After dropping their third straight game in a 93-87 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night, the Denver Nuggets have a quick turnaround before facing their Northwest Division rival Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night in the Pacific Northwest.
At 13-20, Portland has won two straight games, including a 105-76 demolition of the Cavaliers in their last home game on December 26. Denver is just a half-game behind the Blazers at 12-20 and beat Portland 108-104 in their only meeting so this season.
After the loss to Cleveland at the Pepsi Center, in which LeBron James scored 34 points, including several easy baskets off Denver turnovers, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone focused on his team’s 18 turnovers. In all, Cleveland scored 26 points off those miscues.
“You have 18 turnovers for 26 points and that’s going to make it very hard to win, I don’t care who you’re playing,” Malone said. “LeBron doesn’t need extra possessions for breakaway dunks. I didn’t like our energy in the first half. In the second half, I thought it was much better. We did some good things but we missed a lot of open shots. We had a lot of great looks that we just couldn’t knock down and we struggled to finish around the rim. At the end of the day, I will attribute this loss to our inability to value the basketball.”
Down 53-42 at intermission, Denver came out with more intensity in the second half, led by Will Barton. Denver’s Sixth Man of the Year candidate finished with 29 points off the bench, including 19 in the second half. Barton may have extra incentive on Wednesday night as he will make his first appearance in Portland since being traded last season to the Nuggets.
“I liked how we played in the second half,” Malone said. “We came out with a greater sense of urgency. We played harder and defended much better. When you hold that team (Cleveland) to 40 points and 35 percent from the field in the second half, I’ll take those numbers. But offensively, it was a challenge tonight to make shots and take care of the basketball. On the road, you can’t beat yourself. We’ll have to make sure we do a much better job of taking care of the basketball in Portland.”
Although the Nuggets have lost three straight and are just 4-6 in their last 10 games, there is hope for better things once the calendar turns to 2016. Denver’s last three losses have come against three of the NBA’s elite teams in San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Cleveland. Additionally, Malone said on Tuesday that Jusuf Nurkic, who hasn’t played all season, could make his season debut against Golden State on January 2. Danilo Gallinari may also be healed enough from the ankle injury he suffered on December 20 to return against the Warriors.
With injuries and facing championship contenders, it’s been a tough stretch for the Nuggets. However, Malone likes what he has seen from his team during that time.
“I told our team after the San Antonio game and after the OKC game how proud I was of them competing, especially on the second half of a back-to-back in OKC against a very good team,” Malone said. “The one thing that was disappointing there was the lack of defense. I loved the offense and how hard we competed but to give up that many points and that high of a shooting percentage is a recipe for disaster.
“I like our guys’ fight. I like our competitive nature, regardless of who we’re playing and regardless of if we’re banged up. We can five, six, or seven guys out and we show up and we fight. That’s a big step for the culture we’re trying to create. In the immediate future, yeah, you’re getting frustrated because you’re losing games but when I take a step back and I see the development of our young players and the experience they’re getting and the fact we are competing and fighting, that gives me hope for the future.”