Malone wants Nuggets to stay hun­gry

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Kos­mider

The Nuggets had just de­feated the Clip­pers for the third time in four games this sea­son Thurs­day night. They had won a fourth con­sec­u­tive game for the first time all sea­son while mov­ing to within two games of .500 (33-35) for the first time since Novem­ber. They had in­creased their lead over Port­land for the fi­nal play­off berth in the Western Con­fer­ence to 2K games with 14 to play.

They had also drawn the ire of their coach.

“We have to hold our­selves to a higher stan­dard, not just be sat­is­fied with a win,” Michael Malone said af­ter the Nuggets’ 129-114 vic­tory, their sev­enth in nine games. “We have to hold our­selves to a higher stan­dard if we want to not only be a play­off team but also be a team that can make noise in the play­offs.”

The mes­sage was clear. There is no break in the clouds as Den­ver be­gins the fi­nal stretch of its sea­son with an eye on its first post­sea­son ap­pear­ance since 2013.

“We had 31 as­sists,” Malone said af­ter Den­ver im­proved to 63-2 in its last 65 games when reach­ing at least 30. “Ma­son (Plum­lee) and Nikola (Jo­kic) were fan­tas­tic in terms of shar­ing the ball. Will Bar­ton was great off the bench. And not to belit­tle all of those things, but big pic­ture? Our de­fense took a big step back­ward. I thought we let go of the rope. With Hous­ton com­ing in here next, we will have to find a way to try and get it back.”

The Nuggets play the high-pow­ered Rock­ets, led by MVP can­di­date James Harden, twice in the next three days, be­gin­ning with Satur­day night’s game at the Pepsi Cen­ter. Then they host the de­fend­ing NBA cham­pion Cava­liers on Wed­nes­day. The stakes are only get­ting higher for the Nuggets as the sched­ule in­ten­si­fies, and their hope of en­ter­ing a po­ten­tially sea­son-defin­ing, fiveg­ame road trip March 28 in good stand­ing in the race hinges on whether they can meet the chal-

lenge de­fen­sively in the next three games.

“It’s good to learn in a win,” Plum­lee said Thurs­day af­ter Den­ver al­lowed the Clip­pers to shoot 75 per­cent in the fourth quar­ter. “Our de­fense wasn’t what it had been, but to learn from a win is al­ways bet­ter.”

Most of the play­ers con­tribut­ing to this Den­ver play­off run are play­ing mean­ing­ful games in the sea­son’s fi­nal month for the first time. That’s why Malone was pointed Thurs­day night in em­pha­siz­ing to his young team that it has put it­self into an ad­van­ta­geous po­si­tion over the last two weeks be­cause of its de­fense.

In eight games be­fore the vic­tory over the Clip­pers, when the Nuggets were tied for the sec­ond-best record in the NBA at 6-2, they were 10th in op­po­nent scor­ing at 103.5 points per game and 13th in op­po­nent field-goal per­cent­age at .459. Those num­bers took a hit in the sec­ond half Thurs­day, when the Clip­pers hit 24-of-40 shots (60 per­cent).

The next three games will il­lus­trate whether the Nuggets look closer to the de­fen­sive team they were in the eight games be­fore the vic­tory over the Clip­pers or the one they were in the sec­ond half of that win.

“De­fense will be the dif­fer­ence,” Nuggets for­ward Kenneth Faried said. “They are both high-oc­tane of­fenses that can score the ball in bunches. It’s go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing to see. We’re go­ing to go out there and do our thing.”

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