Michael Malone on recession: The Nuggets have been ‘on cruise control’

TORONTO — Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone criticized his team’s effort following Tuesday night’s 125-110 loss to the Toronto Raptors, saying they have become complacent in first place for so long.

The slumping Nuggets (46-23), who have lost four straight but hold a four-game lead in the Western Conference, have not won since a March 6 home win over the Raptors.

“Right now we’re just in chill mode, and with 13 games to go in the season you can’t be in chill mode,” Malone said. “We have to try to find a way to get our swagger back.”

Malone said that several Denver veterans spoke after the loss, urging the team to play better. Asked if he thinks the Nuggets need to hear those words, two-time MVP Nikola Jokic was clear, saying: “Yeah.”

“Maybe we’ve gone a little soft with success,” Malone said. “We’ve been on cruise control for so long, No. 1 in the West as of December 15. I just told my players we’ve gotten away from who we are.”

Jokic had 28 points, Michael Porter Jr. added 23 and Aaron Gordon added 18 as the Nuggets lost the opener of a season-high five-game road trip. They have suffered four consecutive defeats for the first time this season.

Denver allowed 49 points in the first quarter, continuing a concerning trend in which defenses have allowed their opponents to score 100 or more points in five straight games and 120 or more points in each of the last three.

The Raptors shot 20-for-28 in the first and took a 49-30 lead after one and never gave it back on Tuesday night. According to ESPN Stats & Information Research, this is the first game of the entire season that Jokic played and the Nuggets never led.

Denver guard Jamal Murray said, “We just dug a huge hole and couldn’t climb the mountain out of there.”

Toronto was up 88–64, its biggest lead of the game with 8:16 remaining after a Pascal Siakam basket. Denver used a 28–10 run to narrow the gap to 98–92, but the Nuggets could not keep it going in the fourth.

“When you expend so much energy trying to get back in the game, you have nothing left to finish,” Malone said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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