Struggling Nuggets looking to regain best-in-West form as playoffs loom

NEW YORK — If you think Nikola Jokic plods around the court, slowly careening and bruising through defenses because he admittedly cannot run fast, you should watch the NBA’s reigning two-time MVP waddle around a postgame locker room. There he is in the bowels of Madison Square Garden, a brick of ice ace-bandaged around his left ankle, another massive pack of cooling agent strapped across his lower back. The black and blue bruises that scratch up his arms are on full display. When he finally emerges from the shower under a pile of Denver Nuggets-blue towels, Jokic collects the chocolate protein shake that’s waiting in his stall, tucks his shaved head and leisurely slurps half the large serving in one go.

The Nuggets, at large, have been lagging of late. They have fallen short of their mission to squeeze foes on defense and burst into transition, particularly at home, where the elevation at Ball Arena — 5,280 feet, you may have heard — is imposingly printed in the corridors and below the foul line.

“If you’re not defending, you’re not rebounding, you can’t run,” head coach Michael Malone said. “That’s why we go into Detroit and it’s a tied score going into the fourth quarter.”

Denver had dropped four straight games, holding the NBA’s worst defense over that stretch, before the decisive frame against the league-worst Pistons ended that merciless streak Thursday night. The Nuggets then arrived in Manhattan on Friday for back-to-back matinees against the Knicks and Nets, only to be punched in the mouth by Jalen Brunson’s Saturday return to action. Denver managed to flip the script Sunday, riding a blistering first quarter from Jamal Murray — and another triple-double performance from Jokic — to conquer Brooklyn.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 19: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets dribbles against Nic Claxton #33 of the Brooklyn Nets during the first half at Barclays Center on March 19, 2023 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

A four-game cushion separates these Nuggets from any challenger atop the Western Conference, and yet Denver still appears like a team searching to find the equilibrium it rode up those very standings. Malone saw his club’s 22-point fourth-quarter lead over the Nets shrink to 7 and felt forced to bring his starters back into the second leg of a back-to-back.

“That shouldn’t be the case,” Malone said.

“It is what it is. We need to be concerned,” Jokic told reporters after the Knicks loss. He later clarified, “We are supposed to be concerned.” He denied the doldrums of the regular season have aided any Nuggets malaise. “I’m focused for every game and I want to win every game. So, I think it just happens. You cannot win all of them, probably.”

Malone suggested Denver’s shooters are battling fatigue at the tail end of a long year, with only 10 games standing before the playoffs. Malone’s staff charts their open looks in real time, and the results simply haven’t followed. Jokic, too, feels a lack of punch within the Nuggets’ scoring attack.

“I think the way and how we are playing is a little bit different,” Jokic said. “We are forcing, not getting the extra pass. Even when we’re getting the extra pass, we cannot make [the] shot. I think that’s it.”

The glimpses are so tempting. When Jokic scooped a steal and scurried up the floor early in Denver’s victory over Brooklyn, the Nuggets’ battalion of rangy athletes and shooters charged across the timeline seeing blood. Jokic found Michael Porter Jr., who's prone to launch without much hesitation, and the 6-foot-10 shooter instead froze the defense for a moment as he contemplated his open look from the left wing. Porter then snapped a bounce pass to Murray for a standalone triple that splashed through iron. Timeout Nets.

Murray was scorching from distance over these pair of games, connecting on 9-of-11 3s, the kind of shooting array that makes a jump shot’s comparisons to water and wetness seem obvious. When he’s rediscovered that flow, that streak he showcased in the bubble, Murray is the kind of back-breaking shooter who can suffocate defenses all by his lonesome while puncturing a raucous road crowd altogether. It’s there in the wiggle of his dribble, Murray’s growing confidence as he pounds the rock with more precision, taking opponents into the post and whirling into a fadeaway. His step-backs seem to carry more of a pop, as if he’s landing on a springboard before firing.

His stroke will matter more than that of Porter Jr. or two-way stalwart Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Murray, as advertised, is being tasked with uplifting Denver’s second unit while Malone finds minutes for Jokic on the sideline. Off the bench, Bruce Brown Jr. and rookie forward Christian Braun are heady about attacking the rim in transition. Jeff Green, at 36, is still bounding down the floor ready to uncork a vicious Statue of Liberty jam. Whether that fifth player is trade-deadline acquisition Thomas Bryant or Zeke Nnaji, recently returned from a shoulder injury that cost him 17 games, will impact the Nuggets’ defensive approach more than anything. Murray holds the keys and can decide just how dangerous Denver’s reserve group rides.

With Bryant in action against New York, Malone plotted his defense at the elbows and boxes, trying to pack the paint against a Knicks team that is a league leader in isolations and drives. But the Knicks closed the third quarter on a 20-7 run against that bench group, which Malone later deduced decided the game. Nnaji made his first appearance since Feb. 7 against the Nets as Bryant watched from the pine; Denver’s “more athletic and versatile” lineup, according to Malone, switched every action Brooklyn threw across the bow.

Malone said he still doesn’t know what reserve unit will become a fixture of his postseason rotation.

“Probably we’re still in ‘search mode.’ It’s been hard because guys like Zeke have been in and out of the lineup with injury,” Malone said.

Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets dribbles against Cameron Johnson #2 of the Brooklyn Nets during the second half at Barclays Center on March 19, 2023 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Nuggets won 108-102. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The front office sent three second-round picks, essentially Denver’s trade deadline return for second-year guard Bones Hyland, in order to land Bryant from the Lakers. The Nuggets plucked veteran ballhandler Reggie Jackson from the buyout market. Time is running out for Denver to test its recipes for when Jokic is off the floor, and these ingredients are too expensive to leave on the shelf without an earnest try.

“You have to give them an honest look. Can’t just be one or two games. You have to give them an extended look to see what you have,” Malone said of Bryant and Jackson. “But now with 10 games to go, we’ve gotta find a group and a rhythm and give them some opportunities to formulate that on-court chemistry moving forward. And I have a pretty good idea of who that is.”

Perhaps that’s an allusion to Braun over Jackson, who sat the Nuggets’ last three games before entering against Brooklyn after Braun picked up three fouls.

Denver spent the night in New York before heading down I-95 to the nation's capital, where the Nuggets’ five-game road trip concludes against the Wizards on Wednesday. Then huge tests against Milwaukee and Philadelphia await them at home. The sky is certainly not falling, as much as their sizable lead over the No. 2 seed has dwindled. A line of high-fives from general manager Calvin Booth and other members of the front office cheered Denver’s coaches and players down the tunnel to the Barclays Center visitors’ quarters. There was just an undeniable air around this traveling party, a sort of fidgeting calm before the storm, knowing full well how unfinished business looms very much on the horizon.

“Big picture, playoffs matter. Obviously, that’s most important,” Malone said. “But also finding a way to get our rhythm back, playing at a high level, so we can go in there feeling really good about ourselves.”