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Play-Off Scouting Report: Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are a beatable team for the Thunder

Denver Nuggets v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets have been a very good regular season over the last two years. The Nuggets have consistently been towards the top of the conference and the driving force behind this success has been Nikola Jokic. Jokic has a skill-set that is unlike many other players in the league, he is a centre who has the full complement of guard skills and is comfortable being a lead ball-handler in the offence. It can be difficult to guard Jokic, his threat as a ball-handler drags opposing bigs outside and creates plenty of space for other players to cut into. It is an offensive inverse that means Denver is ninth in the league in terms of offensive efficiency.

However, the Denver Nuggets are not particularly feared and in fact, the Nuggets would be a preferred match-up for the Thunder. It is an odd statement to make about a team who have performed strongly during the regular season but it can be the case that regular season success does not translate to the post-season. The Atlanta Hawks under Coach Budenholzer were a well-oiled machine during the regular season but the team was dismantled by the Cleveland Cavaliers during the play-offs. In the post-season, it is important to have players who can perform consistently and reliably, inconsistency can lose games which may swing the series. The Nuggets’ reputation stems from their struggles last season, Denver scraped by a weak San Antonio side before losing to Portland Trailblazers that was beat up. Enes Kanter played a large majority of the series with a separated shoulder that was hugely painful for the Turkish big man.

The only way for the Nuggets to disprove this reputation will be to make a deep play-off run and upset teams who are favourites to win an NBA title. That was the case for the Toronto Raptors, the Finals’ victory against the Golden State Warriors laid to rest any criticism that the Raptors were bottlers in the post-season. Despite the fact that the Nuggets do not seem like serious contenders, it is an interesting first round series for the Thunder. Denver do have a few really good players apart from Nikola Jokic. Paul Millsap, Jamal Murray and Will Barton are all quality players, the question for the Nuggets is who steps up into the second option role.

Attack the Big

Jokic is the main offensive facilitator for the Nuggets, he drives the team’s efficient offence and provides shot creation for the team. As a player, Jokic is hard to slow down defensively. His technical level means that defences have to get creative with their schemes and it is a thankless task. Jokic is comfortable when dealing with pressure defence, he will use his mind and those long arms to find a team-mate who can then use the 4v3 situations to create a bucket. Jokic is a strong scorer inside, he is a crafty finisher out of the pick and roll and is able to use his body to break down defence out of the post-up. While his outside shooting is not great, his presence as a deep shooter stretches the defence as the defence cannot totally sit off him for the fear that Jokic will hit a hot streak from deep due to the open looks. The priority for the Thunder should be making Jokic a net negative on the court, his offence is superb but his lack of speed can be attacked on defence.

Jokic’s physique is fairly doughy and he is not blessed with a great deal of lateral speed. While the big man has become much comfortable in switching onto guards or defending in space, this archetype of big is lean and wiry. A player like Clint Capela is capable of playing in this way, he does not carry around extra weight and his feet are nimble enough to cover ground laterally. Nikola Jokic is unable to do this, he has lumbering feet and does not move quickly going sideways which makes it difficult for him to defend in hedge schemes. Jokic cannot be relied upon to consistently stay in front of his man. Mike Malone understands the limitation and chooses to run a drop coverage which provides less scope for Jokic’s physical limitations to be exploited. The drop puts Jokic at the rim as he defends the pick and roll, a spot where he can protect the rim instead of worrying about guarding a man.

Oklahoma City can take advantage of the drop coverage by getting buckets in the mid-range area. A drop coverage usually gives up the mid-range area instead of highly efficient looks at the three-point line or within three feet of the bucket. The Thunder are a strong team from the mid-range, the Thunder get 11.9% of their points from this area of the floor and it is often an efficient look. Oklahoma City have four players who are efficient from the mid-range area, Chris Paul leads the pack with 53.9% on 4.1 FGA from the mid-range area with Schroder and SGA following closely. Gallinari is the worst shooter from the mid-range on the Thunder and he shoots 47.1% on long twos. The upshot of the numbers above is that the Thunder are one of the most efficient teams in the league from the mid.

