Momentum can be a fickle beast. The Denver Nuggets learned that the hard way on Friday night inside the Pepsi Center.
Just one game after its finest performance of the season in a 112-110 victory over the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, the Nuggets imploded in the second half against the Miami Heat and surrendered a 16-point halftime lead on its way to a 98-95 loss.
Prior to the Denver player introductions on Friday night, the Pepsi Center video board played a highlight reel from the win over Golden State with the announcer once again proclaiming the team’s marketing slogan for the season of “It’s a New Day.” The Nuggets took the court with all of the confidence of a team on the rise, and played like it in the first half. As Miami All-Star guard Dwyane Wade sat and watched from the bench after being scratched because of shoulder soreness, the Nuggets outshot, outrebounded, and outpassed the Heat in the first half, leading by as many as 18 points.
However, as he walked to the halftime locker room, Denver head coach Michael Malone said he had a foreshadowing of the things to come in the second half.
“I knew that Miami wasn’t going away. They have some hard-playing guys and they are well coached,” Malone said. “I knew this game was going down to the wire. I felt in my gut.”
Malone was right. The offensive troubles hit the Nuggets not long after taking the court for the second half. Denver scored 62 points in the first half, but scored just 33 in the second half. The Nuggets led 74-61 with 4:44 to play in the third period but were outscored 37-21 the remainder of the contest. Denver started 5-of-5 from 3-point range but would connect on just one of their next 13 attempts from behind the arc. Two of those misses would come in the final 37 seconds as Will Barton and Danilo Gallinari were both off on tries that would have given the Nuggets the late lead.
Denver had won 56 straight games when leading by 16 points or more at the half. That streak ended Friday night in historic fashion as the 16-point blown halftime lead was the sixth-highest blown halftime lead in franchise history. Not only did Denver’s halftime lead streak and modest two-game winning streak end, but so did the momentum that Denver had built in its gutsy performance against Golden State.
“I think coming out of the second half, our energy wasn’t the same as the first half and Hassan Whiteside made a difference in the paint,” said Denver guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who finished with 16 points off the bench.
Whiteside was absolutely the difference-maker in the second half, blocking seven shots and grabbing 10 rebounds on his way to a triple-double performance of 19 points, 17 rebounds, and 11 blocks. When he wasn’t blocking a shot, he was altering so many of Denver’s attempts. With Jusuf Nurkic out with knee soreness, Denver simply didn’t have an answer inside as the Heat outscored the Nuggets 50-22 in the paint.
“When he (Whiteside) is locked in like he was tonight, they couldn’t get a shot off anywhere,” said Miami’s Chris Bosh, who paced all scorers with 24 points, including 16 in the second half. “They kept coming in to challenge him. I don’t know why. He was there every time.”
Now 2-1 on their current eight-game homestand, Denver must regroup with five current playoff teams coming to the Mile High City, starting with the Indiana Pacers on Sunday night. At 15-25, the Nuggets still sit just 2.5 games out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference. There is time to not only regroup but try to adopt the winning mentality that Miami showed on Friday night.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We knew it was going to be difficult. We didn’t know we would be down 16, but that’s how it goes sometimes,” Bosh said. “We just wanted to come out and make sure we played to win the game. That’s what is most important. We play to win. We are the Miami Heat. We are expected to win, no matter who is in that uniform.”