NEW YORK — After the Denver Nuggets struggled down the stretch of a 116-110 loss to the New York Knicks on Saturday afternoon, giving the Western Conference leaders a fifth loss in their past six games, Nikola Jokic declared Denver needs to be concerned about how it’s currently playing.
“It is what it is,” said Jokic, who had 24 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists in 37 minutes. “We need to be concerned. We need to try to win the next one.”
Denver will get a chance to do that 24 hours from now, when the Nuggets play a second straight New York City matinee across the East River at Barclays Center in Brooklyn against the Nets. But they’ll need to clean up some of the things that have consistently derailed them during their malaise over the past 11 days — specifically defense, rebounding and poor starts to games.
Since this slide began with a home loss to Chicago on March 8, Denver ranks dead last in the NBA in defensive efficiency and its opponents’ offensive rebounding rate has increased.
Both of those issues were a problem again Saturday, as the Knicks grabbed 15 offensive rebounds — including 7 by Mitchell Robinson alone — and scored 36 points in the first quarter to stake themselves to an early lead.
“Of course,” Jokic said, when asked if the rebounding issues are a problem. “Me first, and then everybody collectively, needs to do a better job of rebounding the ball, because even when we made a couple stops, we didn’t rebound and they just got easy ones. They had like 15 offensive rebounds, so that’s a lot. That’s 15 chances to score again.”
The 36 first-quarter points also highlighted another recurring issue for Denver: struggling to start games. The Nuggets have been the NBA’s best first-quarter team over the course of the season, outscoring teams by more than 11 points per 100 possessions. But over these past six games, Denver has been outscored by 5 points per 100 possessions and is giving up 130 points per 100 possessions.
But even after that sluggish start, the Nuggets outscored the Knicks 35-17 to end the first half and take the lead for the first time. When Denver’s lead ballooned to 13 early in the third quarter, it looked like the Nuggets had officially gotten over the hump.
But then New York went on a 20-7 run to end the third and simply outplayed Denver down the stretch — outscoring the Nuggets 12-5 in crunch time after Denver entered the final five minutes clinging to a one-point lead — to strengthen its hold on the fifth spot in the East.
“It was the rebounding, and our inability to defend without fouling,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said when asked what caused Denver’s issues late in the game. “Now you’re playing against a set defense for 12 minutes, and then you couple that on top of turnovers. I think those are three areas that stood out to me.”
Nuggets guard Jamal Murray — who led the team with 25 points on 9-for-14 shooting — had another explanation: missed open shots.
“If you go look at the film, I missed a floater, [Kentavious Caldwell-Pope] missed a couple great looks, I think [Michael Porter Jr.] missed a great look … sometimes we don’t hit. Twenty-five points [for the Knicks] is not a bad number. But in that quarter we normally allow our offense to take over, we didn’t hit the shots that we wanted.”
For New York (42-30), Saturday’s win gave it a two-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets with 10 games to go in the regular season, further solidifying the Knicks’ chances of facing off against Donovan Mitchell and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round. The game marked the return of Jalen Brunson, who had played just one half in the past two weeks because of ongoing soreness in his left foot, and he scored 16 points in the first quarter on his way to finishing with a team-high 24 on the night across 32 minutes.
“It was great,” Julius Randle said of having Brunson back on the court. “Jalen is such a big weapon for us. He does so many things on the court. Obviously he’s going to score and pass the ball, he takes charges … he just does little things on the court that make us a better team.”
The Nuggets, meanwhile, prepare for Brooklyn on Sunday knowing that while their position atop the West is secure — even after the loss, they have a four-game lead over the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings with 11 games to play — things need to look different if they want to succeed in the playoffs when they begin next month.
“We are forcing [shots] and not getting the extra pass,” Jokic said, when asked what he’s seeing his team do differently than earlier in the season. “Even when we are getting the extra pass, we are not making shots. So, I think that’s it. And we cannot defend really well right now.”