Two nights after failing to show for a crucial loss to the Grizzlies in Memphis, the Denver Nuggets looked to get one back in Miami against a Heat team without Hassan Whiteside and Dwyane Wade. They showed this time, but the result was the same, and with it might have gone their playoff hopes.
The Nuggets, now owners of the NBA’s second-worst defense since the calendar turned to 2018, saw the Heat set a single-game franchise scoring record in a backbreaking 149-141 double-overtime win.
The loss drops the Nuggets (38-33) to 10th place, two losses behind the Minnesota Timberwolves with 11 games left. That they pushed Miami to two extra periods makes it that much tougher to swallow.
“I feel awful for our guys,” coach Michael Malone said. “They did everything they could to try to get this win for us tonight, only to come up a little bit short.”
Added Paul Millsap: “It hurts. We work so hard to go to double overtime and end up losing the game. But there’s still hope. … The door’s not slammed yet.”
You may recall Denver’s playoff hopes were officially dashed last season when Oklahoma City Thunder Russell Westbrook hit a heartbreaking buzzer-beater with two games left on the 2016-17 schedule. The door is not shut on this season, and the road to resurrection starts with a winnable game against the tanking Bulls in Chicago on Wednesday night, but the Nuggets face an uphill battle, to say the least.
Monday’s defeat dropped Denver to 0-2 to start a seven-game road trip, and after facing Chicago, the Nuggets play their final 10 games against teams still vying for playoff positioning. Seven of their remaining 11 games come on the road, where they’re now 11-23, the worst of any playoff contender.
The Nuggets play two of their last four games against a Timberwolves team that currently holds the West’s eighth and final playoff seed, but they’ll be fortunate to get there with reason to play, because Monday’s loss also offered a stark reminder why they could be on the outside looking in again.
The Heat put Nuggets star Nikola Jokic on skates. While Jokic finished with a monster stat line (34 points on 21 shots, 15 rebounds and three assists in 47 minutes), Miami continually forced him into defensive matchups opposite the rangy Kelly Olynyk and more athletic James Johnson. Olynyk scored 30 points off the bench, and Johnson netted 22 of his career-high 31 points in the final eight minutes of regulation and both overtimes. They also combined for 19 rebounds, 12 assists and five blocks.
Together, they broke Denver, as the Heat were a plus-23 in their 29 shared minutes together.
“You put Nikola on Olynyk, they put him on all the ‘action.’ You put Nikola on James Johnson, they put him on all the action,” Malone told reporters. Those guys were able to make big plays for them.”
“That’s a mismatch,” added Heat point guard Goran Dragic (20 points, eight assists). We were feeding (Johnson) the ball. We know (Jokic) is a little bit slower than J.J., and J.J. took advantage of that.”
This does not bode well for upcoming games against Philadelphia, Toronto, Oklahoma City and Milwaukee, all of whom feature frontcourts that can put Jokic in precarious positions defensively.
What also doesn’t bode well: Gary Harris, Denver’s leading scorer who has missed the last two losses with a right knee injury, will miss at least a couple more games, if not more. He wasn’t even well enough to put pressure on the sprained knee on Monday. What’s more, Millsap re-aggravated the wrist injury that cost him three months of the regular season during the double-OT loss to the Heat.
“It hurt for a while,” he told the media. “It’s still a little sore right now, but I’ll be all right.”
As for the Nuggets, well, that’s in serious doubt.
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