clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

This is who the Nuggets are now

New, comments

Whatever happens during the rest of the game, the Nuggets are clutch when it counts

DENVER NUGGETS VS PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS, NBA PLAYOFFS Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Sunday’s contest was always going to be a challenge. Two days after an emotional comeback victory against one of the NBA title favorites this season in the Philadelphia 76ers, a Sunday matinee against the Minnesota Timberwolves on the road may have seemed trivial.

It was in the second half of the fourth quarter, with the Nuggets up 12 and having the momentum, when Denver began to lose focus. Hopes of getting back on the team plane and getting a well-earned rest back home may have clouded various minds before the game was actually done. Combined with an earlier injury to Jamal Murray that sapped his early game momentum, and the Nuggets didn’t score any points in the last six minutes of regulation. It opened the door for the T-Wolves to creep back into the picture, and they did, with Karl-Anthony Towns hitting a clutch three-pointer with under 40 seconds left to tie the game at 90.

Denver couldn’t get it going in the fourth quarter, but they kicked into gear in overtime. Murray continued to struggle, but Nikola Jokic hit an And-1 layup off an offensive rebound (missing the free throw) and Will Barton hit two three-pointers to help give the Nuggets some separation. Minnesota eventually tied the game up at 90 after an erroneous play-on after a kicked ball turned turnover for Murray and layup for Robert Covington. At that point, the Nuggets could have let frustrations bubble over, and maybe it did.

But Nikola Jokic calmed everyone down by doing what he does best: hitting tough shots in clutch moments. This time, it was a turnaround fadeaway on the left baseline over Towns that evoked the image of Dirk Nowitzki.

What else is new for Joker honestly? He does what needs to do to get the victory. This tough fadeaway came just two days after he hit the game winner against the Sixers at Pepsi Center.

Jokic began the season in a very odd way this year. He has struggled with foul trouble in over half of Denver’s games and has spent other portions deferring to the rest of the starters around him. It is perhaps for this reason that Murray and Barton have had such strong beginnings to the year. They have spent more time with the ball than previous seasons, and confidence that each player is showing has elevated Denver while Jokic has struggled.

In the end though, Joker is the key to Denver’s success from day to day. Every now and then, there will be a strong bench performance, or Murray will go off, or one of Gary Harris, Will Barton, or Paul Millsap will shoot highly efficiently. They don’t bear as much responsibility as Jokic though, who conducts Denver’s sets like a symphony. He will direct traffic, set up plays one, two, or even three steps ahead in the play progression, and execute by making the right read every single time. Sometimes, that means he will pass more often than not. Sometimes, it means he takes a high number of perimeter jumpers until the right ones go in.

Denver Nuggets v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Denver’s modus operandi of closing out games in clutch time? That’s nothing new either. Among Denver’s nine games played this year, seven have incurred clutch scenarios, meaning the margin between both teams is within five points with under five minutes remaining. Michael Malone is surely stressed out as much as anyone about being in those scenarios, but he has to be happy with Denver’s results in the clutch.

The Nuggets have a record of 6-1 in their seven clutch games thus far. Normally, this would be considered a negative for Denver in the long term, as clutch results are generally more random chance than anything, but the Nuggets have a track record dating back to 2018-19 of being a team that performs well in clutch situations. Last season, the Nuggets maintained a plus/minus of +55 in 151 clutch minutes. This season, the Nuggets are a +17 in 34 total minutes played.

As Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have grown the two best players on this team, they have shouldered a heavier load in clutch time. Last season, Murray began his growth in that role. The results weren’t there last year (76 points on 67 field goal attempts, 1.13 points per shot, 21 assists, 11 turnovers) but he did a nice job of setting up Jokic and hit some important shots when it counted.

This year though? Murray is taking his clutch shot making to another level to start the year. He has 26 points on 16 field goal attempts, good for 1.625 points per shot, a massive increase. The turnovers are up with six to start the year compared to just four clutch assists, but Murray’s ability to get to the free throw line and hit shots when it counts (13/15 FTs in the clutch) have counteracted the looseness with the ball.

Sometimes, you don’t have to take the dagger shot in order to set it up in a better way. Against the Sixers, Murray had a great drive to the rim with Joel Embiid switched onto him when down three points with 40 seconds remaining.

If Murray doesn’t make the mature decision and take what the defense is giving him, the Nuggets may not have had an opportunity to win it later. Murray calmly stared down the most physically imposing player in the league and drove right around him for the basket. It was a true sign of growth from a player who may have wanted to take the step-back three to tie the game.

But the point still stands: this is who the Nuggets are now. They may not be at their best throughout the game. Maybe the offense isn’t running properly. Maybe the team is sluggish and mistake prone. Maybe there’s a certain apathy about playing in Orlando on a road trip on a Saturday night.

It doesn’t matter. The Nuggets lock in when push comes to shove. Their best players are at their best when the stakes are highest. Jokic and Murray both proved as much in the playoffs, and the Nuggets have some other big shot makers on the roster too with Gary Harris hitting his fair share of daggers, Paul Millsap and Will Barton hitting game winners last year, and multiple bench players unafraid of the moment either.

You best believe the Nuggets are going to set up their late game offense with physical, positional defense in the fourth quarter and overtime. Timely stops combined with baskets on the other end have helped Denver recapture the momentum a hundred times over in the past two years. As many moments as the Nuggets have had offensively, they have had just as many defensively. Mason Plumlee blocked Jerami Grant (hello new teammate) on the road in overtime in OKC. Juancho Hernangomez blocked Damian Jones and the Golden State Warriors right under the rim at Pepsi Center. Torrey Craig had a game saving rejection of Devin Booker in the Nuggets home opener this year.

The Nuggets are wired to make plays. They have made more plays as a group in the clutch than any team in the last two years. It’s just what they do.

And they’re going to continue doing it for a long time. As long as Jokic and Murray are still in town.