NBA Re­port Like the Rock­ies, the Nuggets are look­ing for a closer

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

The Nuggets were 30 sec­onds and 93 feet from a mar­quee vic­tory in Hous­ton last week. Lead­ing the Rock­ets 124-123 in the fi­nal 20 sec­onds, Jameer Nel­son headed up the court while pre­par­ing to en­gi­neer a play the Nuggets hoped would seal a vic­tory they des­per­ately needed. Roughly 30 drib­bles, no passes and an air­ball later, the Nuggets had come up empty and the ball landed in the hands of Hous­ton megas­tar James Har­den, who then drib­bled the length of the floor in less than five sec­onds for an un­con­tested, game-win­ning layup.

The de­scrip­tion of the se­quence isn’t to knock Nel­son. It is, rather, the il­lus­tra­tion of a prob­lem for which the Nuggets need to de­velop a so­lu­tion.

Open­ing day at Coors Field is a few weeks away, but the Rock­ies aren’t the only team in Den­ver that needs to find a closer.

The Nuggets’ of­fense has been the NBA’s most ef­fi­cient — and among its most en­ter­tain­ing to watch — since pass-first big man Nikola Jo­kic be­came the team’s start­ing cen­ter in De­cem­ber. The Nuggets have achieved that height­ened sta­tus by meld­ing their of­fense around Jo­kic, cre­at­ing a band of passers, cut­ters and shoot­ers who put pres­sure on de­fenses with con­stant move­ment.

In crunchtime, though, all that move­ment can find quick­sand when de­fenses tighten up. Some­one needs to step for­ward to fin­ish the job in big games. You think Port­land, the team breathing down Den­ver’s neck in the play­off race, doesn’t know who it’s turn­ing to down the stretch?

Dis­sect­ing the Nuggets’ nine losses in 12 one-pos­ses­sion games shows there are var­i­ous ap­proaches to find­ing a game-clinch­ing bucket. Of­ten the Nuggets trust the re­sult of the shots their move­ment can cre­ate when the game grinds down, and that phi­los­o­phy has pro­duced good looks at times. Take the fi­nal stretch in Den­ver’s pre­vi­ous heart­break­ing loss to the Rock­ets.

“We didn’t have any­body in the hud­dle like Larry Bird say­ing, ‘Hey, Coach, give me the ball,” coach Michael Malone said of a time­out last week­end, when the Nuggets trailed the Rock­ets by two points with 41 sec­onds left. “We have a bunch of guys who can all make plays and who can all share in that.”

Out of that time­out, the Nuggets ran one of their fa­vorite plays, with Jo­kic de­liv­er­ing a drib­ble hand­off to Will Bar­ton, while screen­ing his man, Har­den. The play gave Bar­ton a clean look at the bas­ket, but the shot didn’t fall. Nor did Bar­ton’s last at­tempt to tie the game, when his shot 3 feet from the rim af­ter a drive to the bas­ket bounced off.

Both looks came from good of­fense, and the Nuggets said they were com­fort­able liv­ing with the re­sults. But it’s fair to won­der whether the Nuggets should be­come more com­fort­able leav­ing the ball in the hands of their best player with the game on the line.

Jo­kic is the Nuggets’ best passer and best play­maker. Their of­fense has reached new heights by al­low­ing him to make sound split-sec­ond de­ci­sions through­out the game. Here’s guess­ing the Nuggets will shift to­ward al­low­ing Jo­kic to do the same thing some­time soon with the game on the line. Nick Kosmider: 303-954-1516, nkos­mider @den­ver­post.com or @nick­kos­mider

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