The Nuggets could be riding a six-game losing streak, gutted from injuries and facing a daunting seven-game road trip, and it wouldn’t matter: Michael Malone would still find space for a good joke.
Following Friday night’s 11-point loss to the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, Denver’s wise-cracking coach emphasized the only way to end the losing streak would be to commit defensively.
“In the last six games, I know for a fact we’re the 30th ranked defense in the NBA,” Malone said. “And that is a far-cry from the defense that we started the year off playing. And that’s why … I think Nikola (Jokic) might be Defensive Player of the Year.”
The reigning MVP has missed the last four games with a right wrist sprain that appears to be on the mend. In the meantime, Denver has conceded nearly 120 points per game over that span, while losing by an average of more than 16 per night.
The Nuggets are laughing to avoid crying.
Now 9-10, it’s been a miserable stretch of basketball, spliced with devastating injury news. P.J. Dozier’s ACL tear seized arguably the Nuggets’ second-most versatile defender. Say what you want about Jokic’s vertical limitations, but he’s a defensive disruptor, capable of reading and resisting even the most complex offensive schemes. Michael Porter Jr.’s back injury robbed the Nuggets of their second-best rebounder.
In the past six games, Aaron Gordon and Will Barton have led the team with seven boards a night. JaMychal Green (4.8) is third even though he’s playing barely over 17 minutes per game. Poke fun at Porter’s on-ball defense all you want, but the Nuggets would kill for his length on the glass right now.
Instead, it’s their lack of size that’s killing them slowly. The Nuggets have been outrebounded (46.2 to 40) during the losing streak and are getting pasted in the paint. Over the last six games, Denver’s allowed 48.3 points inside while averaging only 40 themselves.
Before Friday’s game, Malone was asked a question about Jrue Holiday’s defense that included this interesting sidebar.
“For me, it’s a luxury to have a rim protector,” Malone said. “Back in the ’80s, ’90s, it seemed like everybody had that true center, shot-blocker. Not everyone has that luxury these days.”
Could that have been a subtle call for size, perhaps?
Without the offensive genius of Jokic, the floor-spacing of Porter, or the shiftiness of guard Bones Hyland (ankle injury), Malone is correct in that defense is going to stop this slide. If you can play defense, assume you’re going to see the court.
That’s why these games are invaluable for multidimensional forwards Zeke Nnaji and Vlatko Cancar, and Hyland, once he gets back. If there’s a silver lining to what the Nuggets are going through, it’s that they finally get to spotlight Nnaji’s versatility and utilize Cancar’s IQ. Both were buried on the depth chart, and both should play out of necessity if nothing else.
Amid Malone’s search for defensive intensity, that also means Facundo Campazzo is going to be a staple of the rotation moving forward. His defense remains indefatigable, and his offense, recently, has picked up. But Campazzo will play if for no other reason than because Malone knows what he’ll get from him every single night.
“The best way to hide our injuries is to play with more hustle, with more energy, with more smarts, with more focus,” Campazzo said. “We have the key. It’s all about want, wish. I think defense is just trying to be focused and put 200 percent right now because of the injuries.”