There are losses and then there are gut-punches.
What the Nuggets experienced Friday, amid a Jazz pummeling of epic proportions, was humiliating and bewildering. They’ve now lost their last two games by an average of 28 points and are staring at a season on the brink.
Perhaps the most salient expression on Nuggets coach Michael Malone’s face came late in the first quarter – the moment Malone said the game was over. He had a look of astonishment that suggested he didn’t recognize whatever form of basketball his team was playing, and more alarming, he didn’t have answers to address it.
The problem, as he said heading into Game 3, was that you can’t make adjustments until you know they’re necessary.
“Before we make an adjustment, let’s do what the hell we’re supposed to do correctly,” he said. “And that’s when you make the adjustment. You ask yourself: Are we executing the game plan correctly and are we doing it with energy and effort? If the answer is yes to both of those, then you make an adjustment quickly.”
The issue is that Denver’s effort level in Game 3 – he said he saw four minutes of playoff basketball from his team – didn’t exactly elicit a “yes” to one of Malone’s questions.
But now facing a 2-1 deficit heading into Sunday’s must-win, Malone may need to make difficult decisions with imperfect information. Such is the case when you can’t rely on your team to play with postseason energy.
Are changes coming?
There was speculation that Friday’s Game 3 could be the moment Malone made a sizeable change to the starting lineup. Paul Millsap has struggled mightily in Orlando, and his defense hasn’t been sound enough to offset his offensive shortcomings. His 7.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in three games are well below what he offered during the regular season.
It’s fair to wonder whether the four-month hiatus actually hurt him more than anyone else, given that he was in a decent rhythm in March while averaging 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds.
Still, Malone trusts Millsap and even momentarily had him guard Rudy Gobert.
That being said, Malone has to consider starting Jerami Grant, who’s a plus defender who can slither around Utah’s incessant screens and is an excellent floor spacer on the other end. It took Malone three games in last season’s series vs. San Antonio before he made the difficult decision to start Torrey Craig over Will Barton. A similar decision might be coming, but are we sure Millsap’s the guy?
What about Michael Porter Jr.? Malone already made this decision once. When the Nuggets were down 59-42 heading into Friday’s third quarter, it was Grant who Malone tapped to start the second half instead of Porter.
That’s because Porter’s defensive shortcomings are glaring. The Jazz are attacking the rookie in all manners, and there’s nowhere to hide him. He’s gotten disconnected with his man in transition defense, has been caught far too many times in no man’s land and has struggled with his on-ball containment. While the Nuggets’ offense is desperate to score, it can’t afford to give up such easy baskets on defense.
One more clip from yesterday. Michael Malone doesn’t know what to do with MPJ, who’s struggling with his on-ball containment. pic.twitter.com/NAgBld9SUb
— Mike Singer (@msinger) August 22, 2020
At the same time, Malone knows the Nuggets need Porter’s outside shooting. Denver won Game 1 with 22 3-pointers. They’ve hit 25 combined in the ensuing two games.
This is Malone’s dilemma. Porter is an electric, three-level scorer who does things no one else on Denver’s roster can do. He’s also a rookie in his first playoff series and starting to grasp the gravity of the moment. At this point, the Nuggets have little room for defensive liabilities.
Remember Harris and Barton? Frankly, their injuries were probably overlooked in this series because of Denver’s well-documented depth. But that’s still two veteran starters, with playoff experience, who can play both sides of the ball.
Harris’ perimeter defense has always been outstanding, and it would’ve been vital against Utah’s litany of outside shooters. From positioning to effort, Harris could’ve helped mitigate a guy like Jordan Clarkson or Mike Conley, or perhaps even spell Craig on Donovan Mitchell. His outside shooting would’ve been a bonus.
And from a two-way perspective, Barton was one of the team’s most reliable wings this season. He’s one of the few players on the roster who can score after the offense has broken down, and he was always a willing, engaged defender.
In their absences, it’s been Craig and Porter in the starting lineup. Both have components that are helpful in a playoff series – Craig’s sticky defense, Porter’s scoring ability – but their shortcomings are more pronounced than would’ve been the case with either regular starter healthy. Malone said recently there’s a chance Harris could return during this series.
Where are Jokic and Murray? With the series hanging in the balance Friday, Denver’s best player was thoroughly outplayed by Utah’s second best player. Rudy Gobert took it to Nikola Jokic in no uncertain terms.
By halftime, Gobert’s 20 points and 11 rebounds told the story of the game. Jokic often looked helpless trying to defend Utah’s pick-and-roll action, while Gobert’s never-ending lobs were demoralizing in their ease and simplicity.
It’s no doubt a difficult sequence for Jokic to defend, but there were also instances where he looked like he was going through the motions. Playoff basketball requires urgency and purpose, neither of which was apparent as Jokic was trying to stop Gobert. If he doesn’t outplay his counterpart, as he did in three regular-season matchups, the Nuggets have little hope of outlasting the Jazz.
On this one, notice the double-team to start. Jokic and Craig barely look committed to it. Then Jokic wanders over to a wide open Rudy Gobert. Those are inexplicable effort plays. I know Jokic is put in a blender in the PnRs, but he let Gobert waltz. pic.twitter.com/ijBFiulnLV
— Mike Singer (@msinger) August 22, 2020
As for Murray, the fight was there. It’s his energy and passion that fueled their Game 1 victory. If the Nuggets are to save the series, it’s likely non-negotiable in Game 4. Jazz wing Royce O’Neale has flustered Murray and limited him to just 11-of-29 shooting over the last two games. But there were a handful of shots he missed in Game 3 that had nothing to do with O’Neale, including a handful from the 3-point line.
From attitude to execution, there’s a ton that needs to change if the Nuggets are going to make it a series. And if it doesn’t, this embarrassment will linger, fostering uncomfortable questions the Nuggets never thought they’d have to answer this quickly.