MINNEAPOLIS – Two hundred and twenty four days ago, the Denver Nuggets walked into the Target Center for Game 82 of the regular season. The stakes were as high as you can get for a regular season game: 48 minutes of basketball against the Minnesota Timberwolves, win or you go home and watch the playoffs on your couch. The Nuggets were going for the franchise's first playoff appearance since the 2012-13 season against a Wolves team whose playoff drought lasted nearly a decade longer.
Those 48 minutes stretched into the urgency of overtime, and when the Nuggets left the Target Center that night, it would be with a playoff drought that extended at least one more season.
On Wednesday night, the Nuggets walked into the same building for the first time since losing the win-and-you're-in game at the end of last year. This game came with emotions that echoed those of Game 82: Not quite desperation, but certainly that familiar sense of urgency. The Nuggets, after a torrid 9-1 start that was one of the NBA's most impressive starts – including big wins over the Golden State Warriors, the Boston Celtics and the New Orleans Pelicans – had dropped six of their past seven games. Worse, the problems of the past several years had returned. A defense that during the first 10 games seemed to have flipped the script on the past several years of bad Nuggets defense had, over the course of the past seven games, reverted to being bad again. After putting up the NBA's second-best defensive rating through their first 10 games, the Nuggets put up the NBA's 26th-rated defense through their next seven.
It felt like the same story as a season ago, and teams can't expect to roll into the playoffs with a great offense but a defense that's that bad.
"Thankfully it's not Game 82 right now," Nuggets guard Gary Harris told me in the midst of the Nuggets' skid. "We're fighting every day to get into the playoffs, but we got a lot of season left to get everything rolling. I wouldn't use the word desperation. We're just figuring it out. It's just a matter of closing games."
Except there has been something a little different behind the Nuggets' November swoon. Something that made this swoon a whole lot less concerning than the troubles of a season ago. This wasn't a non-communicative, low-energy defense that would forever hold this team short of its potential. It was more the little things the Nuggets were doing wrong during this two-week stretch: The loss of focus during spurts, a struggle to execute defensively during crunch time. To be honest, it's stuff that's expected out of young teams, and the Nuggets are the second-youngest team in the NBA. It wasn't like the Nuggets were getting blown out during that 1-6 stretch. They actually posted a positive net rating during those seven games, and stout defense earlier in the week had brought the Nuggets within a hair of upsetting the Milwaukee Bucks on the road, where the Bucks have been virtually unstoppable. As Nuggets assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr. told me before their Wednesday game in Minnesota, this young team has fully come around to realizing the value of high-effort defense for 48 minutes.
"To our guys' credit, I think our guys were just tired of hearing it," said Unseld, whose coaching focus is on defense. "The numbers speak for themselves. They're in the bottom five the last three years. We can't be good, we can't be a playoff team, if we're continually at the bottom of defensive categories."
"We haven't done a ton of different things as far as scheme this year," he continued. "But the focus has been better. The attention to detail. There's still lapses – that's just the nature of the game. But the overall effort has been better. When there are mistakes, guys are covering for each other. Guys are flying around. There are many clips where we see the defense initially is not perfect. But you see there's effort behind it. Just that mentality to fly around has become more pervasive throughout our roster."
The story of the Nuggets struggling defense last season was part effort and part youth, part focus and part Paul Millsap's health. Their season was divided into three chapters. Chapter One was before Millsap was hurt on Nov. 17. The Nuggets ranked 16th in the NBA in defensive rating during that stretch, and sixth in offensive rating. When Millsap was out, from mid-November until late February, the Nuggets ranked 23rd in defensive rating and sixth in offensive rating. After he returned, the Nuggets were straight fire on offense with the second-best offense in the NBA. But they seemed to rely too much on that offense, thinking they could outscore teams, and the defense remained bottom-10 in the NBA.
"We spent two weeks after the season ended, figuring out how can we be better," Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said. "How can we not be a team that is 30th in three-point percentage defense? How can we be a team that is not almost dead last in paint defense? It's conversations, a lot of film work looking at us, and more important it's looking at other teams – looking at the teams that do it well. How do they do it? Why do they do it? What can we take from those teams and apply to our team?"
The first few weeks of this season, the lesson seemed to stick. Nuggets coaches told me much of the team's defensive credit went to the most unlikely person: superstar big man Nikola Jokic, a remarkable and unique offensive player who has traditionally been less than remarkable on defense. But Unseld sees in this season's version of Jokic a bit of the mind of Marc Gasol: A cerebral player who understands the game, has a great feel for it, and always seems to mentally be a step ahead. He may not have the athleticism to make up ground if he's out of position, but he has the smarts to be in position. And he's been more vocal, the defensive quarterback who can talk his teammates through defensive situations.
"He can only give you so much as far as his physical abilities – or inabilities – but his heart's in the right place, his energy, his effort," Unseld told me. "He's willing to deliver the hit, to guard guys one on one, to accept the challenge. Guys look at him – he's looked at a lot of times as the weak link – and they see that he's trying. So why can't we? So it snowballs. And it becomes a collective mindset."
The collective defensive mindset hit a few bumps the past couple weeks during the 1-6 stretch that led the Nuggets into this week's game in Minneapolis. Malone never thought this team was a 9-1 team, nor did he think they were a 1-6 team – the truth, he said, was somewhere in between. The pressure was on – maybe not the same pressure as in overtime of Game 82 last season, but a pressure to end the slide for what looked like one of the more promising teams in the league not that long ago.
After a first half where both teams struggled to make shots, and both teams showed defensive lapses, Malone went into the locker room and lit into his men.
"I challenged our guys at halftime," Malone said. "Going in, we talked about how we all need to do more, and at halftime I told them, 'We're not doing enough. We're 1-6 in our last seven. I'm not seeing the urgency that we need to get a win on the road against a divisional opponent.' And the way we responded in that third quarter I thought was phenomenal. Our guys were everywhere, active hands, steals, deflections, got us going on the break."
Paul Millsap set the tone. In that third quarter, where the Nuggets locked down on defense and held the Wolves to 18 points, he went to the locker room mid-way through after taking a hit to the face from Karl-Anthony Towns. He returned in the fourth quarter, a few stitches on his forehead but no worse for wear, and completed an aggressive and efficient game on both ends: 25 points on only 13 shots, plus five steals and a blocked shot. Millsap told me before the game that his role as a veteran was to keep his younger teammates positive during this down stretch, and also to fire them up when they needed it. That's what he did on Wednesday night. The Nuggets responded; during the 48 minutes against the Timberwolves, the Nuggets posted a 106.2 defensive rating, which would currently rank seventh in the NBA. Because of it, the Nuggets righted their ship. There will be no feeling of desperation when they face the Orlando Magic at home Friday.
"We have to come out like we did in that third quarter every night, for 48 minutes," Malone said. "And when we defend at that level, there's not a team in this league we can't beat. (This win) just reinforces what we've been preaching since day one. When we lost here last year in Game 82, we spent all summer long not forgetting that feeling of that loss. We committed ourselves. We're not going to be one of the worst defensive teams in the league anymore. That has kept us out of the playoffs two years in a row. All the players have committed to it."