Before Wednesday’s loss against the Memphis Grizzlies, their second in a row, head coach Michael Malone said that the Denver Nuggets were in “search mode” for players that could fix the team’s early season issues.
He added that being in that mode is one of the worst feelings for a coach, telling Mike Singer, The Denver Post:
"“Just trying to find a group of guys, or a player or two, that wants to be here, wants to be in the building, wants to go out there and play and play with energy and fight and compete. Those are not game-plan things.”"
Malone was rather scathing of his team’s effort this season, not calling out individual players but saying the collective needs to put in more effort:
"“That’s just the responsibility of each individual to be engaged and to go out there, and you can’t control makes or misses but you certainly can control your effort and how hard you play and doing your job.”"
After the first quarter in Memphis, it didn’t look like anything was going to change.
The Grizzlies, led by rising star Ja Morant, put up 37 points in the first quarter, prompting plenty of angry Malone timeouts and the team looked shellshocked. Not only was Memphis getting any look they liked, Denver’s weren’t falling.
You couldn’t blame any fan for assuming nothing had changed and the team was going to get blown out.
But then it seemed like Malone found what he was looking for in “search mode”. Denver countered Memphis’ 37-point first quarter with a 36-point second quarter, keeping the Grizz to just 19 points in the term.
The unit that started the second period was Facundo Campazzo, Bones Hyland, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr., and JaMychal Green, a unit that had played sparingly until this game. It helped that Barton was having a great night, but the players strung together some tough baskets and solid defense.
It all seemed to start with this Will Barton reverse dunk:
One of the most encouraging elements of the run was the play of Bones. Malone has slowly been drip-feeding him playing time ever since his debut and with Austin Rivers’ shot not dropping, there’s reason to believe Hyland could secure the scoring guard off the bench role.
He has been impressive in more ways than just scoring this season, running off the ball, and spacing the defense out where appropriate. One of the most encouraging passes he got off against Memphis was on the break (after a live ball steal) when he slowed it down and found a cutting MPJ for two:
With even numbers running back on defense, Bones had the patience to pull back out, not take the contested shot and wait for help – playing it to perfection.
Bones finished with nine points and three assists in 21 minutes, the most minutes out of anyone off the bench and more points than the entire bench combined. Rookie guards are rarely solid contributors in their first season but if Bones can bring consistency on offense, there’s something to work with moving forward.
Despite Bones growing into his own, the team won’t be able to win a serious number of games if MPJ isn’t hitting his shots. Porter Jr. finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds on 6-12 from the floor but if he doesn’t grow into the second option that many believed he could, the Denver Nuggets might be in the play in conversation, not the playoff one.
With MPJ struggling, Malone has had to find other ways to get scoring while Nikola Jokic sits and it simply isn’t working at the moment. Jokic has to fight for the lead when he’s on the court, then fight to re-gain the lead after sitting.
As Malone himself recognized, every time Jokic comes out, it just falls apart according to James Herbert, CBS Sports:
"“I went to him in the fourth quarter and I called his name and he looked at me kind of like, ‘Already?’. And I feel for him.“Nikola’s going to be worn down by Christmas at this rate. And that’s unfortunate. So I have to do my job to try to figure it out. Try to help that unit. mix and match, try different guys, whatever it is, but we just have to be better when Nikola Jokic is not on the floor.”"
Despite the strong second quarter and spirited effort for the rest of the night, the Denver Nuggets lost after Nikola Jokic missed a shot to tie the game at the end. Yes, it arguably could’ve been a foul and I’m not just saying that as someone who reads Nuggets Twitter, but if you struggle to score in the first 12 minutes of a game, you’re going to be put in buzzer-beater situations.
From here, the Denver Nuggets face the Houston Rockets, Miami Heat, and Indiana Pacers. With Kyle Lowry spraining his ankle against the Boston Celtics on Thursday, all three of those games are winnable, it’s now up to the Nuggets to try and win them.