Malone demanding better defensive play
ORLANDO, FLA.» Coach Michael Malone said he “slept like a baby” after frankly assessing the Nuggets’ poor defensive performance in Wednesday night’s 123-114 loss to the Pelicans in New Orleans.
“I got up every two hours and cried,” Malone joked.
By Thursday afternoon, though, the mood had turned lighthearted. A half-court shooting competition capped the Nuggets’ practice session at the Amway Center, where they play the Magic on Friday night, with boisterous laughter filling the arena as various players and staffers gave their best heave.
Denver has no room to dwell in the midst of this six-game road trip and overall grind of a season that is more than a quarter complete. But the Nuggets (13-11) also must learn from their miscues, particularly from the cracks on defense that keep popping up while posting a 3-9 record away from the Pepsi Center.
“We are better than we are showing on the road,” said Malone, speaking in a much more reserved tone Thursday compared with his fiery postgame session Wednesday. “That’s where my frustration comes from. For that to change, everybody has to look at themselves individually first.”
The Nuggets entered Thursday ranked 28th in the NBA in
scoring defense away from home at 111.9 points allowed per game, 8.5 points more than they give up at home. But Wednesday’s game represented Denver’s most blatant disregard for personnel tendencies when guarding 1-on-1, Malone said, something the coaching staff goes over several times on game-day film study and detailed scouting reports.
Malone also acknowledges the impact of the absences of standout big men Paul Millsap (wrist surgery) and Nikola Jokic (sprained ankle). Millsap, whom Malone does not expect to return until the all-star break “at the earliest,” has a long reputation as a stout defender. Jokic has improved on that end of the floor, even spending a chunk of the season as the NBA’s leader in defensive plus/minus.
The stark difference between DeMarcus Cousins’ performances for New Orleans in each matchup against the Nuggets is a prime example. Cousins scored 14 points last month while guarded by Jokic and Millsap, but he scored 40 on Wednesday without either of them on the floor. Too many times, Malone said, Cousins drove to his preferred right side and past the first defender, then had a free path to the basket when no teammate jumped over to help.
“Without those two guys, it’s just kind of like we’re falling apart on defense,” Malone said. “We’re giving up (points in the) paint. We’re giving up 3s. We’re giving up everything.
“I just have such a hard time with that, because I understand and believe in how important defense is. And I realize for us to ever be a good team — a real team — it has to start on the defensive end of the floor.”
Malone hopes that defensive shift comes Friday in Orlando. Then maybe he will sleep like an adult — as in, through the night.
“It can’t continue to be the same thing over and over and over,” Malone said. “Because now we’re a bunch of freaking maniacs and we’re not learning from our mistakes. It’s kind of getting to that point already.”
Trey Lyles tries to pass the ball to a Denver teammate against DeMarcus Cousins in New Orleans on Wednesday night. Cousins’ 40 points helped the Pelicans beat the Nuggets 123-114.