Giannis Antetokounmpo is making a strong case to repeat as the NBA MVP this season, but with the Milwaukee Bucks superstar nursing a sprained left knee, he will miss Monday night's game at the Denver Nuggets.
It is hard to say if not having to worry about his 29.6 points and 13.7 rebounds a game is a good thing or a bad thing for the perplexing Nuggets, however.
A rough bunch of games
Denver beat the Bucks in Milwaukee with Antetokounmpo playing at the end of January, one of the Nuggets' signature wins this season. But that win has been tempered by some bad losses. Three of those have come against two of the three worst teams in the league — and two came in a span of four days.
The latest was a 104-102 loss at Cleveland on Saturday, giving the Cavaliers a sweep of the two games between the teams. That came after blowing a 15-point lead at home against Golden State and losing by 16 on Tuesday night.
The Nuggets are still in first place in the Northwest Division with a chance of grabbing the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, but they have to fix their issues if they want to have a couple of rounds of home-court advantage.
Defense a concern
The most pressing issue is their defense, which was top 10 before the All-Star break but is ranked 25th in the eight games since. "We're just inconsistent, as a team, period," Denver veteran Will Barton told reporters recently. "Inconsistent. Moments where we look real good, moments where we look real bad, moments we defend, moments we don't defend, moments we talk, moments we don't talk."
Milwaukee is comfortably in control of the top seed in the Eastern Conference so the bigger concern is how long Antetokounmpo will sit. He was injured in the loss at the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night and sat out Sunday's 140-131 loss at Phoenix. He has already been ruled out for Monday's game.
"The way they described it to me is we'll see how the next few days go and kind of evaluate him and see where he is then," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "Overall we're very pleased. I think this is about as good an outcome and prognosis as we could hope for, I guess, unless it was nothing."
Denver needs to strengthen defense
Milwaukee has plenty of talent to make up for Antetokounmpo's absence in the short term, as was evident in the loss to the Suns. Khris Middleton had 39 points and Eric Bledsoe scored 28, but the Bucks' defense was lacking. Phoenix shot 55.3 percent overall from the field and 44.2 from 3-point range in dealing the Bucks their third loss in four games. It's the first two-game losing streak of the season for Milwaukee.
Denver is just 4-4 in its last eight games, which has allowed Utah to creep within a game of first place in the Northwest Division. The Nuggets' schedule isn't easy down the stretch, either, with 12 of their final 19 games against teams currently holding a playoff spot.
Denver needs to shore up its defense if it wants to hold on to a top seed in the final month of the regular season. "We're just thinking that our talent is going to get us through that," guard Jamal Murray said after Saturday's loss. "And teams are playing harder than us. ... We've got to find our identity on defense."