The Thunder need to adjust their shot diet as a team and embrace the mid-range jumper, I would want Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder to take a decent amount of looks from this location to punish the defence. Hitting the mid-range jumper will eventually force an adjustment from the defence which will open up other areas of the floor. The corner three will become available when Denver’s defensive scheme adjusts. Hitting the mid-range will also put pressure on the big man. Once a guard gets into the mid-range area, the big has to make a tough decision. The big either chooses to stay home or they come out to challenge the shot, in the case of the Nuggets Jokic or Plumlee will stay home. However, the Thunder hitting the mid-range jumper will cause hesitancy for the defence, the natural instinct is to prevent OKC getting easy looks. Oklahoma City want the Nuggets in this mind-set, if the defence is uncertain mentally, lapses will come due to guys trying to do too much.

Continuity

The Nuggets did not change much last off-season, Denver carried forward a lot of players from last season. The starting lineup is the same and only two new additions have played significant minutes for the Nuggets. Michael Porter Jr earned rotation minutes this season and his emergence led to Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez being traded. Porter Jr was not new to the Nuggets, he spent all of last season as a medical red-shirt for Denver after being drafted in 2018. Jerami Grant was the other new addition, he came to the Nuggets in a trade with the Thunder. The lack of turnover for the Nuggets has only been a positive in terms of players understanding the system and their team-mate’s tendencies.

This will be a difficult issue for the Thunder to overcome, a team that understands itself is able to cover their deficiencies and lapses quickly. It will be important for the Thunder to remain patient and probe for seams instead of directly hunting mis-matches, the Nuggets are too well-oiled to give up points on the switch. The key for taking the Nuggets out of their rhythm is to be disruptive on defence, Denver cannot be allowed to run offence at a pace which they are comfortable with. The Nuggets are a team that prefers working in the half-court set, Denver are 29th in Pace, the half-court set allows Jokic to display the full extent of his passing abilities. In the half-court, Oklahoma City need to deflect the ball and force the defence to waste precious time off the clock. There is a difference between initiating a possession with sixteen seconds on the clock compared to doing the same thing with twenty two seconds on the clock. There is less room for error with less time on the clock, everything has to work perfectly to get a good look as there is no time for a mistake to be fixed.

It is critical for the Thunder to break the Nuggets’ rhythm and force the opposing team to over-think possessions. No team works effectively when it is not playing in the flow of the game. The pressure will be on the guards to get their hands on the ball and harass Jamal Murray and Will Barton. The same principle goes for Steven Adams, he needs to get physical with Nikola Jokic and wear him down.

Offence by Committee

Denver does not have a typical hierarchal scoring structure, it is a team where there are multiple contributors who can score points consistently on a nightly basis. It is common for teams to have de facto second and third options within their offence. The Cleveland Cavaliers who won the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2016 had three distinct options, LeBron, Kyrie and Kevin Love. LeBron James was the clear number one, he ran the team’s offence as primary ball-handler. Kyrie was the second option as he was responsible for supplementing LeBron’s scoring and play-making. Love filled in as the team’s floor-spacer. In Denver, the scoring load is balanced, seven players average double-digit scoring.

The Nuggets’ balanced scoring comes from the democratic offence installed by Mike Malone. The scheme will mean that the hot hand will be fed and the lead ball-handler is free to make decisions about who receives the ball. An ‘offence by committee’ approach is a double-edged sword for a team. It is really good to to have multiple players who can get hot from the floor and chip in points. Random players going off for big scoring nights is a headache for the defence, these players are not usually game-planned to a granular detail so it can be hard to figure out how to slow these players down.

The other side of the argument is that a lack of distinct options mean that the offence is less structured which can be confusing in a post-season setting. Every player will be willing to move the ball and create opportunities for their team-mates but this unselfishness can be a bad thing if no player wants to shoot the ball. This might seem like a small criticism but over-passing the ball is a real issue for teams, there is little gained from endlessly passing the ball around without finishing good looks. It would be hugely beneficial for the Thunder to force the Nuggets to over-pass and for the ball to stay out of the hands of their lead guys.

At a simple level, it is making players like Monte Morris or Jerami Grant beat you when the shot clock is running rather than Jamal Murray who is more comfortable in this situation. This is the ideal result for the Thunder, the ball stays out of the hands of the Nuggets’ two best players. It will be important for the Thunder to pressure the ball early in the clock and force mistakes from Murray or Barton. The defensive pressure needs to get the ball out of the lead ball-handler’s hands or create mistakes. It will be important for the Thunder to get into the blitz coverage early and come back to the regular defensive scheming a lot faster, OKC need to take away easy looks.

