Evaluating Denver Nuggets’ Most Likely Playoff Matchups
The Denver Nuggets are one of the NBA’s most unique teams.
In a league that has migrated to a fast pace, perimeter-oriented style of play, the Nuggets stand out as a group that continues to make their mark with the more traditional, slower half-court game that thrives on a variety of inside looks.
Per Advanced NBA stats, the Nuggets are fifth in two-point field goals made per game (30.9) and 26th in three-point field goal attempts (30.4). One of the slowest teams in the league, they rank 29th in pace and 20th in points scored per game (110.4).
But if the Nuggets have proved anything, it’s that you can buck the trend and still be very effective. The team ranks ninth with an offensive rating of 112.0 and fourth in ball movement with 26.5 dimes a game.
To understand how the Nuggets truly thrive in the modern era, however, is to look at how they run their offense. It all starts with do-it-all big man Nikola Jokic, who is literally at the front and center of the team’s offensive scheme.
Jokic epitomizes the modern big and leads the team in points (20.2 ppg.), rebounds (10.2) and assists (6.9). With his size and agility, Jokic combines a fierce post-up game with great handles and the ability to hit the outside shot when the team needs it.
‘The Joker’s’ ability to score is complemented by his exceptional skill at creating open looks for teammates. Somewhere in Jokic’s team-leading assist numbers also hide 277 screen-assists, good for sixth in the league.
By the time the NBA shut down in March, the Nuggets boasted a 43-22 record (third in the Western conference) including a 15-11 record against teams sporting .500 or higher mark.
But how does this all translate into the Nuggets’ postseason chances?
Here’s a look at a couple of potential matchups and how they could impact the team’s success when it counts the most.
If the season were to end today—and assuming we don’t see much change in the seeding—the third-seeded Nuggets would go up against the sixth-seeded Rockets in the first round.
With the lack of a real shot-blocking big playing starters’ minutes—no disrespect to Jerami Grant who is in a support role—the Nuggets’ success in this matchup really depends on how well they manage their defensive rotations and recover to the perimeter on kick-outs.
A good template for this was on display in their first matchup of the season (November 20) when the Nuggets held the fast-paced Rockets to under 100 points and picked up the win, 105-95. Individually, the coverages on guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden proved slow, but the combination of traps, help defense and intelligent rotations and closeouts helped force a number of turnovers that the Nuggets were able to convert on.
Overall, the Nuggets forced 20 turnovers, including eight from Harden, while holding the Rockets to a 42.1 percent shooting clip.
The video below highlights just some of the many ways the Nuggets trapped Harden on the night and took the ball out of his hands. It often required help from the weak side, along with quick rotations and closeouts from all five players on the court:
This is what the Nuggets are capable of when they are at their best. But consistency is key.
The Nuggets would go on to lose (by a big margin) the next two games against the Rockets in Houston—including a 130-104 loss on December 31 in a game that also featured the return of guard Eric Gordon off the bench; as well as a 121-105 loss on January 23.
Denver’s only other victory against Houston came just a couple of days later in Denver with a 117-110 win when Harden was not available to play.
In both victories against the Rockets, the Nuggets held them to an average of 102.5 points on 43.9 percent shooting. In both losses, the Nuggets gave up a whopping 125.5 points on 50 percent shooting.
Defense, particularly on Harden, Westbrook, and Gordon, is key if the Nuggets are to put up a fair fight. If so, I would expect the series to go to a Game 7.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER OR UTAH JAZZ
In the current scenario, Nuggets would face either the Thunder or the Jazz if they were to make it out of the first round. While Denver matched up well with both during the regular season, it’s worth noting some of the key numbers from their games against each other.
In two games against the Jazz (both victories), Jokic averaged a scorching 29.0 points, 12.5 rebounds, 10.0 assists and 2.5 steals on 58.1 percent shooting. He was a matchup nightmare for big man Rudy Gobert.
In both those games, guard Donovan Mitchell was held to an average of just 11.0 points on 25.0 percent shooting. Mitchell shot just 1-7 from deep overall and averaged 4.0 turnovers through the matchup.
Responsible for locking down Mitchell was 6’7” defensive wing, Torrey Craig. Mitchell had this to say after the first of their two regular-season games:
“He made it tough on me. He always does. I can’t sit here and say ‘Oh, I was tired.’ He did his job.”
The Nuggets, however, did allow the Jazz to make an average of 15.5 threes on a 40.8 percent clip, and this could be a potential problem in the postseason. Chief among credible threats from the perimeter was wing Bojan Bogdanovic, who shot a combined 45.0 percent from deep, including going 6-10 during their 30 January game in Denver.
If Jokic was impressive against the Jazz, his averages through two games against the Thunder were even more so: 30.0 points, 10.5 rebounds, 8.5 assists, plus 1.0 steal, 79.3 percent shooting and 50.0 percent from deep.
Particularly problematic for the Nuggets, however, was the inside-outside game of guard trio Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder. Making them work for their shots will be key to locking down the Thunder.
In their December 14 loss to the Nuggets (110-102), the trio combined for 53 points on 54.0 percent shooting to go along with 17 assists and 5 steals. During their February 21 victory (113-101), the trio combined for 51 points on 47.5 percent shooting to go with 13 assists.
While a second-round matchup against the Jazz or the Thunder may not prove to be as challenging as their matchup against the Rockets, the Nuggets can’t afford to be complacent, especially in checking smaller, quicker guards and perimeter-oriented play.
Given Chris Paul’s post-season experience and ability to light it up in the clutch, the Thunder may actually prove to be more dangerous than they look.
The Nuggets have certainly proved their mettle this season through a very unique but efficient style on offense. Their postseason success, however, will heavily depend on what they do on the other end of the floor.
Sid is a TBW staff writer who was born and raised in India. His fandom is a testament to the ever-widening reach of the NBA. Always rooting for the underdog player and/or team, Sid has lived through many exhilarating ups and frustrating downs as a New York Knicks fan for nearly two decades.