• Michael Porter Jr. attempts just two shots in the second half
  • Michael Malone elects to stay the course defensively, and it cost him
  • Nikola Jokic can’t do this by himself

This was an incredibly frustrating game to watch because the Denver Nuggets played well enough defensively to win. Holding the Los Angeles Clippers to 96 points is often going to get the job done. Tonight, it didn’t, and there were three primary factors why.

Let’s talk about each of them:

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Michael Porter Jr. attempted two shots in the second half

It’s time to take the training wheels off. Michael Porter Jr. is getting incredibly frustrated with how few touches he receives within the flow of Denver’s normal offense, and frankly so am I.

This has been a problem all season. Initially, it was because he had no idea what he was doing on that end of the floor. He didn’t know the plays, stood in the wrong place, didn’t understand the nuances, and made a mess of things. As the season wore on though, it was clear that Porter was becoming more comfortable with his place in the NBA and as a scorer in the rotation. He always tried to do his job first and foremost before scoring though, and it’s clear his heart is in the right place on committing to the defensive end.

But the time for lessons is past. This is the playoffs, and if you’re Michael Malone, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, whoever, you have to recognize that Porter is firing on all cylinders in the first half. He had 15 points on six shot attempts, including shooting 3-of-4 from distance. In a game where the Nuggets are struggling to score, it might be a good idea to find the flamethrower in the second half.

Not only did Michael Malone wait until the 5:23 mark in the third quarter to reinsert Porter after the Clippers expanded the lead to 65-53, he ran zero plays for Porter. No isolations, running off screens, backdoor cuts, anything. Porter ran back and forth for the rest of the game and only attempted two shots in the 17:23 he played in the second half. Those two shot attempts came on the same possession when Porter grabbed the rebound himself and used one of his only touches to drive down the floor in isolation and got blocked by Ivica Zubac on the help side, rebounded his own miss, and missed another contested layup under the rim. After that moment, he didn’t have another scoring opportunity for the rest of the game.

This is absolute folly. The Nuggets scored 85 points tonight. 15 came from one player in the first half. Keeping that player engaged and shooting it in the second half is a basic principle that might have kept the Nuggets in this game. Outside of Porter, the Nuggets shot 6-of-23 from three-point range. It was frustrating to watch.

And apparently, Michael Porter Jr. is frustrated too.

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Michael Malone elects for defense, Nuggets lose because they can’t score

When the Los Angeles Clippers had to sit down Paul George at the 10:15 mark in the third quarter with four fouls, the Nuggets were given an absolute gift. It was time to step on the gas pedal. George had been Jamal Murray’s primary defender for most of the series, but him accumulating four fouls and having to sit out for the rest of the third quarter meant extra opportunities for Murray to create space and get by his man offensively, as long as the Nuggets maintained good floor spacing.

Well, that last little bit didn’t happen, because at the 8:18 mark in the third quarter when Gary Harris picked up his fourth foul, Michael Malone decided to insert Torrey Craig in the lineup at the shooting guard spot, joining Jerami Grant at small forward and Paul Millsap at power forward.

There’s no other way to say this: that decision lost the Denver Nuggets the basketball game.

From the 8:18 mark to the end of the quarter, the Nuggets managed just 12 points. They were in the bonus, being gifted possession after possession at the free throw line, but the one lineup that couldn’t take advantage of driving lanes was one where those lanes didn’t exist. The Clippers doubled Jokic frequently, hedged and were physical against Jamal Murray, and the other three players on the floor couldn’t do anything about it because they couldn’t shoot.

This is where Malone just has to be better, to go against his impulse as a defensive coach and lean into what’s needed rather than what he wants to do. Paul George was off the floor. Jerami Grant was already guarding Kawhi Leonard reasonably well at that point. In what way does Torrey Craig on the floor make any sense at that point?

Michael Porter Jr. should have probably been the sub. Will Barton would have been the best option, but he’s obviously not here. PJ Dozier hasn’t played in this series, but at least he will keep the ball moving and do what Jokic wants him to do. There were several possessions offensively where Jokic was so incredibly frustrated with Craig that it led to a poor shot or poor decision.

The Nuggets are down 3-1, but they didn’t have to be. They could have tried to get the offense going. Instead, they committed to defense and got burned because of it.

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Nikola Jokic needs more help

Jamal Murray was fine this game. The Nuggets needed greatness but could have just used good. 18 points on 15 shots, seven assists, and four pretty jarring turnovers is fine for a third option in the playoffs, but not a second option. Not the player Jamal Murray wants to and can be. Denver needs more from him.

Michael Porter Jr. had 15 points on eight shots. He needs more than eight shots. I covered that pretty thoroughly earlier.

The rest of the roster has to do something. Anything.

It’s unfortunate timing that in spending as much time as he has guarding possibly the best player in the NBA, Jerami Grant has lost his jumper on the offensive end. Gary Harris seems to be good for 10 points a night, but he had three turnovers too. He was fine but dealt with foul trouble. Mason Plumlee’s role is to bridge the gap for Jokic to get some rest, and I think he’s been solid in that role. Unremarkable, but solid.

The real culprits here are Paul Millsap, Monte Morris, and Torrey Craig. A combined nine points on 1-of-10 from the field has been an absolute killer in every lineup. Morris is shooting 24.1% from three in these playoffs. Craig’s plus-minus of -35 is the worst on Denver’s roster in the second round. Millsap is third worst at minus-24, and him trying to close out to Marcus Morris on defensive rotation in any game other than Game 2 has been a nightmare for the Nuggets.

Nikola Jokic has been consistently good in the last three games, averaging 28.0 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 6.0 assists while shooting 53.1% from the field, 45.0% from three, and 87.5% from the free throw line.

It’s time for Michael Malone to get Jokic more help offensively in this series. Get Michael Porter Jr. more shots and start him if you have to. Jokic, Murray, and Porter. That’s Denver’s only hope offensively.