Nikola Jokic stood in front of his locker following the Denver Nuggets’ 107-102 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers and tried to pinpoint exactly where it went wrong for his team Saturday night.
“I can give you a stupid answer…” Jokic deadpanned. “We had wide open shots. Trey (Lyles) corner three, Will Barton, 45-degree three. The ball just didn’t go in.”
Poor shooting was the theme of perhaps the worst loss of Denver’s season. Philadelphia’s best player, star center Joel Embiid, was ruled out on Friday. The 76ers were just 1-7 without him entering their matchup against Denver.
Philadelphia didn’t miss Embiid, who has anchored the league’s seventh-best defense this season, tonight. The Nuggets shot just 40.2 percent from the field and 21.9 percent from three. The always efficient Jokic converted only five of his 14 attempts from the field. Will Barton shot just 5-15. After Jamal Murray hit eight of his first 12 field goals over the first half of action, the second-year point guard shot 3-11 in the third and fourth quarters.
Nuggets players and coaches said Philadelphia’s defense wasn’t the reason for their struggles. It was just one of those nights where the Nuggets missed shots.
“I think what it came down to tonight was at the end of the day, we couldn’t make any shots,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the loss.
“That was probably the hardest struggle we’ve had offensively all year, and it wasn’t their defense,” Murray added. “We were just missing open looks.”
The Nuggets’ inability to hit open shots climaxed with under 30 seconds remaining in regulation. Down by three with 25 seconds remaining, Barton missed a wide-open 27-footer that would have tied the score at 103. Like most of Barton’s shots tonight, his three-point attempt clanged hard off the iron.
But Barton’s late miss wasn’t the reason for the Nuggets’ loss. Denver didn’t execute in the first quarter, fell behind early and had to play catch-up all night long.
The Nuggets looked like they were about to end the 76ers’ night for good when they led by 14 points with 7:29 remaining in the third quarter. Philadelphia outscored Denver 49-30 from that point on.
In the fourth quarter, with the Nuggets trailing by just three points, reserve guard Jerryd Bayless scored eight straight to give the 76ers a commanding double-digit lead that proved too much for Denver to overcome.
“We just kind of self-imploded,” Mason Plumlee said after the loss.
The most common symptom of poor shooting — especially at home where the Nuggets had shot 48.9 percent from the field this year prior to tonight, good for the third-best mark in the league — is fatigue.
Murray, Jokic, Barton, who shot 5-15 from the field and 1-8 from three tonight, or Gary Harris, who only converted one of his five attempts from beyond the arc, will never admit to fatigue being a factor. It’s not in their nature — especially in the heat of the moment. But Malone admitted fatigue could have played a role tonight.
“When you see that many guys missing shots, you have to wonder if fatigue is a factor,” he said.
One of the reasons that the Nuggets have played better defense as of late has been a shorter rotation. After an initial nosedive following Paul Millsap’s sprained wrist, the Nuggets have rebounded on that end of the floor thanks in part to an eight-man rotation without Emmanuel Mudiay, Kenneth Faried or Juancho Hernangomez.
Tonight, Denver relied on a seven-man rotation. Torrey Craig — who’s seen his minutes fluctuate from around 30 per night as a starter to sometimes single-digit minutes off the bench — logged just six minutes. Jokic, Murray and Harris all played at least 37 minutes.
Perhaps the shortened rotation was a reason for fatigue. Or maybe it was just one of those nights.
The Nuggets have four days until their next game, which is also at home and against another likely non-playoff team in the Phoenix Suns. They’ll be well-rested for that matchup.
“We struggled to score which is rare,” Murray said. “We just missed some good looks, missed open shots and guys that normally make shots missed them today.”