Nuggets coach Michael Malone did not heed his father’s suggestion to “chill out,” which came after one of Denver’s earlier preseason games.
In fairness, the Nuggets’ performance in Oklahoma City on Wednesday night didn’t give him any reason to.
The Nuggets sputtered to a 108-99 loss to the Thunder, made even more disheartening because it was the first time Denver’s opening-night starters played together all preseason. They’re now 0-4 in the preseason.
Will Barton’s return to action following his ankle injury was a rare bright spot, but most of what the Nuggets authored was disjointed and ugly. Outrebounded and outhustled by the Thunder, the Nuggets open the regular season in one week at Phoenix.
Until that time, they’ve got ample issues to iron out and plenty of film to illustrate said problems. Denver closes the preseason Thursday night against Oklahoma City in Tulsa.
Bench woes: Malone stressed “consistency” when asked what he wanted to see from Denver’s second unit over its final two preseason games. That didn’t happen in the opening tilt against OKC, though it did get better in the second half.
Nikola Jokic scored with 3:56 left in the first quarter, then exited the game soon after. The Nuggets mustered three points – all via free throws – the entire rest of the quarter.
Even with Michael Porter Jr. staggered alongside Facu Campazzo, P.J. Dozier, Bones Hyland and Jeff Green, the offense stagnated into isolation and dribble-heavy sets. It looked nothing like the fluid, read-and-react offense the starters had generated around Jokic.
Malone’s frustration, on the sidelines and heading into timeouts, was palpable.
The Nuggets opened the second quarter with Austin Rivers on the floor, but not much changed. It wasn’t until the starters trickled back into the game that Denver’s offense had some cohesion.
With just one game left in the preseason, the bench unit – and who will fill it – remains the Nuggets’ biggest concern. Green (15 points) and Hyland (12) held their own.
Porter problems: Porter didn’t help himself much despite being featured alongside the reserves. Over the final three minutes, Porter committed three separate turnovers that undermined their already struggling offense. On one, he got stripped. On another, he got whistled for an offensive foul after kicking his leg out on a 3-pointer – a point of emphasis for the officials this season. On the last one, he threw the ball away while trying to advance it up court.
Defensively, his rotations and closeouts weren’t sound either. Insult to injury came with 7:55 left in the third quarter, when Porter botched a wide-open dunk.
Less than two minutes later, with the Nuggets trailing the Thunder 72-57, Malone subbed out the entire starting five. The rare move was preempted by their uninspired play.
Porter finished the game with 15 points on 6-of-14 shooting and six rebounds. His frontcourt partner, Aaron Gordon, struggled even more from the field.
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Barton’s bounce: For weeks, the Nuggets had talked about how healthy Barton looked prior to rolling his ankle on the first day of training camp. The early reports were accurate.
Barton looked spry and bouncy en route to 11 points and nine rebounds. His chemistry with Jokic picked up where it left off last season.
Without Jamal Murray, Barton’s offensive creation is going to be invaluable. Few Nuggets can break down a defense like Barton, or have the score-first mindset that they occasionally need.