The Denver Nuggets are gearing up for the final stretch of the regular season. Twenty-six games will determine if they can go to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Five teams are within 3 1/2 games of Denver for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. When asked Tuesday what his team must do in order to hold them off, Nuggets coach Michael Malone didn’t need to think long.
“Defend better,” he said.
As good as the Denver’s offense has been this season, its defense has been equally bad. The Nuggets are giving up 110.9 points per 100 possessions. That ranks dead-last in the NBA.
You have to go all the way back to 2008-09 — when Nate Robinson was winning dunk contests, Shaquille O’Neal was playing for the Suns and Dikembe Mutombo was still in the league — to find a team that posted a worse single-season defensive rating mark than Denver’s putting up right now. (The Kings surrendered a horrid 111.9 points per 100 possessions that year.)
So why has Denver been so bad? Here are two issues Malone and his players identified Tuesday.
Containing the ball handler.
Watch any Nuggets game, and you’re sure to see a couple blow-bys. Denver players get left in the dust all the time. Sometimes that leads to easy shots at the rim.
Other times, it allows opponents to kick the ball out and get good looks from deep.
The two most efficient types of shots in the NBA come at the rim and from 3-point range. Denver does a dismal job of defending both types of shots. Opponents are converting 62.9 percent of attempts in the restricted area and 37.4 percent from 3 — both bottom-five marks in the league.
“We have to embrace the challenge of guarding guys one-on-one,” Malone said. “I can’t make them somebody they’re not. We have to also behind that give more help. A lot of times we guard guys one on one and leave guys on an island by themselves. So we have to have more of a five guys working as one mentality, where if a guy does get beat we’re not just saying, ‘OK, that’s not my guy. I have to give help and trust that somebody’s going to give me help.’
“So it’s just something that we have to keep working on and pounding the rock on. We don’t have five Gary Paytons, but we have to be the best defenders we can be. Guys have to embrace that challenge, and we have to give help behind that.”
Giving up easy baskets in transition.
Only three teams in the NBA allow more fast-break points per game than Denver. The Nuggets are surrendering 15 per game right now. They turn the ball over a lot — nearly 15 1/2 times per contest — which inflates that total. Still, there are times when they could do more to mitigate the damage those turnovers do.
The Knicks scored here via goaltend even though Denver had more bodies in the area than they did.
“That’s part of it,” shooting guard Gary Harris said. “We’ve got some high turnover totals, and that leads to easy buckets. A lot of times we don’t do a good enough job of getting back. It’s just putting in more effort at both ends of the floor.”
The Nuggets begin their post-All Star break schedule Thursday against the the Kings. Sacramento, Portland, New Orleans (which added Boogie Cousins over the break), Dallas and Minnesota are all within striking distance of the Nuggets for the No. 8 seed. Denver knows that in order to fend them off, it will likely need to improve on the defensive end.
“We know if we want to make the playoffs, we know we can’t be last in defense,” Harris said. “We’ve just got to put more emphasis on that and be more focused on the defensive end. We’ve proved we can score with anybody. Especially for these last 26 games, we’ve got to make sure people feel us on the defensive end to make a playoff push.”
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