At a loss over fi­nal se­quences

Poor late-game ex­e­cu­tion vs. Rock­ets

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Kos­mider The Den­ver Post

The first heart­break oc­curred back in Oc­to­ber, in the sec­ond game of the sea­son.

The Nuggets, in their home opener, were tied with the Trail Blaz­ers in over­time with less than 20 sec­onds left when Danilo Gal­li­nari called for the ball. The 6-foot-10 for­ward was hop­ing to ex­ploit a mis­match with the 6-foot-3 Damian Lil­lard guard­ing him. Gal­li­nari strided by Lil­lard to­ward the rim but his shot was blocked by AlFarouq Aminu. The Nuggets’ pleas for a foul call went unan­swered.

On the fi­nal play, it was Lil­lard who got the mis­match he wanted, tak­ing for­ward Ken­neth Faried off the drib­ble and drop­ping in a 7-foot run­ner just be­fore the buzzer to win the game. It was the first sign of a prob­lem that has plagued the Nuggets through­out the sea­son and is threat­en­ing to de­rail their play­off hopes: late-game ex­e­cu­tion.

Some­times the Nuggets have sim­ply been a victim of bad luck. Two nights af­ter the loss to the Trail Blaz­ers, they lost 105-102 at Toronto. The Nuggets had three 3-point at­tempts in the fi­nal 30 sec­onds that would have tied the game, but they all lipped out.

Any way you cut it, one fig­ure paints a pic­ture. Af­ter a 125124 loss to the Rock­ets on Mon­day night in Hous­ton, the Nuggets are 3-9 this sea­son in games de­cided by three points or less. Den­ver had its chances to win each of its last two games against Hous­ton, on Satur­day and Mon­day, only to ab­sorb gut-punch losses that leave the Nuggets in a pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion with 12 games left as they try to earn the No. 8

seed in the Western Con­fer­ence play­off field.

The Nuggets en­tered play Tues­day night lead­ing Port­land by only a half-game as the Trail Blaz­ers pre­pared to host Mil­wau­kee.

“Ei­ther game could have gone ei­ther way,” Nuggets guard Jameer Nelson said of the losses to Hous­ton. “Ob­vi­ously, both teams played well. They made more plays than us.”

Mon­day’s loss came in three defin­ing clips. Will Barton, who was sen­sa­tional in the fourth quar­ter, scored a tough run­ning layup and was fouled, mak­ing the free throw to put the Nuggets up 124-123 with 42.1 sec­onds re­main­ing, lead­ing to the first se­quence.

The Nuggets didn’t ex­actly lock down on the next de­fen­sive pos­ses­sion fol­low­ing Barton’s bucket, but James Har­den missed a layup and Nelson grabbed the ball with 30.7 sec­onds left. The Nuggets wanted to max­i­mize the shot clock, and they did. Nelson drew Hous­ton for­ward Nene in a switch, an ad­van­ta­geous matchup for Den­ver. But Nelson’s jump shot over the big man with three sec­onds left on the shot clock was an air ball.

Then came the Nuggets’ big­gest break­down. Har­den grabbed the re­bound on the base­line, yank­ing the ball from Gary Har­ris with 6.9 sec­onds left. Har­den was 90 feet from the bas­ket but still made an ar­row-straight line to the bucket un­touched to score the win­ning lay-in.

“Hon­estly, when I got to the 3point line, I fi­nally looked up and I just saw a lane,” Har­den said. “I saw the rim and I was go­ing to get there.”

In other words, there was never a mo­ment dur­ing his 4.5-sec­ond sprint in which Har­den’s path was al­tered.

“We had the game won, I thought,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “You lose it on a coast-to-coast layup by James Har­den, which is re­ally a tough way to go down.”

On the Nuggets’ fi­nal play — a side­line in-bounds with 2.4 sec­onds left — Ma­son Plum­lee faked

7 p.m. Wed­nes­day, ALT; 950 AM Since re­turn­ing from a 35-game ab­sence due to a thumb in­jury that re­quired surgery, Cleve­land’s wild-card sharp­shooter has strug­gled to find his rhythm. Smith, who played with the Nuggets from 2006-11, has av­er­aged only 7.4 points while shoot­ing 30.6 per­cent from the floor in the seven games since his re­turn. Smith, who is com­ing off the bench, is shoot­ing just 25.6 per­cent from 3-point range in that stretch. Still, the Nuggets are well aware of the im­pact Smith can make from be­hind the arc. He av­er­aged a ca­reer-high 2.6 threes and shot 40 per­cent from there last sea­son while help­ing the Cava­liers win their first ti­tle.

Spot­light on J.R. Smith: NOTE­BOOK :

Cleve­land has won its last three games at the Pepsi Cen­ter and has held the Nuggets to an av­er­age of 99 points in those games. … Kyrie Irv­ing has scored at least 20 points in each of his last 18 games, which is the long­est cur­rent streak in the NBA. … The Cava­liers have shot 905 3-point­ers this sea­son, a mark that is the fourth-most for a team in league his­tory. … Tris­tan Thomp­son has av­er­aged 11.4 points and 8.4 re­bounds in 10 ca­reer games against the Nuggets. … Cleve­land guard Kyle Korver (foot sore­ness) prac­ticed Tues­day, but his sta­tus for Wed­nes­day’s game is yet to be de­ter­mined. Nuggets: For­ward Wil­son Chan­dler (groin) could re­turn to the lineup af­ter a four-game ab­sence. Wil­son and for­ward Dar­rell Arthur (knee) are both listed as ques­tion­able. Danilo Gal­li­nari, who has missed the last three games with a bone bruise on his left knee, is listed as doubt­ful. … Em­manuel Mu­diay made an im­pact Mon­day in his first sig­nif­i­cant ac­tion in three weeks. The sec­ond-year point guard scored eight points in less than five min­utes to be­gin the sec­ond quar­ter, help­ing the Nuggets turn a 35-28 deficit into a 45-42 lead over the Rock­ets. … Gary Har­ris, who scored a ca­reer-high 28 points in Mon­day’s loss to Hous­ton, has set a new sin­gle-game best in scor­ing three times since Feb. 24. Nick Kos­mider, The Den­ver Post a screen at the top of the key and curled to­ward the bas­ket. With Har­den drap­ing Plum­lee, the pass from Nikola Jo­kic had to be per­fect. It wasn’t. Har­den knocked the ball away, send­ing the Nuggets to their ninth one-pos­ses­sion loss.

Whether the Nuggets land in the play­offs or in the draft lot­tery, this fi­nal stretch of games with mean­ing will pro­vide learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for a young team. Learn­ing how to close is among the top pri­or­i­ties.

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