The Denver Nuggets were one of the Western Conference's better teams during the regular season, securing the No. 3 seed as a great offensive team with a defense that ranged from solid to poor depending on the night. Through four games of their first-round series against the sixth-seed Utah Jazz, it hasn't quite been the same. The offense has been fine, and even very good on some nights. The defense, though ... the defense has been nothing short of putrid, and has allowed the Jazz to take a dominating 3-1 lead in the series.
That's not entirely the team's fault. Gary Harris and Will Barton were two of the Nuggets' best perimeter defenders during the regular season and both have missed the entirety of basketball's restart in Orlando. Jamal Murray is very important on offense but doesn't offer much on the other end of the court for a guy who needs to play most of the game fro Denver to win.
But my God, have the Nuggets been bad. Their defensive rating in the bubble has been 131.1 so far. To put that into perspective, the Cleveland Cavaliers had the worst defense in the NBA by that metric during the regular season, and their defensive rating finished the year at 114.8. If the Nuggets played this kind of defense during the regular season, they would have ranked dead last in the league and would have boasted one of the worst defenses ever. They certainly were not a great defensive team when they had Harris and Barton healthy, but they ranked 16th in the league with a defensive rating of 110.4 before the playoffs.
That kind of drop-off can't be chalked up only to the absence of two players, no matter how valuable they are. Mike Malone is a coach who values defense and appears to be in physical pain whenever he watches his squad blow a rotation or allow an easy basket. The Nuggets have completely fallen apart on that end of the floor. The presence of Michael Porter Jr. has not helped matters there. He was never tabbed as a defensive stud, but given these are his first real NBA minutes, Porter has to adjust to the speed and scheme of NBA-level defense at the same time. That leads to a lot of "what the hell was he doing" moments on that end of the court. But Malone has to keep him out there because he's so good offensively.
But again: the presence of individual poor defenders (or a lack of good ones) does not permit Donovan Mitchell to to average 39.5 points per game this series. The Jazz have scored more than 120 points in each of the four games against the Nuggets thus far, and only one went into overtime. That kind of failure cannot be blamed on injuries.
Watching the Nuggets play, it just seems like it's an effort issue. Which is confusing because this is the playoffs. The one time of year where effort, of all things, should not be a problem. Nikola Jokic seems to be the biggest offender in that department. He's responsible for so much of Denver's offense it's tough to rail him for not having the energy to bust it on defense, but it's been unacceptable. Rudy Gobert is not exactly an offensive powerhouse and yet he's averaging 19 points a game on 75 percent shooting from the floor against Jokic and his teammates. No matter how Malone tries to mix up the Nuggets' defensive coverage, Utah is just picking them apart. Gobert has wide-open layups, and if he doesn't, Mitchell has an opening for a shot, an easy pass, or a chance to drive to the hole for a foul. It's like clockwork.
Game 5 might be different with the Nuggets' season on the line. It better be if they don't want to get escorted to the buses a few hours after the game ends.