The best version of the Nuggets is a viable postseason threat, according to Aaron Gordon.
“When we pay attention to details, we’re as good as any team in the league,” he said in the aftermath of the Nuggets’ 116-97 loss to San Antonio that spoiled their chances of sealing a playoff berth Tuesday night.
That hypothetical form was a far-cry from what took the court against San Antonio. According to Michael Malone, Josh Richardson and Devin Vassell were run-offs on the scouting report, meaning defenders were told to sprint them off the 3-point line. Instead, the duo knocked down 8 of 11 3-pointers.
“It’s a bad loss for us,” Gordon said of the Nuggets’ inability to lock in a top-six seed.
Not only did the defeat keep alive the remote possibility the Nuggets could land in the play-in tournament, it also hindered their chances at taking the No. 5 seed.
A win Tuesday night would’ve meant that Jamal Murray, if he does come back soon, could’ve returned to a no-pressure environment for the last two games.
Between the end of the regular season and the built-in days for the play-in tournament, it also would’ve meant significant rest for Nikola Jokic and those Nuggets battling nagging injuries.
Instead, the Nuggets need to win Thursday vs. Memphis (or hope Minnesota loses) to solidify a playoff seed that could’ve been sewn up with time to spare.
Auditing the loss, Malone mentioned a lack of urgency, desperation, determination and focus. All were applicable as the Nuggets dug themselves a 20-point halftime hole that proved insurmountable.
Asked what he’d point to from the aforementioned list, Gordon didn’t have an answer.
“Couldn’t tell you,” he said.
San Antonio shot 52% in the first half, playing with an energy and a desperation incumbent of a team fighting for its playoff life. Dejounte Murray, their floor general, wasn’t even available to help steer them.
It’d be easier to write it off if it was a one-off occasion, but over the last 15 games, the Nuggets own the 25th-ranked defense in the NBA, barely hovering above .500 as a result. In that same span, the 21.2 points opponents are scoring off Denver’s turnovers rank last in the NBA. Lately, the Nuggets are allowing more than 53 points per game inside, the fourth-highest total in the league. In truth, it’s a recipe that could yield a quick playoff exit.
Gordon took responsibility for the defensive breakdowns when he cited lack of communication.
“That’s on me,” he said. “I gotta be the staple of this defense. … I gotta just talk.”
Jokic, whose 41-point effort came via 35 shots, said the biggest adjustment the Nuggets needed to make on defense was just to “play hard.”
That wasn’t Jokic’s problem. He played 41 minutes to match his scoring production, doing everything within his power to drag his beleaguered team to another win.
Several minutes into the fourth quarter, when the Nuggets were trailing 92-85, Malone looked down his bench and called for his MVP center to check back in. Jokic gave him a look that suggested his state of mind.
“He’s fatigued,” Malone said. “He’s been carrying a team for 80 games, and I can’t take him out of the game.”
Given everything Jokic has meant to the Nuggets, his stamina was perhaps the biggest casualty of a game the Nuggets should’ve dug for.
“They outplayed us,” Jokic said. “… We had a good opportunity.”