DENVER — Amidst a Sunday afternoon Spurs blitzkrieg mid-way through the fourth quarter that saw San Antonio outscore Denver 38-19 in the period and eventually pull away for a 120-105 win, Nuggets' coach Michael Malone left his usual chair situated between his two top assistants and found a spot further down the bench in between two players.
The third-year Nuggets coach handed over the reigns to assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr, mirroring a maneuver Mike Brown pulled with him in Cleveland where Malone was an assistant for five seasons. But at that point, the final outcome was already determined.
After Denver took the lead for the first time since their opening possession of the game on a Kenneth Faried layup that made the score 84-83 with 11:45 left in the quarter, the Spurs answered with a 28-7 over the next six minutes. San Antonio shot 16-23 (69.6 percent) from the field in the fourth and for the game, the Spurs hit 57 percent of their field goals and went 16-28 (57.1 percent) from three.
"The fourth quarter was obviously the low-light," Malone told reporters after the loss. "Giving up 39 points in one quarter, turning the ball over five times for 12 points. I thought guys that were out there just kind of quit and rolled over, which is great for me because every time you play, it's an opportunity for me as a head coach to see if I can trust you on the court. And guys that were in the game in the fourth quarter obviously left a very bad taste in my mouth."
Malone was asked about the fourth quarter and his postgame comments at Monday's practice.
I didn't say they quit. Just in terms of adversity hit, they go on a run, we're leading, next thing you know it's run, run we just kind of let go a little bit. I'm not saying we have quitters on our team but what I saw happening was adversity hit, we turned the ball over, they got run-outs. They hit a couple of tough shots, we didn't execute. It went from being a really competitive game to a blowout in a three or four-minute window. It's not easy for the guys that are in there at the end, Monte (Morris), Malik (Beasley), Tyler (Lydon), Trey (Lyles) whoever else was in to be sitting for most of the game and go out and play. And they had LaMarcus Aldridge, they had Dejounte Murray, guys who are going to be in their rotation. Every opportunity you go on that floor is an opportunity to show me that you're worthy of those minutes. It's an opportunity for you to show me you are trustworthy. I can put you in the game and I know what you're going to give me. every opportunity is a worth-while opportunity and last night I felt like we just kind of got lazy on offense made lazy passes, turned the ball over didn't sprint back and once that run started we just kind of dropped our heads instead of finding a way to compete and fight and that's what we need to.
"I think they just wanted it more, got after it more, took it a little more serious than us," Will Barton, who was on the floor for the Spurs run, told BSN Denver. "They made shots, they played harder, they just got after it more and I feel like we just kind of laid down."
The Nuggets fielded one of the worst defenses in the league last season statistically and improvement on that end of the floor has been a focal point throughout training camp and the preseason. With Paul Millsap in tow, Malone and his staff hunkered down this summer and crafted together a more aggressive scheme to hopefully generate more turnovers and stops. Instead of dropping Nikola Jokic and the rest of their bigs on pick-and-rolls, Denver's hedging and trapping more on the perimeter.
It's a strategy that the Nuggets found some success with towards the end of last season after they acquired Plumlee and through four preseason games, Denver has forced opponents into an average of nearly 18 turnovers per game and recorded double-digit steals as a team in three of those four matchups.
As a self-described “quiet team” communication has also been a focal point throughout the preseason as has effort, which waned at times last season.
"We have more communication, that's the biggest thing with defense," Jamal Murray said. "We have a lot more effort. The guys know this is a big year so we have a lot more effort."
"I think it makes everybody play harder too," Murray continued about the new scheme. "It forces you to be up somewhere, it forces you to play harder basically. So I think that's helping everybody out."
But that defensive prowess that had been on display at points this preseason was absent against San Antonio.
While Denver's offense will likely produce at an elite level again as it did last year, the Nuggets will need more commitment on the defensive end of the floor to ultimately ascend the Western Conference hierarchy. Denver is counting on pesky on-ball defenders like Millsap, Murray, Gary Harris, and Wilson Chandler, who had five steals against the Lakers last week, to turn the Nuggets' defense into offense more than they were able to a year ago.
"Our success is going to be on the shoulders of our commitment defensively," Jameer Nelson told BSN Denver last week.
Denver's defense will be tested again on Tuesday when the Nuggets host Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and the Oklahoma City Thunder in their preseason finale at Pepsi Center before a seven-day sabbatical prior to their regular season opener in Utah Oct. 18.