Eventually, the Nuggets’ injuries were going to haunt them. On Saturday, when the games finally started to count, they did.
Without starters Jamal Murray (hamstring), Gary Harris (hip) and Will Barton (knee), the Nuggets were in short supply of perimeter players and dropped the opening game of their restart, 125-105, to the Miami Heat. At 43-23, the Nuggets fell 1.5 games back of the No. 2 seeded Clippers.
Before the break, Miami was the top 3-point shooting team in the NBA, connecting at a clip of over 38% from outside. On Saturday, despite the scouting report, they lit the nets with a scorching second half, finishing 13-of-29 from outside. Forced to rely on facilitators like Monte Morris, P.J. Dozier and others who were out of position, the Nuggets did themselves no favors by turning the ball over 19 times.
“I guess a positive is no one got hurt,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “As I told our guys, there’s no need to panic. We’re without three starters. But Aug. 17 (the playoffs), each day is creeping closer and closer and closer. And we still are having issues with valuing the ball and 3-point defense. At some point, we have to find a way, whether Jamal, Gary or Will play or they don’t play, the guys that can play have to find a way to not turn it over for 19 times and 35 points.”
Nikola Jokic paced the Nuggets with 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists in a team-high 34 minutes. His elite play and vision could only lift his teammates so much. According to Jokic, the third quarter was where it all fell apart.
“We didn’t help each other,” Jokic said. “We were kind of selfish. Everybody thought, ‘Oh, it’s my time, it’s my time.’”
Michael Porter Jr., Torrey Craig and Morris filled in for the team’s typical starters. Porter and Morris underwhelmed, while Craig’s energy couldn’t do enough to offset the team’s second-half sloppiness.
They also couldn’t extract enough excitement from Bol Bol’s NBA debut to make any difference. Bol finished with five points and five rebounds in his first game.
Denver’s two biggest keys were exposed in the third quarter when the Heat caught fire from 3-point range and the Nuggets’ miscues started to compound. Heat sniper Duncan Robinson flipped the momentum of the game with his 3-point shooting, and Miami steamrolled to 38 points in the quarter. At the same time, the Nuggets turned the ball over eight times in the period to help fuel Miami’s run. The Nuggets’ communication and on-ball defense were both less than ideal as Miami staked a 94-79 lead going into the fourth.
Malone set the tenor for the game when he began his pregame news conference while wearing a “Justice for Elijah McClain” shirt. The 23-year-old from Aurora died last year after an encounter with the police.
Less than two hours later, the entire Nuggets roster, including coaches, knelt for the national anthem alongside the majority of the Heat roster. Malone made clear that the decision was personal for each player and that the organization supported their decisions, regardless of whether they stood or not.
He also made a significant distinction in explaining why kneeling, in his perspective, was actually “super patriotic.”
“I realize that some people want to make this about not honoring the flag, disrespectful to our troops, all those that have given their lives in the past and currently serve our military now, protecting our country,” Malone said. “ … And Bryan Stevenson (of the Equal Justice Initiative) said it so well, I think it’s almost super patriotic to take a knee, and it’s not disrespecting our flag. It’s basically asking our country to live up to the ideals that we know that this country was founded upon. We have yet to live up to those ideals.”
Down three of their most reliable ball-handlers, the Nuggets still managed to take a 57-56 lead into halftime. Jokic, who knew his scrimmages were underwhelming, was tremendous early. He toyed with Miami’s frontcourt en route to 14 points and four assists.