Guard Post-Up:

The Denver Nuggets are a good side but the team is pretty small in the back-court which is a point that the Thunder can attack especially through Chris Paul. Chris Paul is one of the best players in the league in terms of using the post-up as a weapon to generate easy buckets. Paul’s physical build and proficiency at working the low post is something that many players are not ready for. Paul is adept at using his body to bump defenders and create that slither of separation where he can get a shot off. Oklahoma City should look to use this play fairly regularly to generate offence, there is a play that Houston ran for Paul which would work pretty well for the Thunder.

Mike D’Antoni worked out a play for Paul in his last season with Houston that was highly effective in the play-offs. The Post-Up iso involved Paul dishing to a team-mate and then sprinting through the non-painted area into a spot on the low block where he would receive the ball. The variation added by D’Antoni made this version of the post-up harder to guard compared to a regular post-up, the movement at the start of possession forces the defender to fatigue himself in order to stay with his man. Houston also brought the big man to feign a pick and roll before turning the screen onto the guard chasing Paul. This variation created space for Paul to work, he would get a post-up, a layup or a dish to the weak-side corner three. It was an efficient play for the Rockets and Houston employed the set a decent amount when Paul was on the floor without Harden. Oklahoma City could use the same action with Adams as the screener instead to get Paul to the low block.

The post-up also puts Jamal Murray in a losing position on defence, he is not strong enough to guard Paul down low and will foul a lot in order to slow CP3 down. Paul at the line is always a good scoring opportunity and it could create issues for the Nuggets later in the game if Murray cannot get on the floor due to his fouls. There are counters which Mike Malone can use but it would create weaknesses elsewhere. Malone could stick Will Barton on Chris Paul down low but this would mean an easier match-up for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder’s leading scorer.

The other counter that Mike Malone could use involves doubling Paul in the post. Jokic will be able to make the fast rotation from guarding Adams in the dunker’s spot onto Chris Paul which would make the shot attempt more difficult for Paul. That counter would totally take away the threat of Paul shooting out of the post-up but it creates an easy scoring opportunity for Steven Adams and Paul can be relied upon to find his man with the perfect pass.

The guard post-up has so many options for the ball-handler to hurt the defence and it is so difficult to guard, Donovan needs to seriously think about bringing this action into his playbook. Paul’s talent on the low block needs to be used effectively and I feel that the guard post-up is a way of enabling Paul while attacking a weakness for Denver.

Weak-side Corner Three

While I was planning this piece, I went back and watched the most recent game between the Denver Nuggets and the Oklahoma City Thunder. During the re-watch, I noticed a little wrinkle that the Thunder could potentially exploit. It is pretty common for the weak-side defender to sit off his man and defend the strong-side of the court, a lot of teams choose to squeeze the court and make it difficult for the offence to thread the ball into the lane. Denver are very good at squeezing the court and making the floor smaller but the weak-side defender often strays too far away from his defensive assignment.

Gary Harris is generally a good defender but against the Thunder, he seemed to be one step too far from his assignment. When Chris Paul made the cross-court pass to the corner for three, Dort had plenty of time to cast up a jumper. Harris was scrambling to recover and his close-out was short, he did not always effectively contest the shot. While Dort did not knock down these looks, he went 1-4 on three-point attempts on the night, he will start to knock down open looks at a greater rate when he receives them. Lu Dort is not Terrance Ferguson, he will take open shots when they arise.

The weak-side corner three will be available to the Thunder in pick and roll situations due to the Nuggets’ tendencies to step away from the corner too much, it will be up to the ball-handler to find the correct pass. Oklahoma City need to be careful with the cross-court pass as this pass can be intercepted by active and engaged defence, the guards need to be accurate and decisive with the pass. It even be a good idea to stick a player like Danilo Gallinari in the weak-side corner as his efficient shooting would punish the defence even more. Danilo Gallinari shoots 40.9% from deep, he feasts from downtown and would make it rain if provided time and space. Gallinari is a capable play-maker and could work a triple threat situation from the corner effectively, his size and control over his dribble allows him the ability to work his way inside and get looks at the rim.