It started with Denver coming out in the second half and allowing the Utah Jazz anything they wanted offensively.
By the time Arron Afflalo threw a vicious elbow that connected with the side of Gordon Hayward’s face, the Nuggets were already deep into frustration mode.
With their starting shooting guard ejected, and with the crowd at EnergySolutions Arena in a frenzy, Denver couldn’t, or wouldn’t do much to stop Utah’s 121-102 victory on Friday night before a nationally televised ESPN audience.
And with the NBA regular-season nearing the home stretch, the Nuggets are imploding at the absolute worst time.
“Our defensive intensity absolutely has to go up,” Afflalo said. “We are a very good team scoring the ball, but it all gets nullified if we don’t make stops.”
In a weird way, Denver’s season is starting to mirror the Utah Jazz of last year. Like the Jazz, the Nuggets got off to a fast start, winning 14 of their first 19 games, climbing almost to the top of the Western Conference standings, and looking like a team that could challenge the elites.
Like the Jazz, Denver traded its best player by the deadline for a young big man out east, as Nene’ was swapped for JaVale McGee.
And like the Jazz of last year, the Nuggets are in sort of a free fall. With Utah’s win on Friday night, Denver is now in a three-way tie for seventh place out West. The Nuggets are on the verge of being in the lottery, hoping for the delicate, lucky bounce of a ping pong ball.
“It’s tough, but at the same time, if we had won we would’ve been in fourth place,” Afflalo said. “So are we the ninth-best team? Or the fourth-best team? We have 18 games to go, so it’s not time to start panicking yet.”
The question for Afflalo is whether he will be suspended and fined for his flagrant elbow on Hayward. With the two boxing out for rebound position, Afflalo intentionally hit Hayward, with whom he had been feuding with for a few possessions.
Afflalo apologized for the play in the Denver locker room after the game, conceding that there “was no excuse to make a play like that.”
But with the intent evident, apology or not, Afflalo could be looking at further discipline from the NBA.
Of immediate concern to Denver is reversing its immediate past. With a trip out east looming, the Nuggets are facing a crossroads. Always one of the better offensive teams in the league, teams are scorching them defensively, with the Jazz being the latest example.
“We have to get better at that part of the game,” point guard Ty Lawson said. “We aren’t playing well on that side of the ball, and it’s been really bad in the third quarter. We have to get better.”