Nuggets’ Michael Malone on loss to Nets: “We just weren’t ready to play”

The Nuggets got an unbelievable effort from Nikola Jokic, but their typically reliable defense failed them against Brooklyn on Friday night.

The Nuggets buried themselves in a 10-point hole after the first quarter, a product of terrible 3-point defense and carelessness. The Nets didn’t take a two-point shot until four minutes into the game, and by the time the first quarter was over, they’d canned 7 of 13 from 3-point range.

“I thought tonight was the first time where we just weren’t ready to play,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said following the 112-110 loss. “I don’t think that’s been a common theme throughout this season. But tonight is the first time I felt, I don’t know where we were. I told our guys at halftime, I don’t know who that team was that started the game. Lack of mental focus, turning the ball over, not running off the guys we said we’re running off.”

The rest of the game the Nuggets’ defense held the Nets to just 35-percent shooting from the field. But once the defense ratcheted up, a sensitive whistle undermined their efforts. The Nets got to the line 42 times compared to the Nuggets’ 34.

“In the third quarter, we gave them 18 free-throw attempts,” Malone said. “We kept on putting our hands in the air, whether you think it’s a foul or not, stop putting your hands in the air and giving them a chance to make that call. We did a poor job of adjusting to the whistle tonight.”

Despite the free throws and poor 3-point shooting, the Nuggets still found themselves up 110-106 with 1:03 left in the game. Jokic’s yeoman 37-point, 21-rebound effort was largely responsible.

“It’s a game when you’re up four at home with a minute to go, you gotta close that game out,” Malone said.

One game after uncharacteristically passing up open looks, Jokic was a monster in the paint. He consistently put his head down and backed the Nets’ big men down (Ed Davis fouled out in 16 minutes), creating easy scoring opportunities while other starters Jamal Murray and Gary Harris struggled.

With 22 seconds left and the game tied at 110, Jokic, with Jarrett Allen defending him, was called for a costly travel along the baseline. Jokic appeared to claim to officials that Allen had goaded him into the travel with his leg, but they weren’t hearing it. Caris LeVert’s subsequent game-winner sealed it.

Asked about the turnover, Jokic revealed the source of so much consternation over the past two days.

“I can not say nothing, they’re going to fine me,” he said.

Jokic’s recent $25,000 fine had a significant effect on him. Jokic is typically accommodating and friendly to the media, but since Wednesday, when the fine was announced, he’s been reticent to engage much at all for fear of saying the wrong thing.

It’s what prompted Malone to give an impassioned defense ahead of Friday’s game. But just as he responded with a resounding answer to his critics on Friday on the court, the Nuggets’ 23-year-old star will eventually lower his guard with the media once again.

“I feel the ball really good tonight,” he said in brief postgame remarks.

Not that that type of production should be expected every night, but at minimum, he must be engaged and assertive.

“He’s gonna be fine, let the kid be a 23-year-old young kid who’s gonna have a great, great future in a Nuggets uniform,” Malone said ahead of his huge night.

The Nuggets get another chance on Sunday against Milwaukee.

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