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Lethargic Nuggets fall to Hawks, limp home from 1-3 road trip

“I’m just ready to go back home,” said Nuggets guard Jamal Murray after Sunday’s embarrassing 123-115 loss to the Hawks sealed a disappointing 1-3 road trip for the Nuggets, who now find themselves only one game out of ninth place in the Western Conference — and out of the playoffs.

Of course, the playoffs are still months away, but if the Nuggets can’t shore up their defense — or at least find the energy to make the effort — the season could get short in a hurry.

Once again, the Nuggets wasted a promising start by relaxing in the second quarter, turning a six-point first-quarter lead into an eight-point deficit at the half by allowing 37 points to an Atlanta team that drove to the basket at will, racking up 20 of those points in the paint.

Michael Porter Jr, who scored 10 points in the first quarter, took the brunt of head coach Michael Malone’s ire.

“We were getting our ass kicked,” Malone said. “I took a lot of guys out, just looking for a group that was going to play hard. So it wasn’t just an individual.”

Perhaps, but Porter Jr. only played 10 more minutes over the course of the game, as Malone instead leaned heavily on a small-ball lineup and rookie Zeke Nnaji, who had only three rebounds and seven points in 30 minutes on the floor and looked completely overmatched in the fourth quarter. Trae Young, the Hawks’ star, looked more like the legendary Larry Bird on Sunday, effortlessly slicing through the Nuggets’ lethargic defense to score 35 points and hand out 15 assists.

Nikola Jokic had a rare off-night shooting (5-for-15, 15 points), but he and Murray led an inspired comeback attempt in the fourth quarter that still fell woefully short as the pair couldn’t drag a team playing their fourth game in six nights to a much-needed win.

Despite a loss that left them only two games over .500 with the dangerous Trail Blazers up next, a nonplussed Murray may as well have been speaking for the entire team after the game, shrugging his shoulders and saying, “When am I ever concerned, man? It’s a long season.”

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NEXT UP: Nuggets (16-14) vs. Trail Blazers (18-11) | Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 8:00 p.m. (TV: TNT)

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TEAM NOTES

• Following Sunday’s loss, Jamal Murray downplayed it, saying, “We know we can beat the teams we’re supposed to beat. We know we’ll be in the playoffs, and it doesn’t matter who we’re playing.” The Nuggets are 10-6 against teams under .500, but only 6-8 when playing teams with a winning record. 16-14 Denver now sits in seventh place in the Western Conference playoff race, only a half-game ahead of eighth-place Golden State, and only one game from being on the outside looking in.

• The Hawks more than doubled the Nuggets’ free throw attempts — 33 to 16 — but they earned them by driving the lane with abandon, while the Nuggets too often settled for long jump shots from the second quarter on.

• Not surprisingly, the Nuggets dropped to 1-10 when allowing 119 or more points in a game.

• Injuries are having a significant impact on the Nuggets’ season. Without four regulars on Sunday, the team’s remaining players were obviously running low on energy, inexperienced, or both. It cost the Nuggets on more than just Sunday during the just-completed 1-3 road trip.

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PLAYER NOTES

• Jamal Murray’s red-hot scoring streak continued on Sunday, as he scored 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting. It marked the fourth consecutive game in which Murray’s had 25 points or more on better than 50 percent shooting from the field.

• JaMychal Green sat out Sunday’s game, after playing only one minute on Friday before leaving the game with a shoulder injury, but head coach Michael Malone didn’t seem worried, saying, “I don’t think it’s going to be a long-term thing. I’m hoping maybe we can get him back sometime in the near future.”

• Michael Porter Jr. scored 10 points in the first quarter and never scored again. Though Porter Jr., like many Nuggets, got in early foul trouble, only Porter’s minutes shrank significantly. Head coach Michael Malone gave Porter Jr. only 19 minutes on the court Sunday, and the Nuggets clearly could have benefitted from both his rebounding and scoring ability during their failed fourth-quarter comeback attempt.

• Bol Bol played 12 minutes in Sunday’s loss, his second-most time on the court this season. Bol was effective, using his length to make an impressive steal and scoring five points on 2-for-2 shooting.

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THE FINAL WORD

“You guys ask about if we lose games, it’s the end of the world. It’s just basketball. Some days you lose. Some days you win. We know we can beat the teams we’re supposed to beat.” — Jamal Murray, expressing frustration with the media covering the Nuggets.

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INJURY WATCH

• JaMychal Green (left shoulder sprain/contusion) being injured on Feb. 19. He is considered day-to-day.

• Gary Harris (left adductor strain) sat out the Feb. 21 game and is expected to miss more time.

• Paul Millsap (left knee sprain) didn’t return after halftime on Feb. 14. He is day-to-day.

• P.J. Dozier (right hamstring strain) has been out since Jan. 26. He is day-to-day.

• Greg Whittington (left knee) underwent arthroscopic surgery on Jan. 19 and was expected to miss four-to-six weeks.

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ROTATION (MINUTES)

Starters:
— G Jamal Murray (35)
— F-G Will Barton (26)
— F Michael Porter Jr. (19)
— F Zeke Nnaji (30)
— C Nikola Jokic (37)

Bench:
— G Monte Morris (32)
— G Facundo Campazzo (27)
— C-F Bol Bol (12)
— G R.J. Hampton (11)
— C-F Isaiah Hartenstein (11)
— F Vlatko Cancar (1)
— G Markus Howard (1)