On Wednesday morning, the Denver Nuggets were flying high, celebrating a big-time win that snapped the Los Angeles Clippers' franchise-record 17-game winning streak and looking like a team that had finally hit its stride after a tough-as-nails early-season schedule. On Friday morning, they were licking their wounds after being beaten on their home court by a Minnesota Timberwolves team that traveled without point guard Ricky Rubio, lost leading scorer and rebounder Kevin Love to an injury midway through the third quarter, was on the second night of a road back-to-back, and had just sustained a 22-point beating at the hands of the Utah Jazz.
What a difference 48 hours makes.
The Nuggets fell to 10-2 at the Pepsi Center on the season following Thursday night's loss, which their head coach found, well, shameful and deplorable, according to Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post:
"There's always four or five games a year when you embarrass yourself, and tonight was one of those nights," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "The sense of urgency didn't come until the fourth quarter."
Karl said he was nervous entering the game, then explained his reason: "Basically yesterday's practice, the immaturity and arrogance of our practice."
Those are pretty strong words from the coach, but such a dire response makes sense when you consider the lack of attentiveness and effort he'd watched manifest itself over the prior four quarters.
The signs were there early, with lapses like no Nugget rotating back to cut off Love after he leaked out on a missed Danilo Gallinari 3, which led to a first-quarter fast break dunk, or three Denver defenders standing idly by in the paint as Minny center Nikola Pekovic grabbed an offensive rebound for an uncontested putback layup. It continued in the second, with stuff like Gallinari absentmindedly stepping out of bounds on a wing catch or falling asleep on an inbounds play that led to an and-one for Love, but it showed up most in the Nuggets' lack of effort on the defensive glass, which led to eight Minnesota offensive rebounds and 12 second-chance points in the second quarter alone, none louder than this follow slam by Derrick Williams:
Outside of center Kosta Koufos, who made some smart cuts on offense and stood stout in the post against Minny's bigs, no Nugget really seemed engaged in the early going; even Denver's mid-quarter 13-0 run seemed less a function of their own aggression than a result of Minnesota struggling to make shots. By the end of the first, Minnesota had drawn within a bucket despite missing 13 for 19 attempts because the Nuggets repeatedly meandered around the perimeter and settled for jumpers while the Wolves attacked the rim (especially after Koufos exited) and got to the free-throw line. The aggressiveness deficit pervaded the first half, with the Wolves taking 20 foul shots the Nuggets' eight and six more attempts within the restricted area.
There were pockets of energy from other Denver players — a smart play from by Andre Miller here, a lob breakup by Kenneth Faried there — and despite a dismal 1 for 7 free-throw shooting night, Andre Iguodala was a net positive as a defensive instigator, transition operator and occasional pick-and-roll facilitator. But by and large, the Nuggets turned in the kind of mostly listless performance that turns coaches' hair grey. That "laissez faire" approach, as Denver color commentator Scott Hastings called it, came back to bite them after Love went down past the midway point of the third quarter.
With the Wolves in possession and the Nuggets up eight, Andrei Kirilenko dribbled the ball up top with 4:45 left in the third and Love in the left corner, guarded by Iguodala. Love worked along the baseline toward the rim, then tried to reverse field to shake Iguodala as Kirilenko began to drive toward the paint. As Love pushed off to try to get some separation, he immediately winced, grabbed his right hand and stayed behind the play after a Kirilenko miss led to a Denver runout.
After a Koufos layup on the other end, Love asked Wolves coach Rick Adelman to call timeout; he exited the game with 4:15 left in the quarter, headed back to the locker room and would not return to action after spraining his right middle finger. After the game, Adelman said Love told him "he could have played, but he couldn't shoot" ... although, considering he'd gone 4 for 13 and missed both of his 3-point attempts to that point, and done most of his damage on the glass with 17 rebounds in 23 1/2 minutes, you could've made an argument that not much would've changed had he stayed in.
Instead, though, things changed quite a bit. The absence of Minnesota's main must-feed frontcourt option freeing up Adelman to rely more heavily on the Alexey Shved-Pekovic pick-and-roll game, which immediately resulted in a layup, a restricted-area touch that resulted in a foul and produced a point, and a clean look at a wing 3 for Luke Ridnour, chopping a 10-point deficit to four in two minutes' time. The Wolves' final 13 points of the third were either scored or set up by their three-guard rotation of Shved, Ridnour and reserve guard J.J. Barea, portending a fourth-quarter Minnesota offensive attack that'd see Barea (12 points, five assists, one turnover in the frame) and Ridnour (nine points, 4 for 5 shooting) take over in the screen-and-roll game down the stretch.
The Nuggets' offense finally got on track in the fourth behind the still-working-his-way-back-from-injury Lawson (12 points, two assists), as Denver shot 63 percent in the final frame, but their inability to stop Minnesota on the other end proved to be disastrous. The Wolves repeatedly isolated Barea or Ridnour up top, brought a big up to set a screen, waited for Denver to switch the screen to get one of their guards a small-big mismatch to exploit, and they either got to the rim or made outside shots. It wasn't fancy, but it was effective, and it was good enough for a win.
Apparently, those fourth-quarter defensive breakdowns — at least somewhat, according to Denver's point guard — were a result of Nuggets players not knowing what they were supposed to do to deal with Barea. More from Hochman:
“It’s kind of deflating, man,” Lawson told me. “We’ve got to pay attention to detail. We go through all this (preparation), pregame, shootaround. Before the game we have all this stuff written on the board, and no one’s really reading it. Not on the same page. And at the end of the game, that’s what happens. If we’re supposed to trap, and we don’t trap, they get easy buckets.”
To be sure, the Nuggets didn't trap Barea; heck, they barely acknowledged him, as he dribbled through the Denver defense virtually unmolested for most of the fourth quarter and took over the game, as he has in several fourth quarters already this season. Whether that was by design or dereliction of duty, only those within the Denver locker room know for sure, but their point guard, their coach and their fans sure seemed disgusted with the defensive effort.
Luckily, a chance at redemption is a mere day away, as the Nuggets welcome the Jazz on Saturday night; one would suspect that Denver's players won't be feeling quite so fat and sassy after Thursday's loss as their coach thinks they were after Tuesday's win.