Nuggets’ flaws finally cost them against Lakers: ‘We know that we have to be better’

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LOS ANGELES — The signs have been there for the entire series. But the Denver Nuggets have been so dominant in the win total over the Los Angeles Lakers that it wasn’t talked about much.

In truth, Denver head coach Michael Malone tried to send multiple warnings. He spoke about it after the Nuggets escaped Denver with a Game 2 win. He spoke about it after Game 3, when he was asked about possibly closing the Western Conference first-round matchup out Saturday night. In truth, Malone’s been pretty concerned with Denver’s lack of physicality in the paint and the fact that the Nuggets have trailed for much of this series. But, when you’re the coach of the team up 3-0 and you raise those kind of questions, you tend to sound a little like the boy who cried wolf.

Saturday night’s 119-108 loss to the Lakers in Game 4 at Arena was finally when Denver’s flaws over the course of the series cost it a game. The storyline remained similar: The Lakers started fast, the Lakers dominated the lane, the Lakers built a halftime advantage and the Lakers led by double-digits. But this time, Los Angeles didn’t melt down when the Nuggets made a run. This time, it was the Lakers who made the biggest plays of the night. And this time, it was Los Angeles that walked away with the win.

“The paint was a joke,” Malone said. “In every huddle, we were like a broken record tonight. Everything was paint, paint, paint. We have to be better at defending the paint. We gave up 72 points in the paint overall. We gave up 42 points by halftime, which is an unbelievable number. They shot 64 percent in the paint. It starts with our defense in transition. There were too many blow by’s off the dribble. I didn’t think we played with the physicality we needed. I didn’t think we played with enough urgency. This did not seem like a closeout game. So now everyone can stop talking about how we’ve beaten them 11 in a row, and we can go home and play before the best fans in the NBA and we can try and close this out.”

The bottom line for Denver through four games is this: The Nuggets haven’t played very well in this series, or at least not on the whole. They looked like peak Denver during the Game 2 rally that led to a comeback from a 20-point deficit and a Jamal Murray winner at the buzzer. The Nuggets were really good in the second halves of Games 1 and 3. But the 3-0 lead in this series has masked the fact that Denver hasn’t put together an entire game of playing like … well … Denver, and the 3-0 series lead was a bit misleading when you factor in that the Nuggets stole Game 2.

To wit: Denver has trailed by double-figures in every game of the series. The Nuggets have trailed by at least 15 points in two of the four games. They have led for just 41 total minutes through four games, an average of 10 minutes per game. Murray’s buzzer-beater in Game 2 was Denver’s only lead of the second half in that game. The Nuggets have trailed at halftime in every game of the series.

The positive is that Denver is so good and so talented that the Nuggets are capable of doing what’s needed and building a 3-0 series lead, even while having a lot of room to grow. But, when you look at the big picture, the concern should be there. Denver is in all likelihood going to win this series and move on to the second round. But the opponent in the second round is most likely going to be the Minnesota Timberwolves, and that’s likely to be a significantly more difficult matchup than the Lakers. Minnesota is bigger and more athletic than the Lakers. The Timberwolves have more depth and youth. It’s a matchup where, if it happens, the Nuggets are going to have to play a lot better.

“We know that we have to be better,” Denver star Nikola Jokic said. “They pushed the pace on us tonight and we have to get back. They were getting open layups, and they destroyed us in the paint. We couldn’t make a shot, and I think it affected our defense a lot. That’s a great team, obviously. They have great players. But the last four games, we have been down. We have to find a way to not allow them to score at will in the paint. That’s important.”

Jokic and Malone raise fair points. Malone points to the opening possessions of the game, where Los Angeles star LeBron James got downhill off the dribble and finished at the basket. Calling it an “ominous sign,” the Lakers lived inside the restricted area for much of the night. Curiously, the Nuggets didn’t go to many possessions of guarding Lakers star Anthony Davis with Aaron Gordon. Davis has had significant success against Jokic. Gordon has given him a tougher time with his strength and athleticism.

But a trend that’s manifesting itself that should be cause for concern, and this goes to what Jokic is saying, is that Denver’s simply not shooting the ball well. The Nuggets are 37-of-134 from 3-point range in the postseason, which is a little less than 28 percent. If you take away Jokic and Michael Porter Jr., both of whom have been shooting the ball very well in this series, the rest of the Nuggets are shooting 17-of-87, or 19 percent.

When you don’t make shots, you tend to feel sorry for yourself, which often affects you on the defensive end of the floor. And that’s what Jokic is alluding to. Denver has to defend with the same vigor whether it is making shots from the perimeter or not. In particular, winning on the road means that your defense has to travel. All of this being said, the Nuggets are still in a great spot in this series. They have a chance to close out with a win at Ball Arena on Monday night. And frankly, they are the better team.

But when you’re competing for a title, the big picture matters as much as what happens in a small space. And the Nuggets know they have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the level of their play in this series.

“I thought we came in nonchalant, like they were just going to roll over and give us the game,” Porter Jr. said. “We can never do that. I thought we played hard in spurts. But we didn’t come out with the right energy. But we have to give them credit, they played well. They made some adjustments offensively to kind of distort us defensively. But, I just didn’t think we played well enough to win, and we have to fix that.”

(Photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

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