On Wednesday the Nuggets were matadors. On Friday they were ghosts.
The Nuggets had their 3-point defense exposed once again in Friday’s loss to the Raptors, leaving coach Michael Malone “embarrassed” at his team’s inability to defend the perimeter. Toronto sunk 51% from 3-point range (18-of-35) in what’s been an ugly theme of Denver’s re-start.
Through eight games in the “bubble,” Nuggets opponents have buried 44.8% of their 3-point tries. If that trend continues heading into next week’s first-round playoff series against the Jazz, the Nuggets could easily be sent home early.
“We have the worst defense in the bubble, so we haven’t seen much progress in any area in regards to anything defensive related,” Malone said. “Communication, transition, pick-and-roll, 3-point, whatever you want to call it.”
Now that the seeding games are over, the Nuggets’ coaching staff will turn its attention to dissecting Utah, a division rival. That means all the actions the Jazz run to free up star guard Donovan Mitchell or the pick-and-roll schemes that lead to Rudy Gobert lobs. But Malone, still hot from the loss to Toronto, also said this weekend was about looking internally.
“This is just a common theme,” Malone said. “I’m embarrassed by it, I really am. The fact that every night we’re giving up 16, 17, 18 threes … I mean a year ago we were the No. 1 3-point defense in the NBA. And right now, it’s almost comical how bad our 3-point defense is. So we’ll look at ourselves a little bit, try to figure out why it’s continuing to happen.”
Veteran Paul Millsap, who only played 16 minutes Friday, was more measured, though he did concede the team’s attention to detail has been lacking since they got to Orlando.
“I think we’re, despite these last few games, I think we’re locked in,” Millsap said. “I think we know exactly what we need to do, especially going into these playoffs.”
Millsap could’ve been covering for the team, or he could’ve been banking on the switch he’s seen teams flip once the postseason arrives. It’s possible the intensity of the playoffs could spur the Nuggets’ focus, but Malone would never leave that sort of thing to chance.
“I’m not counting on that,” Malone said. “If it happens, great. I think you play good defense because you commit to it, it’s a priority, it’s something that you want to do. We have not defended in any of our eight games. … I sound like a broken record. You guys must be tired of hearing from me because every question that I get somehow, some way, my answer is tied to two things: Turnovers and 3-point defense.”
Between a porous 3-point defense and carelessness with the ball, the Nuggets are making games much harder for themselves than they need to be. Even if the Nuggets are more talented, a disjointed defense could undermine whatever advantage Denver has in terms of depth.
“Are we able to turn it on?” Malone asked. “I hope so, that’d be great to see. But I think it’s going to take our guys really understanding, committing, buying in. If we want to be a team that can even compete in the first round against a talented Utah team, we’re going to have to improve our defense in a hurry.”
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