Will Barton’s injury means Nuggets have zero margin for error
Denver’s frustration is mounting almost as quickly as its injuries.
What was a deep, dangerous team with title aspirations only two weeks ago has been decimated by injuries to its backcourt. Jamal Murray’s ACL tear was cruel enough, but add Monte Morris’ hamstring strain followed by another hamstring injury to Will Barton, and the result is an exceedingly narrow margin for error.
Following the Nuggets’ abysmal 118-97 showing against the Warriors on Friday night, Denver owned the No. 4 seed with several games of cushion on either side. The No. 3 Clippers (9-1 in their last 10) are peaking at the right time. Seemingly the only chance the Nuggets have of avoiding the Lakers in the first round is if the Mavericks or Blazers leapfrog Los Angeles. But with little room for the Nuggets to jockey ahead of the postseason, there’s an even greater concern for Denver as the Warriors illustrated.
Injuries have ravaged the Nuggets’ rotations all season, and the fact that they’re coming in bunches is no doubt disheartening. But Nuggets coach Michael Malone was fuming after Friday’s loss at what he deemed an effort problem.
“It’s our job,” Malone said. “Do your job… No Jamal Murray, somebody’s gotta step in. No Monte Morris, no Will Barton, somebody’s gotta step in. And it starts with playing hard. We did not play hard enough tonight. … That was the worst part about the loss tonight was that, give them credit, they played well, but we did not bring the requisite energy, fight, effort, whatever you want to call it.”
The Warriors crushed the Nuggets in transition, scrambled them in pick-and-rolls, beat them baseline, beat them backdoor and elicited an uninspiring effort when Denver can ill-afford to have one.
“A lot (of transition defense) comes down to awareness as well,” said Aaron Gordon. “When somebody shoots, you gotta have two people back. … It comes down to communication as well. We gotta talk to each other out there. We were a little silent tonight.”
Steph Curry, the most dangerous 3-point shooter in NBA history, exposed the communication issues in pick-and-roll. Draymond Green, who finished with 19 assists, poked holes in Denver’s baseline defense, which led to 50 points in the paint. Kelly Oubre outhustled them.
On one damning first-quarter sequence, Oubre beat the entire Nuggets defense down the floor after Austin Rivers finished a layup. Later in the fourth quarter, Jordan Poole got an uncontested dunk while Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Facu Campazzo jogged back on defense. The play drew an irate timeout from Malone.
Regardless of which players are in, they’ve simply lost too many of their rotational pieces to concede anything else, particularly something they can control. And even if the fight is better Saturday against Houston, Friday’s effort was alarming.
“We need to play with purpose,” Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic said. “ … We need to know what to do on the floor, we cannot just run around with no reason.”
After Murray went down, numerous players were adamant Denver’s championship dreams hadn’t changed even if they were harder to conjure. If Barton were to miss any extended time, their effort has to be non-negotiable to produce a successful playoff run of any kind.
“It’s the nature of this season and how many games are packed so closely together, but we got competitors on this team,” Gordon said. “We got ballplayers, we got people that want to win. When you put that on the floor, we’re not backing down, we’re not hanging our head. We don’t feel bad for ourselves.”