The Nuggets’ margin for error was already razor-thin. And then another one went down.
When P.J. Dozier landed awkwardly on his left knee off a drive late in the first quarter, it was hard to believe the Nuggets’ stunning string of bad luck. Dozier was carried off the court by two team teammates, and the beleaguered Nuggets fell, 119-100 to Portland, losing their fifth game in a row.
“I thought the key to this game was the last three minutes or so of that second quarter,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “They close on an 18-3 run. The most disappointing thing about that run by Portland was that everything that was working for us to that point – the ball movement, making the extra pass, executing – went out the window, and all the sudden we became a selfish basketball team.”
After the game, Malone had no update on Dozier’s status. After losing five in a row, he also said there were no silver linings whatsoever.
As if the absences of Nikola Jokic (wrist), Michael Porter Jr. (back), Jamal Murray (ACL) and Bones Hyland (ankle) weren’t enough. The available Nuggets kept clawing even as C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard kept raining in jumpers. Together, Portland’s backcourt tandem combined for 57 points on 10 3-pointers.
Veteran Jeff Green paced the Nuggets with 24 points, but Denver had no chance to win with the amount of errors they made. Starters Monte Morris and Will Barton accounted for eight of Denver’s 17 turnovers. Morris had 16 points, and Barton finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
The Trail Blazers made them pay, though, converting on 32 points off turnovers and 28 fastbreak points.
The Nuggets, now 9-9, were fighting uphill the entire game. Their next chance to snap the losing streak comes Friday at Ball Arena against the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks. After that, the Nuggets head out for a grueling seven-game stretch.
Denver showed more of its trademark fight in the third quarter. They trailed 76-59 with 7:18 remaining before reeling off a huge run to cut the deficit to eight. Gordon was a consistent interior threat, Morris found space in the lane and JaMychal Green knocked down a couple jumpers. The entire time, Malone implored his team to fight, regardless of who he tapped to sub in.
On Tuesday, that included recently injured forward Zeke Nnaji, who provided energy and positive minutes.
A late C.J. McCollum floater seized a bit of momentum, but the Nuggets shaved the deficit to 90-79 heading into the fourth.
Malone had enough respect for Lillard that it didn’t matter what he’d done in previous games.
“Whether he scored 39 the last game or he scored 10, we’ll guard him the same way,” he said before the game. “We know he’s a great player, we know what he’s capable of. It’s a helluva challenge because you have to guard him in transition, high pick-up points, you know he’s going to be involved in a ton of pick-and-rolls. You gotta keep him off the free throw line.”
Lillard torched the Nuggets with 18 points and four 3-pointers in the first half, deflating what had been a promising effort to start the game. With 11 first-half turnovers, Denver did itself no favors. Portland closed the first half on an 18-3 run to bust open a 66-52 halftime lead.
The Trail Blazers scored 19 points off those miscues and undermined any chance the Nuggets had of playing stout defense.
“We know we’re severely undermanned at the moment, so when that happens, you have to understand why you’re losing,” Malone said. “And that was my message to our guys this morning. In our four-game slide, our defense is ranked 29th in the NBA.”
Led by Jeff Green’s three 3-pointers, the Nuggets connected on 9-of-16 3-point tries that represented one of the few positives to start the game.
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