed the Heat in the paint with 18 early points. Dwyane Wade kept Miami in it with seven first quarter points when the momentum seemed to be running away from them, and Joe Johnson hit a three to bring it to 27-25 with just over 3 minutes to go. There wasn’t much defense from either team for most of the game but especially in the first. A 13-4 run by Miami gave them the lead, and Richardson’s 3 put the Heat up 36-33 after one. The Nuggets scored the most points the Heat had given up in the first quarter on the season and still trailed – that’s all you need to know about how well the defense performed.

Axel Toupane missed a bunny to open the second quarter but nailed a wide open 3 to tie the score at 38. Justise Winslow shot well early with 9 points, and the Heat were shooting 63% to that point. Denver started settling for tough shots while Miami got whatever it wanted and Dragic’s open-court drive for a layup put Miami up five, 48-43. Layup after layup for the Heat was paused by D.J. Augustin’s 3, and then a turnover and an off-balance jumper by Augustin drew Denver to within two at 52-50. Mudiay came back in with many of the starters with the score 57-50 and provided several immediate assists. A DJ Augustin fastbreak put Denver back up 58-57, but Winslow tied his career-high with 15 in just the first half to offset any damage the Nuggets could dish out. Josh Richardson hit three 3s in the half and the Heat went in up two at the half, 64-62 despite 40 points in the paint for Denver over fhe first 24 minutes and 18 fastbreak points.

Denver opened up the second half by playing much more energetic defense and JaKarr Sampson's aggressive drive tied the game. A couple of turnovers by Denver made it hard to capitalize though. Mudiay came out hard with a couple of buckets through contact, and a tough Mudiay jumper and free throws by Harris put Denver up 74-71. Harris just kept driving for the rim at full-speed and the rest of the Nuggets followed suit with 54 paint points at that point, but no stops left the game tied at 80 with four minutes left in the third. Jokic struggled offensively for most of the first 3 quarters but his passing loosened up the defense and then Jokic started sinking buckets, as his 3-point play put Denver up 88-82. More defensive lapses led to another Richardson three and a Whiteside dunk and left Denver with just a one point lead at the end of three, 91-90.

Arthur opened the final frame with a long 2, but three early fouls by Denver and a terrible behind-the-back turnover by Augustin led to a 3 point play by Winslow and a 99-97 Heat lead. Denver was over the foul limit with 8:34 left and the Denver reserves had no defensive answers and no offensive flow as they went down six. Malone brought Faried and Harris back in to stem the tide and they immediately cut the lead to two before Richardson's monster dunk. The Heat rookies had their coming out parties at Denver's expense. Richardson had a pair of blocks on Augustin just when the Nuggets were trying to push back. Miami cranked up their defense and pulled out to a 114-107 lead with 2 minutes left after a Wade jumper. The Nuggets would not back down, though, and Harris hit a three just as the game looked to be slipping away but nothing Denver could do on offense was enough. Whiteside and Johnson – who both have a history as Nuggets killers – put tough buckets on the board as the Heat pulled out to their biggest lead late and held on despite last-minute Jokic and Mudiay threes for a 124-119 win.

Final Thoughts:

– The kids are still all right. Mudiay and Nikola Jokic throwing in icy daggers to keep Denver in it late and Gary Harris imposing his will for several stretches of the game were good sights to see. This Denver team doesn’t quit, ever, and while Malone probably lost what remains of his hair while weeping in frustration at Denver’s defensive performance, the kids are all playing hard and trying to win. I’m not much for moral victories, but I am a fan of watching player growth. Being able to call a 12 / 8 / 4 game from Jokic “timid” or groan at Mudiay’s 5 turnovers despite his 23 points and 10 assists means they aren’t really performing like drowning kids. We expect much of them, and they still deliver most nights. I applaud the effort of everyone tonight (24/11 from Faried was pretty magnificent). As the Big Stiff himself said:

– Malone needs more defenders. No Nurkic (yes, he was out with a sore knee and did not complete shootaround, so please no conspiracy theories) really hurt Denver’s interior defense, but at some point the Nuggets are going to have to find a way to play defense. That may involve adding new personnel, or simply better utilization and understanding from the players Denver does have. But while I’m happy that Malone seems to finally be pursuing that up-tempo Denver basketball on the offensive side to get his young players easier looks, relying on a 76ers castoff and a D-Leaguer to provide your defense doesn’t seem like the soundest strategy.

But in his post-game presser Malone talked defense but didn't seem especially disgusted. Some days you just take it as a learning experience. Learning to close quarters and games is tough for young teams, and the Nuggets are a very young team right now. These are exactly the kinds of games they need to fight through, win or lose, to learn how to prevail in the future.

If you have to lose, then lose in ways you can learn from and by giving all your effort to the cause. The Nuggets did that. I can't really complain.

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