The Denver Nuggets’ win over the lowly Detroit Pistons on Thursday night didn’t solve all their problems. The best team in the Western Conference returned to losing ways on Saturday afternoon with a 116-110 loss to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Nikola Jokic, the best player on the team and an MVP candidate, was blunt and direct during his postgame interview: “We have to worry.”
With this latest loss, the Nuggets have lost five of their last six games, and their lead for first seed in the West has been cut to four games over the Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies. While they should be able to hold out through the final three weeks of the season and secure home-field advantage during the conference finals, they’re falling apart at a time when you want to start tightening things up for an expected deep playoff run. .
Part of that is almost certainly due to the huge lead they built up in the race for the No. 1 seed. Not surprisingly, this streak began on the heels of their pivotal win over the Grizzlies on March 3, which gave them the tiebreaker. between the two teams and a six-game cushion atop the conference standings. That they have lost games to the humble San Antonio Spurs and the mediocre Chicago Bulls during this stretch is further proof that they have taken their foot off the accelerator.
However, a lack of concentration and intensity does not explain everything. Jokic is right that they should worry, especially their play on the defensive end of the ball. While they were never his strong point, lately they have been pitiful. Through this six-game stretch, they have the worst defensive rating in the league (121.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) despite playing with only one team with a top-10 offense.
Earlier this month, head coach Michael Malone benched Michael Porter Jr. for the fourth quarter during the team’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets for his poor effort on the defensive end. After the loss to the Knicks, Jokic said that “we can’t defend very well right now.” Everyone is aware of the problem, but fixing it is a huge challenge when the Nuggets’ best players (Jokic, Jamal Murray and Porter) aren’t known for their defense.
The Nuggets are still a great team. They were 46-19 just a few weeks ago, have one of the best players in the league in Jokic and an electric offense. However, there have long been concerns about their ability to win in the playoffs, and this swoon is only reinforcing them. It’s not time to panic in Denver, but as the face of the franchise said, it’s time to worry.