If the Lakers are the purple-and-gold standard, the Nuggets have a ways to go.
Thursday’s nationally televised game was a perfect encapsulation of the tantalizing potential the Nuggets have, yet the maddening inconsistencies that still plague them. For a half, the Nuggets looked every bit as competent and dangerous as the Lakers, swarming on the glass, swinging the ball unselfishly, playing their optimal brand of basketball.
They played as if their 4-1 defeat in the Conference Finals was still fresh in their minds, that this was a chance to show the gap between the two teams wasn’t as wide as the final numbers suggested. Up 58-46 at halftime, the Nuggets had a shot at a signature win, one that would’ve rivaled their streak-snapping victory over Utah for their best of the season.
And then the third quarter came, where the ball stopped moving and their urgency on defense plummeted. The Lakers pounded the Nuggets 37-17 in the third, outscoring them 18-12 in the paint and 8-2 in transition. Turnovers turned to runouts, which is roughly the equivalent of blood in the water for LeBron James.
“We don’t have that same hunger,” said JaMychal Green, speaking to the team’s alarming pattern of blowing big second-half leads. “Come back out, we gotta start getting ourselves warmed up at halftime.”
The Nuggets are averaging just 26.4 points per third quarter, which ranks 26th in the league. Simultaneously, their opponent field goal percentage (51.4%) in third quarters is the worst the league. In other words, both the offense and defense fall off the map. To think they aren’t connected would be short-sighted. Against the Lakers, the floor tilted when the Nuggets turned it over. Jamal Murray had four by himself.
“It just (stinks) when it’s on us more than them beating us,” said Murray, who took responsibility for several of Los Angeles runouts.
The larger point, though, emblematic of Thursday’s third quarter, is that the Nuggets have a tendency to relax at certain points.
“We have rarely this season put together 48 minutes,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone lamented. “… We can’t be satisfied with one quarter of good basketball. Not if we’re serious about winning and winning at a high level.”
The gap between the Nuggets and the Lakers is this: coming off a championship, the Lakers boast the No. 1 defense in the NBA. Their stifling, physical approach on that end of the court gives them substantial margin for error. It buys them leeway on offense, which they probably don’t need because of James and Anthony Davis. And yet they still commit defensively.
The Nuggets aren’t there yet. Against the Lakers, the transition defense was non-existent. Los Angeles exploited Denver off turnovers and maintained that pace even off defensive rebounds. The Nuggets let their guard down — a lapse they can’t afford if they ever hope to challenge the reigning champions.
“I think our players get tired of hearing it, but I really don’t care,” Malone said. “I’m going to keep preaching it. Understand why you win and why you lose in this business.”
Defensive effort should be non-negotiable. Until that happens, no lead should be considered safe.
“We already got the confidence that we can play with the top teams in the league,” Green said. “We just gotta finish the games out.”