2020 Playoffs: First Round | Nuggets vs. Jazz

Nuggets defense ailing, and Jazz flow toward 2-1 series lead

Planned adjustments go awry as Nuggets can't keep pace

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Utah point guard Mike Conley came out of quarantine prior to Game 3 of the Jazz-Nuggets series Friday, opening up a vacancy for an ailing Denver defense that’s been looking sicker by the game.

While Conley was scoring 27 points in his first action since leaving the NBA restart bubble for the birth of son Elijah Michael, the Nuggets were coughing and wheezing metaphorically in their shaky efforts to stop him. Or Utah wing Donovan Mitchell. Or center Rudy Gobert.

All three romped in a 124-87 victory that put the Jazz up 2-1 in the series and put Denver within two defeats of exiting the bubble for good.

For a coach who prides himself on defense, even when the Nuggets are underperforming on that end, what happened Friday on top of Games 1 and 2 was beyond aggravating. Had someone held up a digital thermometer to Malone’s forehead during or after, he’d have been swarmed by guys in hazmat suits.

“We talked about it going in, how we have yet to take anything away from them,” Malone said. “You can’t get beat from the 3-point line, you can’t get beat in the paint and you can’t get beat on the glass. And that’s what’s happening for three games now. Where we’ve been dominated in all three of those areas.

“So I would say it starts there.”

Denver was a fair defensive team through most of the 2019-20 season, with a D rating of 110.4 and an O rating of 112.6 just good enough to stay in the black. That slipped, though, in its eight seeding games on the Disney campus: 121.7 and 116.9 respectively.

Now, through three neutral-court games vs. Utah, things have plunged, particularly on defense: 129.1 and 113.5.

The Jazz tore a hole in Friday’s game from the middle of the first quarter to the early minutes of the second, a 23-6 stretch that earned them a 36-16 lead. It never really got better – well, the Nuggets did get within 14 points shortly after halftime, only to largely comply as Utah outscored them 28-12 over the next eight minutes or so.

Falling behind 90-60 is too fat, too glaring of a deficit to ignore.

“Our performance tonight was nowhere close to being good enough,” Malone bemoaned, “from a an effort standpoint, from a competition standpoint, from a discipline standpoint. They’re paying at a different level than us right now.”

What galled Malone – and his players, hopefully – is that they’d gone through the same thing in Game 2. It had triggered a heavy video session, pointed instructions and specific adjustments to ensure a better result in Game 3.

Instead, Denver got more of the same. It ranks last among the 16 playoff teams in giving up points in the paint (49.3 per game), in second-chance points allowed (16.3) and in sending opponents to the foul line (17.3 attempts).

Running with no reason. We didn’t know what we were doing.

Nuggets center Jokic, on Denver’s response to Game 2 loss

Most of the Jazz’s postseason scoring stats – 18.0 3-pointers made, 13.3 offensive rebounds, 126.3 second chance points, overall field goal percentage (.500) and 3-point percentage (.422) – are up from what they did all season.

Malone had stayed cool in questioning after Game 2, eager to crumple and throw away that box score. Getting a deja pyoo performance, though, brought out more of an edge.

Hard to blame him. The Nuggets can cite some possible reasons for defensive lapses, but nothing to excuse the troubles so far. Yes, they miss injured guard Gary Harris, a strong on-ball defender who might make it back from a hip injury before it’s too late. And yes, young forward Michael Porter Jr.’s chops on that end of the floor are well behind his scoring skills.

The starting lineup of Porter Jr., Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic, Torrey Craig and Jamal Murray is largely new. This crew went 1-2 in just three games together, all in the bubble. Now it’s 1-2 vs. Utah.

Communication, trust and rotations all can be challenging when players aren’t as familiar with each other. Especially when faced with special assignments such as Mitchell, Gobert and now Conley.

Here’s how Jokic described it: “Running with no reason. We didn’t know what we were doing. It seemed like that. We had energy. We didn’t go the right way.”

It’s always tricky to question pro athletes’ effort – who can crawl inside and really know? – but that leaves execution. Denver didn’t look crisp against Utah’s stars, whether double-teaming, disrupting its pick-and-roll plays or getting out to contest.

Then there’s trouble on offense, stemming from defense.

“We’re not getting any stops, so we have to play against a set defense for 48 minutes,” Malone said. “When we do get stops, we’re not rebounding the ball. So we have to play against a set defense for 48 minutes. We are playing against a half court defense the whole night. We’re not getting any easy baskets.”

Utah is.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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