When the defending NBA champions are preparing to pay a visit and could achieve a piece of history on your home floor, it’s a bad time to have your team experience its worst fourth-quarter meltdown of the season.
After a scoring a season-high 63 points in the first half, the Denver Nuggets watched the Phoenix Suns storm back with a 65-point second half to take a 114-107 decision to open a critical four-game homestand for the Nuggets against Western Conference foes.
Phoenix hit 6-of-10 3-pointers in the fourth quarter on its way to a 34-23 scoring edge in the period. In all, Phoenix connected on 15-of-27 shots from behind the arc, including 10-of-15 in the second half.
The Suns’ long-range success continued a disturbing trend for the Nuggets. Denver ranks next-to-last in the NBA in opponent 3-point field goal percentage, surrendering 38.8 percent of their shots per game. Only the New Orleans Pelicans (40.1 percent) are worse.
Overall, Denver is giving up almost 10 (9.8) 3-pointers per game.
“They attacked us, had us on our heels, and we withered,” said Denver head coach Michael Malone, who watched his team surrender a 17-point third-quarter lead to Phoenix. “We didn’t handle adversity well at all. I must be speaking Chinese because we’re 13 games in and we refuse to guard the 3-point line, and it’s absolutely killing us right now.
“To be up 17 points at home and to lose that game the way we lost it is unacceptable. We guarded nobody in the second half. We gave them 65 points on 56 (field goal percentage) from the field and 64 (percent) from 3.”
The loss once again brought Malone to question the intensity of his team. It’s becoming an all-too-familiar narrative for the first-year Denver head coach after games, falling in line with his thoughts following the Nuggets’ home opening loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“They scored three layups to start the third quarter and set the tone,” Malone said. “We have some guys on this team that pick and choose when they play hard. Those guys aren’t going to play. So you either play with effort or you don’t play. I didn’t like the effort from our guys tonight. I can’t even fathom when you have a home game and you’re up by 17 how guys could even not play hard. It’s unacceptable. I told them you play hard or you’re going to sit. That’s the bottom line. I don’t care who you are.
“If you play hard, you can play. If you don’t play hard, you’re coming out of the game.”
Denver has little time to look back at the loss to Phoenix as a trio of Western Conference heavyweights will invade the Pepsi Center over the next seven days, including defending champion Golden State on Sunday night. The Warriors come into Denver with a 14-0 record and are one victory away from tying the NBA’s all-time undefeated mark to open a season that was set by both the 1948-49 Washington Capitals and the 1993-94 Houston Rockets.
Golden State has already defeated Denver once this season, 119-104 in Oakland, as the Warriors connected on 17 shots from beyond the arc. Stephen Curry finished with a game-high 34 points, including 8-of-16 attempts from 3-point range.
Curry is currently on pace to bypass his own record for 3-pointers made in a season. Last year, the reigning MVP set the NBA mark with 286. This year, he already has 71 through 14 games and must be licking his chops to visit the Mile High City and Denver’s porous 3-point defense.
Malone knows his team has to tighten its defense in order to have a chance of slowing down Curry, upsetting Golden State, and stopping the Warriors from achieving history.
“Our inability to cover the 3-point line is a joke,” Malone lamented. “We’re one of the worst teams in the NBA at guarding the 3-point line. Every night we give up a ridiculous amount of threes. Guys we go over every day that they’re shooters, who they are, and what are coverage is, yet we have breakdown after breakdown.
“The good thing is that we have three easy games coming up,” Malone said with a sarcastic chuckle, referring to Denver’s home slate against Golden State, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the San Antonio Spurs.
There’s nothing easy about the week ahead, and it will only be harder if the Nuggets’ 3-point defense continues to falter.