Justin Holiday has had better final minutes. The Bulls have had better months — and better decades in this Mile High City.
Losing for the seventh straight time this season and 11th straight in Denver, the Bulls blew the last of an 18-point lead when Will Barton blew past Holiday for an acrobatic layup with 3.2 seconds left Thursday.
Though it looked like a blown coverage or miscommunication because Holiday let Barton drive as if he thought he had help behind him, Holiday had none of that. He owned the play.
“I pretty much just didn’t do my job,” he said. “I let my teammates down. That’s it.”
The loss somewhat sullied an encouraging effort in which Lauri Markkanen snapped out of his five-game slump and Kris Dunn limited turnovers while still attacking.
Markkanen scored 20 points, including a stone-cold jumper on recognition of a mismatch with guard Jamal Murray for a three-point lead with 53.7 seconds left. But Holiday inexplicably fouled Barton on a 3-point attempt with 45 seconds left, and Barton sank all three to tie it. With the Bulls instructed to take a quick shot on a two-for-one possession, Holiday forced a quick 3-pointer and missed.
He followed that with another foul on Barton, who split two free throws with 20.2 seconds left for a one-point Nuggets lead.
“It’s very disappointing. That’s a game won,” Holiday said. “Three big plays that I’m a part of; it’s unusual. But that’s on me.”
Dunn pushed the Bulls ahead with a strong drive over Kenneth Faried with 9.6 seconds left before Barton’s winner. Dunn, who powered through contact to score over Faried and might have been fouled, finished with 19 points, five assists, five rebounds and just one turnover.
“The big was on me, so I tried to attack him downhill,” Dunn said.
The Nuggets, already down Paul Millsap and Wilson Chandler, prevailed despite losing Nikola Jokic in the first half to a sprained left ankle.
“I told our guys altitude only affects them outside,” coach Fred Hoiberg deadpanned before the game. “I don’t think they bought it.”
Hoiberg has kept his sense of humor throughout this first season of a full rebuild, no easy task for a team saddled with the league’s worst record. Management has said it is judging this season on effort, improvement and player development, not wins and losses.
But coaches live and die with the latter, which is why Hoiberg had a one-hour phone conversation with 76ers coach Brett Brown over the summer. Brown drew near-universal raves around the league for his ability to keep the 76ers on point and playing hard during 19-, 18-, 10- and 28-victory seasons.
“We talked about staying positive with your team through the tough stretches,” Hoiberg said. “When you have a young group, you’re going to go through that.”
The eventual returns of Zach LaVine and Nikola Mirotic keep Hoiberg upbeat. The Bulls also activated David Nwaba against the Nuggets after Nwaba missed the last 11 games with a severely sprained right ankle, although he didn’t play.
“The losing is obviously tough,” Hoiberg said. “You go back and look at every game and see things you could’ve done better. I’m a guy who looks at myself first after every game.”
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