At a loss over final sequences
Poor late-game execution vs. Rockets
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.