“Terrible pass,” was how Nuggets play-by-play guy Chris Marlowe described it.
At the time, Denver was trailing Houston by three points with a little more than 2:30 to go. The Nuggets had the ball and were in position to tie or whittle the Rockets’ lead down to one. Going to Nikola Jokic in the post seemed like a smart bet. He was one-on-one against Trevor Ariza, a forward giving up 3 inches.
Danilo Gallinari seemed to recognize that. Only instead of dribbling over to the left side of the floor to shorten the angle on the entry pass — basketball 101 stuff — Gallinari tried to throw it from the top of the key. The play resulted in a turnover.
The sequence was representative of the Denver Nuggets’ offense late in close games, which inexplicably transforms from phenomenal to terrible when Denver is playing in clutch situations.
The Nuggets have the fourth-most efficient offense in the NBA this season; they score 110 points per 100 possessions. But during what the league defines as “clutch” situations — the last 5 minutes of a game when the score is within five points — the Nuggets’ offense becomes a bottom-five unit; they score just 99.9 points per 100 possessions in those circumstances. This drop-off in production is a big reason why Denver is just 15-23 this season when it’s involved in a five-point game or less with less than 5 minutes to go.
The Nuggets’ 110-104 loss to the Rockets Wednesday night, another nail in Denver’s playoff coffin, was a good example of the Nuggets’ struggle to execute offensively late in games. Denver had nine offensive possessions from the 3:41 mark to the 36.5-second mark that resulted in only three points. Let’s run through them to see how Denver goes from world beaters to below average on that end when it’s crunch time.
1. 3:41 remaining
This nine-possession stretch begins with a poor entry pass from Wilson Chandler. He tries to get the ball to Jokic from a tough angle. Denver was fortunate that Jokic tipped the ball to Gallinari here. Gallinari misses a good look from 3 that would’ve given Denver the lead.
2. 3:07 remaining
This is the sort of awkward bank shot Jokic makes. He puts a little too much on it.
3. 2:27 remaining
Here’s Gallinari’s turnover again. It looks even worse in the context of what came before it. Gallinari was on the floor two possessions earlier when Chandler’s entry pass nearly resulted in a turnover. You think he would’ve learned from Chandler’s gaffe.
4. 2:06 remaining
Another good look, another missed shot. The Nuggets were within a score of the Rockets on four-straight trips and couldn’t get anything to fall.
5. 1:51 remaining
Jokic misses the step-back 3. He’s shooting 18.9 percent on deep balls since the start of March.
6. 1:25 remaining
Jokic breaks Denver’s mini-scoring drought with a put back. It’s Denver’s first bucket since the 3:57 mark.
7. 56.4 remaining
The Nuggets desperately need a basket after James Harden’s 3 pushes the lead to five. There appears to be confusion as Jokic and Gallinari run into each other before the turnover.
8. 45.6 remaining
The Nuggets are a disaster on sideline-out-of-bounds plays. They were lucky the refs called a foul on Ariza here and not Jokic. Denver is awarded a free throw, which Gallinari sinks, plus the ball back.
9. 42.9 remaining
Denver finally inbounds the ball cleanly. Progress! But instead of shooting this like a regular jumper, Gallinari flops. He misses and doesn’t get the call. The game is pretty much over when he misses. Denver is forced to foul and play the we-hope-they-miss-their-free-throws game.
These nine plays resulted in only three points. The Nuggets turned the ball over twice in this stretch, sunk one free throw and went 1-for-6 on field goals. They defended well enough down the stretch to win this game; it was their offense that kept them from doing so.
Denver is shooting a league-worst 36.6 percent from the field in clutch situations this year. Is that a function of not having one go-to guy? Is it a matter of a young team getting #lemonbooty when the game’s on the line? Is it just a small sample size that will eventually correct itself?
It’s hard to point to just one thing. What’s clear, though, is that Denver’s late-game struggles have cost it a couple games in the win column. The Nuggets’ playoff hopes are dwindling in large part because of this.
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