The Denver Nuggets are learning the hard way that comfort is the enemy of progress.
Despite leading the Western Conference for much of the season, the Nuggets have yet to solidify their spot at the top. In fact, Denver has lost three of its last four games, with the latest being a blowout loss to the lottery-bound Houston Rockets.
One would think that the Nuggets, who were the big brother in this matchup, would teach the Rockets a lesson with the regular season winding down. In the end, though, it was the little brother that left Denver with something to ponder on with the postseason looming large.
A dismal fourth quarter from the Nuggets effectively sealed their fate, with Jalen Green pouring in 12 points in the fourth quarter. Green’s teammates got their 3-point shots going, opening up driving lanes for him to take advantage of. Denver’s starter’s were on the bench by the latter half of the final quarter and the Nuggets will have to wait another game before securing the much-needed home court advantage throughout the uber-competitive Western Conference Playoffs.
Nikola Jokic could become named MVP for the third consecutive season, but his ability to influence the game in multiple ways doesn’t mean he can do everything for Denver. Their loss to Houston was a case in point. Prior to the matchup with the Rockets, Jokic had missed the last three games dealing with some tightness in his right calf and was clearly working his way back into pre-injury form. Adding to the Nuggets woes was the early exit of Jamal Murray, who sprained his right thumb in the first half and was ruled out by Denver for the rest of the game.
The rest of the Nuggets picked up the rest of the slack offensively (seven Denver players other than Jokic scored at least seven points), but their defense, particularly at the perimeter led to their undoing. Jokic isn’t even relied on for perimeter defense and if they can’t even help him on that end, the Nuggets may be looking at another first-round exit.
That Denver knows what to address moving forward is a good thing, but knowing and actually addressing those concerns are two different things. It’s tougher when players aren’t 100 percent but what is roster depth if the rest of the squad won’t step up?
Michael Porter Jr. led the Nuggets in the loss to Houston with 23 points and seven rebounds, while Aaron Gordon had an all-around game (13 points, nine rebounds, four assists, and four blocks). All those are well and good and the hope is that these efforts can be sustained. Peyton Watson (10 points) has also made a mark in recent games and that could give him confidence heading into the postseason. Denver’s front office has had no problems finding talent, but the Nuggets need to learn how to maximize it.
With only three games left on their regular season schedule, time may still be on Denver’s side, but not by much. Their remaining matchups against the Phoenix Suns, the Sacramento Kings, and the Utah Jazz provide opportunities for players to improve and coaches to finetune their systems, but they also give chance to injury and developments that could bring down morale. It also won’t be easy given how the Suns and the Jazza are looking to solidify their postseason fates.
Load management also becomes more prevalent when April approaches and with the Nuggets hoping for an extended playoff run, Denver has some choices to make. Given all that they know and how some of their players have fared, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone must naturally balance preserving his team’s health and well-being all while helping his team to stay sharp with everyone looking to take them out.
Are the Denver Nuggets contenders or pretenders? Obviously they remain much of the former, but let’s not pretend that all is well in the Mile High City. There’s no need to panic (yet), but the Nuggets have a few games to remove the chinks in their armor lest those hold them back come playoff time.