The Denver Nuggets‘ win over the lowly Detroit Pistons on Thursday night did not, as it turned out, solve all their problems. The top team in the Western Conference returned to its losing ways on Saturday afternoon with a 116-110 defeat at the hands of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Nikola Jokic, the team’s best player and MVP candidate, was direct and to the point during his postgame interview: “We need to be concerned.”
With this latest defeat, the Nuggets have lost five of their last six games, and their lead for the top spot in the West is down to four games over the Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies. While they should be able to hold on over the final three weeks of the season and secure homecourt advantage through the conference finals, they are unraveling at a time when you want to start fine-tuning things for an expected deep playoff run.
Part of that is almost certainly due to the big lead they built up in the race for the No. 1 seed. It’s not surprising that this skid started immediately after their crucial win over the Grizzlies on March 3, which gave them the tiebreaker between the two teams and a six-game cushion atop conference standings. That they’ve dropped games to the lowly San Antonio Spurs and the sub-par Chicago Bulls during this stretch is further evidence that they’ve taken their foot off the gas.
A lack of focus and intensity does not explain everything, however. Jokic is correct that they should be concerned, especially about their play on the defensive side of the ball. While never their strong suit, they’ve been woeful as of late. Over this six-game stretch they have the worst defensive rating in the league (121.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) despite playing just 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 over his poor effort on the defensive end. Following the loss to the Knicks, Jokic said “we cannot defend really well right now.” Everyone is aware of the problem, but fixing it is a big challenge when the Nuggets’ best players — Jokic, Jamal Murray and Porter — are not 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 is time to be concerned.