May 25, 2024

Nuggets need to bring more intensity, and it starts with Nikola Jokić

DENVER — A few minutes after seeing their season reach a brink nobody could have anticipated, the Denver Nuggets sat in their respective locker room stalls and allowed an overwhelming silence to speak for them. There were no words. Shock and disappointment flooded the room as Denver realized the enormity of what just happened at a sold-out Ball Arena.

The scoreboard read 106-80 in favor of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who rode into Denver and will ride back to Minneapolis with a 2-0 lead in this highly anticipated Western Conference semifinal. But it wasn’t just the scoreboard or that Timberwolves fans took over the arena in the last five minutes, chanting “MVP! MVP!” at young superstar Anthony Edwards. It wasn’t that the Nuggets shot 34.9 percent from the field or had as many turnovers (16) as assists, despite the absence of likely Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. It’s not that a series Denver was favored in now looks very much in jeopardy — and it only took 48 hours to change the outlook.

Denver got embarrassed. The Nuggets were punked and run out of their building. They allowed the Timberwolves to bring a schoolyard fight to them, and they never swung back. In the days leading to Friday night’s Game 3, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone can go through adjustments and coverages and basketball technicalities until Jimmy Hoffa’s body is finally found. But if Denver doesn’t do anything to match Minnesota’s physicality and energy, this series could be over on Mother’s Day.

That is the sobering reality for the defending NBA champions. It’s a challenge the Nuggets have essentially no more time nor any more margin for error remaining to meet.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Malone said. “The body language of our guys is not where it needs to be. We just got beat up in our building. We just got embarrassed in front of our fans. The good news is that we don’t play again until Friday. So we have a chance to get away, think about things and figure out where we want to go in this series.”

Malone having to say that tells a story of how dominant Minnesota has been. The Nuggets have one of the best offenses in the NBA, and the Timberwolves have squeezed and suffocated it like a Burmese python latching on to wildlife in the Florida Everglades. Denver can’t make shots from the perimeter. The Nuggets aren’t getting into the paint. Denver’s guards are having issues simply bringing the ball up the floor. And the Nuggets have been frustrated and have been bickering at the officials.

But if you are a Denver fan, it’s the body language that Malone cited that is most concerning. The Nuggets didn’t fight back on Monday night. They never adjusted to the officiating. They didn’t defend with physicality. They didn’t swing elbows or make their presence known in the paint. They bowed out of this one meekly. And that had to be the most disappointing part of how the Nuggets played. They gave into Minnesota’s physicality. They allowed the behind-whooping to take place. Then they allowed their struggles to snowball.

“If you guys watched the previous series against the Phoenix Suns, you saw them doing the same thing,” Nikola Jokić said. “They can really get into your body, and they pressure and they are really aggressive and physical. They are really good defensively, and they have been really good defensively all season. It’s why they are the best defense in the league. All five of them are aggressive. They really push you off your spots. They know what they are doing, and that’s why it’s been hard for us to score offensively.”

That this happened to Denver without Gobert in the lineup had to be a surprise as well. The schemes are one thing. Minnesota is pouncing on Murray, knowing full well that he is playing with an injured left leg. The Timberwolves are pressuring the ball full court, which leads to short shot clocks for Denver and hurried offensive possessions. But, Minnesota is playing with force and the Nuggets aren’t. All the schemes and adjustments in the world aren’t going to help Denver doesn’t join the fight.

Perhaps things came too easy last season for the Nuggets during their championship run as they won 16 out of 20 games. They were significantly better than every team they played. They lost just once at home, against the Miami Heat in Game 2 of the NBA Finals. They were healthy and didn’t face much resistance in the four series they won.

But this Minnesota group has been the one team to look the Nuggets squarely in the eye. The Timberwolves have been the team to push Denver close to the edge. Now, we get to see how resilient the Nuggets are, how capable they are of getting back into the series and how capable they are of figuratively punching back. These are questions that Malone and Jokić don’t currently have the answers for. That’s how flat the Nuggets played for much of Monday night. This was the game they should have come out flying. If you are already down 1-0 and you have lost once on your home court, how do you come out this kind of performance in Game 2?

“We need to find a way to bring that kind of physicality into the fold,” Nuggets guard Justin Holiday said. “We’ve been able to do that before, so it’s not like we’re pulling a bunny out of a hat. We need to realize this is playoff basketball. Either we’re going to show up and be physical, or we’re not. And if we don’t, this is what’s going to happen.”

It’s got to start with Jokić. He has to decide what he wants for this series. You can understand him having issues with Gobert, who is the best defensive player in basketball. Jokić shot 11 of 25 from the field in Game 1 and had seven turnovers when Gobert was out there. He scored his 30 points, he grabbed his rebounds, he handed out his assists. The counting stats are always going to look good for Jokić. Still, the impact wasn’t there.

He was worse in Monday night’s Game 2.

In 38 minutes, he took 13 shots. He turned the ball over four times. And instead of Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns locked him up defensively. Whatever the Nuggets are going to do in this series, Jokić must be the best player in this series. We can cite Murray’s calf and the poor series he’s having. We can talk about the Nuggets’ role players not playing well.

But, for Denver, as much as anything else, Jokić must be better.

“We’ll have a much better idea of where we are at when we get into the gym on Wednesday and see where our energy is at,” Malone said. “We’re down 2-0 and it’s not ideal, but it’s a long series, first one to four. Can we find a way to believe in each other and believe in ourselves and win Game 3? Right now, that’s all that matters.”

(Photo of Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokić: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)