The Bubble burst for the Nuggets in the second half Saturday.
Although they were the "home team’’ and wore uniforms with Mile High City on the front, the Nuggets played in their NBA regular-season return only 125 feet above sea level. In the third and fourth quarters they played at a below D level.
It was the Heat (who outscored the Nuggets 69-48 after halftime) indoors, not the humidity (41 percent) outside.
Coach Michael Malone did insert his Brobdingnagian front line for a few minutes, but it was not a tall, tall world at Disney World.
Malone and the Nuggets have a “No Excuses’’ mantra, but I will speak in their defense. Well, not the dreadful defense the Nuggets bared in permitting 38 points in the third quarter and 125 overall, with 55.6 percent shooting and 43.8 percent from beyond the arc.
The Nuggets were missing three-fifths of their starting lineup for the NBA ReOpening Game (after the March 11 interruption). Jamal Murray (hamstring), Will Barton (knee) and Gary Harris (hip) combined through 55 games this season for averages of 44.3 points, 10.6 assists and 12.3 rebounds. Their absences left Nikola Jokic to fend almost by himself on offense, which is like Joey McIntyre trying to perform a concert with four new kids from the alley, not the block.
Two starting replacements, Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris, just arrived in Orlando in the past week because of unannounced issues, although you could probably guess. They started just nine previous games (Porter one). The first guard off the bench against Miami was P.J. Dozier, who previously was a routine DINOP.
It is well to remember that the Nuggets had only nine players available for the early practices in the sports complex. They sort of looked like the Hickory High School roster out of the movie “Hoosiers.’’ Eight players were stuck back in Denver, Serbia and parts unknown.
In the first exhibition Malone shockingly started an anti-Rockets and Gulliver-like lineup consisting of players 7-foot-2, 7-0, 6-11, 6-8 and 6-7.
Bol Bol Ball. In the first half Bol made his regular-season debut and played alongside Jokic and Mason Plumlee briefly. BB didn’t look totally lost, but seemed uneasy in real NBA time. He was more comfortable the second time around and finished with 12 minutes, five points, four rebounds, one amazing needle pass to Plumlee for an assist, a play with three tip-backs and one block. Bol shouldn’t be out of his element by playoff time.
MPJ is not to be confused with early MJ. Porter did score 11 points, but he had more personal fouls than assists and rebounds (5-4) in 25 minutes, and his defensive liability (reminiscent of Carmelo Anthony) doesn’t overcome his offensive contribution yet.
The Nuggets weren’t half bad. They led the Heat 57-56 at the Bubble break and had played reasonably well under difficult circumstances. These two teams are comparable — Miami with a 42-24 record now and in fourth in the East, and Denver with a 43-23 mark and the third spot in the West. Yet, Heat center Bam Adebayo outplayed Jokic with 22 points, nine rebounds and six assists to 19, 7 and 6. And Jimmy Butler outplayed everybody on the Nuggets.
The Nuggets coach, who has been feeling like MaLone Ranger because of the lack of a roster quota and any cohesion, wants to utilize these eight regular-season games to develop a rhythm leading into the postseason. It’s good for the Nuggets that the NBA didn’t go directly to the playoffs. They would have been hard-pressed to beat the small-ball Rockets on Saturday.
Malone was solemn before the game when all Nuggets players and coaches kneeled during the national anthem. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf would be proud.
The coach was agitated afterward. “I thought we had possessions (Saturday) where I saw a lot of guys out there not playing hard. Whether you have guys out with injuries or coronavirus, that’s unacceptable.’’
As it is, the irregular Nuggets may not be able to hang onto the third seed because of a schedule that’s no adventure in the Magic Kingdom. They still have Thunder, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Lakers and Raptors.
Maybe they can get healthy and their act together by the first round.
By then, no excuses will be offered, and the Nuggets must remove the Bubble wrap.