For the fourth season in a row, the Denver Nuggets are on pace to finish as a bottom-six defense in the NBA. The Nuggets have never finished better than 24th in defensive efficiency in the Michael Malone era. On Tuesday, with only 11 regular-season games remaining, they woke up as the fourth-worst defensive team in basketball.
Barring something miraculous, Denver will once again fail to qualify for the postseason. Right now, the Nuggets sit in 10th place — two games behind the eight-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, whose final stretch of games is considerably cushier than Denver’s.
If the Nuggets do come up short again, it will be because they couldn’t stop anybody. Opponents are shooting 65.3 percent at the rim, 42.5 percent from the mid-range zones and 38.1 percent from three-point territory against Denver, according to Cleaning the Glass. Those are the sixth-, second- and third-worst marks in basketball, respectively.
On Tuesday, the Miami Heat hung 118 points on Denver in regulation before going on to win 149-141 in double-overtime. There were so many mistakes, Bill Hanzlik of Altitude TV implored the Nuggets to “go zone” during halftime.
“You can’t stop ’em anyway,” Hanzlik said.
Where exactly did Denver go wrong? Here are three areas in particular.
Miscommunication and mental lapses
Maybe the most frustrating part about the Nuggets’ defensive ineptitude is that many of their mistakes are preventable. Denver gave up a handful of baskets in Tuesday’s game simply because its players weren’t on the same page.
If you were picking Denver’s single worst defensive possession of the game, this one midway through the fourth quarter is as good a candidate as any.
Wayne Ellington is a three-point specialist. He chucks up 7.7 long balls a game and knocks them down at a 40.3 percent rate. You can’t lose sight of him. Inexplicably, Denver does in the clip above. Wilson Chandler slides down to help on James Johnson for seemingly no reason. That frees up Ellington for more than enough room to get his shot off.
Ellington’s three, one of six he hit in the game, sliced Denver’s lead in half just as it was seizing control of the game. It was a back-breaking play.
The confusion over whether to switch wasn’t limited to that possession. In the third quarter, Kelly Olynk hit a wide-open corner three after Mason Plumlee and Will Barton both failed to pick him up.
You can see Plumlee gesturing for Barton to switch. But by that point, it’s already too late. Olynk sinks the shot before Plumlee can get there. It’s hard to believe Miami got such a good look when it was inbounding the ball with only five seconds remaining on the shot clock.
Similar head-scratching breakdown occurred in transition. In the second quarter, the Nuggets allowed Rodney McGruder to score one of the easiest buckets of his career. They ran back on defense but failed to pick McGruder up.
As an irritable genius once asked, “How, Sway?”
These are the types of mistakes that can’t happen to a team that’s fighting for its playoff life.
Failing to contain dribble penetration
The Heat shot 30-46 in the restricted zone. The Nuggets’ inability to stop them off the bounce was a big reason why. In the clip below, Will Barton does his best matador impersonation.
Barton has been a valuable scorer off the bench all season, but defensively, he leaves a lot to be desired. He struggles to stay focused when he’s in a help-side role. His effort on the ball is inconsistent as well. As Ryan Blackburn of Denver Stiffs pointed out, Barton is the common denominator in many of Denver’s poor defensive lineups.
Containing at the point of attack has been a struggle all season. One of the reasons two-way player Torrey Craig keeps earning minutes is because he’s shown the ability to stay in front. But on Tuesday, even Craig struggled. Instead of forcing Justise Winslow to take an outside shot, he doesn’t close out properly and allows Winslow to straight-line drive into the teeth of the defense.
It’s imperative for Denver’s guard to contain dribble penetration. Nikola Jokic is fantastic at many things on the basketball court, but erasing his teammate’s defensive mistakes is not one of them. Paul Millsap was signed in part to be that last-line-of-defense player, but he still doesn’t appear to be 100 percent after missing 44 games with a wrist injury.
Devin Harris can’t close out like this knowing Goran Dragic loves to go left.
Jokic struggling to guard in space late
If the Nuggets are involved in a game that’s going down to the wire, there’s a good chance the opposing team will spread the floor out and go at Jokic in the pick and roll. Jokic is Denver’s best player by a significant margin — if you don’t believe me, take some time to look at how the Nuggets perform with him on the floor vs. him on the bench — but one significant flaw in his game is his inability to guard in space.
Jokic actually does a decent job here until he bites too hard on Dragic’s fake and lets the Slovenian guard get back to his dominant hand.
Closing out can also be a problem for Jokic. He closes ground on Olynk too slowly on Miami’s first possession of overtime, which allows Olynk to get the shot off.
Later in the extra five-minute period, Jokic closes out too hard and lets Olynk get by him and dish to James Johnson for a layup.
“You put Nikola on Olynyk, they put him on all the action. You put Nikola on James Johnson, they put him on all the action,” Malone said afterward. “Those guys were able to make big plays for them.”
There’s no denying that the Heat were able to take advantage of Jokic late. But it’s also fair to wonder if Denver would’ve even been in that position it it’d been sharper on the defensive end before crunch time.