The Hoop Collective: Why Nuggets are so clutch, Mikal Bridges' star turn and Memphis' other issue

For every 100 possessions the Denver Nuggets have played in the clutch this year, they have outscored their opponents by 24.5 points. Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports

Brian Windhorst and a team of ESPN's Insiders sort out life and the news from in and around the NBA world, including the Denver Nuggets' clutch gene, the next step for a young Brooklyn Nets star and the other issue impacting the Memphis Grizzlies' season.

With three minutes to play and up by six points Monday night, the Toronto Raptors were in great position to get a terrific victory.

But they had a problem, they were playing the Denver Nuggets at the end of a close game -- in Denver. That situation has been a torture chamber for Nuggets' opponents this season. And so it was again.

There is no team that can touch the devastating effectiveness of the Nuggets in the clutch this season and the Raptors couldn't either. Denver won the final minutes by a 15-4 margin -- though the end was marred by a controversial ejection for Raptors' forward Scottie Barnes -- and racked up another victim.

With big-market, star-laden teams behind them in the standings and losses before the conference finals in the last two seasons even as Nikola Jokic was winning Most Valuable Player Awards, the Nuggets are sometimes disrespected.

Even now, despite sitting in first place in the Western Conference for nearly the entire season and opening a seven-game lead on the Memphis Grizzlies to practically lock down the No. 1 seed, the Phoenix Suns have zoomed past Denver as favorites to win the West after trading for Kevin Durant, according to Caesars Sportsbook.

But the truth is the Nuggets are a victory machine, and especially so in clutch time. Defined as when the score is within five points in the last five minutes or in overtime, it's when the Nuggets dominate their opposition.

For every 100 possessions Denver has played in the clutch this season, it has outscored opponents by a ridiculous 24.5 points. If a team is in a close game with the Nuggets in Denver, it's just merciless, as they have smothered the other team by a preposterous 34.7 points per 100 possessions.

To put it in perspective, the Philadelphia 76ers are the second-best team in the clutch with Joel Embiid and James Harden developing a terrific chemistry, including an impressive clutch-time road win to end the Milwaukee Bucks' 16-game win streak on Saturday.

Philadelphia has been excellent, yet have outscored teams by "only" 15.2 points per 100 clutch possessions.

One of the knocks on the Nuggets' title chances is that their defense isn't elite -- to be fair, outside of the Grizzlies, none of the league's top defenses resides in the West -- and Denver does rank a pedestrian 12th in defensive rating.

But when they have to get stops in the clutch, when games slow down and half-court execution becomes paramount, the Nuggets zoom to No. 1, allowing 92.7 points per 100 possessions.

Two offseason acquisitions -- versatile defenders Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown -- seem to have made a huge difference for the Nuggets on this front when combined with Aaron Gordon, who has great size and the ability to switch on defense during those sometimes-chaotic end-of-game moments.

Led by an ever cool-tempered playmaker in Jokic, the Nuggets have the league's No. 2 offensive rating. This isn't a surprise at all. The Nuggets have the second-most prolific offense in the NBA and lead the league in 3-point percentage (39.0).

"They have a couple new players and have a couple players who have missed some time with injury, but overall they have a lot of continuity compared to a lot of the rest of us," a Western Conference coach told ESPN. "Jokic and [coach Michael] Malone have been together a long time, and when you play them you can feel their experience in those moments. I'm envious of it."