DENVER — Behind a red-hot offense that’s clicking on all cylinders, the Nuggets are playing their best basketball of the Michael Malone era. Denver is 10-3 over its past 13 games and has quietly climbed to sixth place in a crowded Western Conference playoff picture — just 1 1/2 games behind the third-seeded San Antonio Spurs.
The Nuggets have surged back from a brutal three-week stretch in late December and January, where Denver went 4-8, due to an offense that’s rediscovered its identity from last season. Behind Nikola Jokic, who’s averaging 20.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and 9.0 assists in his last 13 games, the Nuggets are the league’s third-best offense since Jan. 22.
Denver’s offensive boom — which has coincided with a cratering defense that’s fallen to 24th overall — has left the Nuggets’ coach, who’s gained a reputation over the years as a defensive-first tactician, questioning one of his fundamental principles.
The Nuggets are winning games, but do they have to improve defensively in order to reach the playoffs and stay competitive in a first-round series?
“I firmly believe yes,” Malone said. “But the funny thing is, I find myself questioning my whole being as a coach, which is defense wins championships. We’re 7-1 in February, and we haven’t been playing Sisters of the Poor CYO teams. We’re playing against really good teams, some really good defensive teams and we’re putting up ridiculous numbers.”
Denver has racked up victories over playoff-caliber opponents like the Spurs (twice), Bucks, Warriors, Thunder and Trail Blazers over its past 13 games. Jokic is playing like the All-Star many thought he could be at the beginning of the season. Wilson Chandler has emerged as a two-way force since the trade deadline, and Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are playing like one of the league’s most dynamic backcourts.
Harris, who scored seven of his 23 points in the fourth against San Antonio and registered the Nuggets’ third-highest DPR (BSN Denver’s in-house player rating) behind Jokic and Wilson Chandler against the Spurs, is just focused on winning games.
“Defense has been a problem that definitely needs to be addressed, and we definitely need to get better,” Harris said. “But as long as we’re winning games, that’s all that matters right now.”
Count Jokic as another Nuggets’ player who’s all-in on Denver’s all-offense identity.
“I think we are right at where we want to be,” he said. “We can improve, of course. I think at the end of the day it just matters if you win.”
The Nuggets’ read-and-react, pace-and-space, free-flowing offense could very well get Denver to the playoffs. At this pace, the Nuggets will qualify for their first postseason berth in four years and could continue to rise in the standings with Timberwolves’ star Jimmy Butler set to miss an extended amount of time with a knee injury.
The question for Denver becomes, can the Nuggets win in the playoffs by going all-in on offense when the pace slows and there’s more of an emphasis placed on every possession?
“To go into a postseason when all of a sudden you’re not scoring 120 a night and they’re taking everything away and you have to execute in the halfcourt and you have to get stops, our defense has to find ways to improve,” Malone said.
Denver will try and find a happy medium. Take Friday’s win over the Spurs for example. San Antonio shot above 50 percent for the game, but the Nuggets held the Spurs to 4-13 shooting in the last nine minutes of the fourth quarter.
“Right now, we’re a team that picks its spots when to defend,” Malone said. “If we can be a lot more consistent with our defense, that’s only going to give us more opportunities to run and score and create, so I really do believe that defense has to be better.”
If the Nuggets defend like they did in the fourth quarter against the Spurs over the final two months of the season while continuing to score like they have since Malone loosened the reigns on his offense almost exactly a month ago, that’s a compromise Denver’s coach can probably live with.