NUGGETS

Nuggets get a much-needed win, but haven’t found their groove just yet

Mar 19, 2023, 5:43 PM | Updated: 6:06 pm

It wasn’t a win for the ages, but it certainly came as a welcome change of pace for a struggling Nuggets team. Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn, the Nuggets welcomed back a long lost friend in Zeke Nnaji and captured a 108-102 victory over the Nets.

The distance between Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and Barclays Center in Brooklyn is only 5.6 miles. Taking 9th through Chelsea to the meatpacking district will eventually wind you past the West Village. As you turn onto Canal Street, you will find yourself in the heart of Chinatown before traveling over the Manhattan Bridge. This is the area in Manhattan where director Martin Scorsese based his movie “The Gangs of New York.”

The Nuggets traveled over this parcel of land into Brooklyn, hoping to avoid their own version of a territorial bloodbath as they ventured forward to take on the Brooklyn Nets Sunday afternoon. Continuing over the East River on the Manhattan Bridge, it’s a straight shot onto Flatbush Avenue, right to the front door of Barclays where, for the Nuggets, hope met desperation.

Denver faltered 116-110 to the New York Knicks on Saturday. Nikola Jokic fell short of a triple double (24 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists). The Knicks domination included scoring 56 points in the paint, 15 offensive rebounds and a 20-12 second-chance points differential. The end result was New York erasing a 13-point deficit with brute physicality, leading to Denver’s fourth loss in their last five games.

“I mean, it is what it is,” Jokic told Mike Singer of the Denver Post after the Knicks game. “We need to be concerned.”

Sunday morning, what was once a comfortable lead in the Western Conference for the Nuggets, narrowed to a meager 3.5 games in front of the Kings and the Grizzlies. Astoria, Queens-born and Jersey-educated head coach Michael Malone was having an East Coast reunion as decrepit as Bill the Butcher’s Bowery Boys running into Priest Vallon’s Irish mob. Clubs and hatchets were eschewed for block outs and rebounds, but the intent was the same.

Vengeance.

The Nets had done what was thought to be the impossible just nine days ago. They traveled west and beat the Nuggets at home 122-120. It was the second game in a row where Jokic would record a triple double, yet his team would lose. Considering the Nuggets had previously won 25 games in a row when Jokic accomplished that feat, the concept of back-to-back failures was incomprehensible.

It was only the second game of the year in which the Nuggets would score 120 or more points and find defeat. The game was mind-bending in logic as Malone benched Michael Porter Jr. for no apparent reason. This incoherent decision led to dysfunction and discord behind the scenes. In terms of “You’ve gotta be kidding me moments,” the home loss to the Nets was at the top of the list.

What awaited the Nuggets on Sunday was a test of courage. Would the best team in Nuggets history show the fire to respond or was this season to be snuffed out?

An unlikely bright spot for the Nuggets was Nnaji. The power forward had been out since Feb. 5 with a shoulder sprain. In his 17-game absence, the Nuggets had acquired big man Thomas Bryant from the Lakers. The Bryant experiment has been clumsy and dramatically unsuccessful. Nnaji wasn’t a super hero, but he brought energy in his 12 minutes that seemed to be missing with Bryant.

What mattered most was that the best players for the Nuggets, collectively played their best.

“You can only guard so many guys,” said coach Michael Malone about the law firm of Jokic, Murray and Porter Jr. “Those guys got numbers, but it was their efficiency that was impressive. When three guys are shooting at that clip, it really stretches a defense out.”

Jokic went for his 28th triple double on the season going for 22 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists. Jamal Murray had a bizarro game, scoring all of his 25 points in the first half including 4-of-4 from three-point range. The star of the day was the previously vanquished Michael Porter Jr. He went for a game high 28 points, netting five three-pointers. It was remarkable what was possible when the second best player didn’t rot on the bench.

“We really had to relock in,” Porter Jr. told Katie Winge on Altitude. “We just had to stay sharp at the end of the game. We needed it (the win) for sure.”

Porter Jr. was not only deadly from three, but dominated from the inside as well he picking up nine rebounds, including a thunderous put back dunk over Jokic.

“On your head, boy,” MPJ joked about plastering the Joker on a poster.

As satisfying as the win was, it’s not like it came easy. Leading by as much as 22 in the fourth, the Nets cut the lead to seven. Porter Jr. drained a huge corner three to stretch the lead to 10 with less than four minutes to go. This shot was the dagger as the Nets failed to find the final comeback wind in their sails. The Nuggets would quickly push their lead to 14, giving away a few meaningless points at the end punctuated by a classless Seth Curry three in the fading seconds.

The six-point difference made the game look close, but the end result was never seriously in doubt. The win gave the Nuggets a 2-2 record on their final big road trip of the season. The organization made a decision to give the fellas a night in New York to celebrate as they don’t play again until Wednesday in Washington.

“(I was happy) just to get a win,” said Malone. “We weren’t playing up to our abilities. Just to get a win is what I’m happiest about. They cut a 22 point to seven, so we had to put our put starters back in. That shouldn’t be the case. I felt our starting group got us off to a great start. We defended at a high level. We outrebounded them by seven. It was a good win, but have to be more consistent throughout.”

Malone would praise MPJ, but was quick to prop up Murray without being prompted. For whatever reason, the coach just is reticent to truly give Porter Jr. the shine he truly deserves. The same was true about Reggie Jackson, who found playing time, although he didn’t do much in five paltry minutes.

“I guess I don’t know what it means,” said Malone about figuring out his second unit. “It’s been hard because Zeke has been out. You have to give guys an honest look, but with 10 games to go, we have to find a group and a rhythm for on-court chemistry moving forward. We now have a good idea what it is.”

The answers aren’t with Bryant and Jackson. The clock has struck zero on developing those players. Christian Braun should be getting significant minutes. Nnaji will uncomfortably have to play the five. Most importantly, more will be asked of the big three of Jokic, Murray and MPJ. The Nuggets are now up 4.0 games on Memphis and Sacramento and are staring at a hard truth. As awkward as it may seem, if the team doesn’t feed MPJ more than Murray in the closing minutes, they will find themselves eliminated quicker than the Butcher on the business end of Amsterdam’s father’s knife.

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