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