Malone challenges ‘soft’ Nuggets after blowout

Malone challenges ‘soft’ Nuggets after blowout

Mike Malone calls out ‘soft’ Nuggets (0:32)

Nuggets head coach Mike Malone was disappointed with his team’s effort in a loss against the Rockets. (0:32)

12:19 AM ET

  • ESPN News Services

With star center Nikola Jokic back from injury and a chance to clinch the No. 1 seed in the West, the Denver Nuggets appeared poised for a big night Tuesday.

Instead, they fell flat against the worst team in the conference, allowing the last-place Rockets to blow them out 124-103 in Houston.

The lackluster performance drew the ire of head coach Michael Malone, who didn’t mince words in assessing his team’s effort.

“If that’s how we’re going to play, we’ll be out in the first round,” Malone said. “When we don’t do our jobs, there’s accountability. And I speak the truth. I just called our team ‘soft,’ and I dared someone to challenge me. No one did, because we as a group were soft tonight. I’m not saying we are soft, but tonight, we were.”

Denver sits two games ahead of Memphis for the top spot in the Western Conference with three games remaining for both teams. The Rockets, now 20-60, stand 32 1/2 games behind Denver’s 52-27 record.

But on Tuesday night, records didn’t matter to the upstart Rockets, hoping to end a rocky season on a positive note.

Denver had a sluggish start to the fourth quarter, making just one field goal in the first five minutes. Houston went on a 16-4 run in that stretch.

Running away with the game late, the young Rockets went on a dunking spree, firing up the Toyota Center crowd for the home finale. After the fourth dunk of the quarter, a thunderous, two-handed windmill dunk in transition from Tari Eason, Malone called timeout with 5:33 remaining in the game and pulled his starters.

The Rockets outscored the Nuggets 38-18 in the fourth quarter.

Jokic had 14 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes in his return from a three-game absence with right calf tightness. He also added a sloppy eight turnovers and went 7-for-13 from the field.

“We started the game OK, but we just lost it,” Jokic said. “The whole game was in their favor. Even when we were finding open shots, we couldn’t make shots. We didn’t make free throws, they were blocking our shots, we had a huge amount of turnovers — it was a one-sided game.”

As for coming back from his brief absence, the two-time MVP said he “felt good — just didn’t play good.”

Nuggets guard Jamal Murray left the game early in the second quarter with a right thumb sprain. He was listed as questionable with the same injury and was ruled out late in the third quarter. In nine minutes, he had two points and four assists.

Malone said the team would be smart in deciding whether Murray can play again in the remaining three regular-season games.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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