DENVER — As the Denver Nuggets meander through the regular season, biding time until they can truly defend their NBA championship, there are going to be plenty of nights when they are just better than other teams. Or there will be nights when their legs don’t loosen up. And there will be nights when they just want to fast-forward to the postseason.
And then there will be nights like Wednesday that truly test who they are as a unit and where they are as a team, and they’ll face adversity no matter how well they intend to play. The Nuggets’ 108-105 win over the Golden State Warriors in front of a sold-out Ball Arena was probably as difficult as their most difficult playoff win last spring.
The Warriors beat on Denver. The Warriors scratched and clawed in the paint with Nikola Jokić, who proudly wore a large red welt on his arm and shoulder by the fourth quarter. The Warriors made Denver uncomfortable for much of the night on both ends of the floor. The Warriors made Wednesday a rock fight, a possession-by-possession slugfest that proved to be the hardest test for the Nuggets on the young season.
It was enough to make Jokić long for a couple of days off, which the Nuggets will finally get.
“Is it snowing tomorrow in Denver?” Jokić asked. “I’m hoping for one more pool day.”
That Denver was able to run its record to 8-1 shows how resolute it was in finding fourth-quarter defensive stops. That the Nuggets ended an 11-day period by defeating the team that’s traditionally given them issues shows how far they’ve come as a unit. There was no Jamal Murray for Denver, and the Nuggets probably won’t have him for weeks. That didn’t stop them from executing just enough on the offensive end, making just enough shots when it mattered most or finding just enough help in support of Jokić.
In the end, the Nuggets got what felt like their first truly important win of the season. Denver was a different team because of injury, but two years ago, the Warriors started a championship run by beating the Nuggets in a series. Last season, it was Denver’s turn to win the title. But that road didn’t go through Golden State. And this year, the Warriors and Nuggets have simultaneously looked like great teams. A win, even with both teams being short-handed, seemed like a bit of a big deal.
“We were back and forth in the second half, but I thought the fourth-quarter defense was where it needed to be to win the game,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “We held them to 37 percent shooting from the field. They were 3-of-11 from 3-point range in the fourth quarter, and overall the 3-point defense was going to be key for our ability to come out with a win.”
Golden State’s ability to go small and spread the floor is the reason the Warriors have been a difficult team for the Nuggets to handle. They are able to put Jokić in difficult positions defensively, where he has to come to the perimeter and slide his feet and guard away from the basket. Stephen Curry is obviously a huge reason for that. In the regular season, Malone likes to play a lot of drop coverage defensively, which means Jokić drops to the basket when defending the pick-and-roll. Curry is perhaps the best guard in NBA history in dissecting that particular defense because of his ability to pull up and make 3s at the top of the key.
Jokić has to play to the level of the screen against the Warriors. It’s something he had to do consistently in the second-round win over the Phoenix Suns because of Kevin Durant and Devin Booker. But it’s typically not a coverage Jokić is comfortable with. As a result, the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s game turned into a chess match. With Jokić guarding Warriors center Kevon Looney, Golden State exploited Jokić coming to the level of the screen by slipping Looney, passing to him out of the double-team and having Looney play four-on-three basketball, which resulted in dunks for Andrew Wiggins and Jonathan Kuminga.
Seeing this, Malone switched Aaron Gordon onto Looney, which took away that element, and had Jokić guard Chris Paul for the closing possessions, which allowed the Nuggets to get the defensive stops needed to win.
“I know that I didn’t want him shooting a 3,” Jokić said. “I just wanted to try and stay in front of him the best I could, and I wanted to try and defend the best I could.”
Denver’s 8-1 record is tied for the best start in franchise history. The Nuggets are 6-0 at the friendly confines of Ball Arena. Their lone defeat came against a Minnesota Timberwolves team that’s shaping up as one of the better teams in the Western Conference.
More importantly, Denver is starting to find its identity this new season. The Nuggets have beaten an impressive array of West foes, including the Warriors, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the New Orleans Pelicans and Dallas Mavericks. Jokić is well on his way to working on another MVP. Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have been rocks defensively, and Michael Porter Jr. has had a breakout that wasn’t entirely expected, because part of that breakout revolves around how good he’s been defensively.
“We want Michael to get to the point where that’s the norm for him,” Malone said. “We want to get to the point where what he’s doing is no longer a surprise.”
Denver knows missing Murray is going to be a challenge, especially over time. For instance, Jokić has taken 25 field goal attempts in each of the last two games, and those are highs for the season for him. And he was visibly gassed down the stretch Wednesday, which led to an uncharacteristic turnover and two missed free throws that kept the door open for the Warriors.
That being said, the Nuggets have the depth, hunger and versatility to stay afloat while they are missing their star point guard. The season is very young. But this Denver team in nine games has made quite the statement.
The Nuggets aren’t going anywhere.
(Photo of Nikola Jokić and Kevon Looney: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)