The Denver Nuggets are 4-4 since the all-star break and haven’t looked like their best self since a few games before that. Their defense is up, ranking 3rd in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) but their offense has fallen off of a cliff, ranking 19th over that same time frame. Part of this is due to the team matching up against some of the league’s most talented defenses. Part of it is due to the integration of Isaiah Thomas to a bench unit that is suddenly struggling to score. But as the most recent loss to the Golden State Warriors highlighted, the most important reason for the offensive regression is the result of a team that is failing to get into their offensive flow.
“A couple of things are trending in the wrong direction,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone told reporters on Monday following the team’s practice. “Our turnovers, points off turnover are 28th in the NBA. Our offensive efficiency since the all-star break is 19th. And our field goal percentage on offense is 25th.” All of those marks are well below their season averages.
“I think it’s a number of things. I think we’re taking a lot of contested shots. I think we’re taking a lot of bad shots. And those forced shots and those turnovers are fueling teams’ breaks, and that’s how we got off to such a bad start in Golden State.”
That bad start began with the opening possession and didn’t slow down until the 3-minute mark of the first quarter. Through the first 19 possessions of the game, the Nuggets demonstrated exactly the type of impatient, selfish, and sloppy offense that is the antithesis of the style of play that has led them to the 2nd best record in the Western Conference.
“We had 30 possessions with either 0 passes or one pass shots,” Malone explained, seemingly blown away by the numbers. The Nuggets had nine such possessions in the opening nine minutes.
Let’s take a closer look at the first quarter of the game to highlight just how out of rhythm the Nuggets were to start this game and the fallout from those disjointed possessions.
Possessions 1: Nikola Jokic left block face-up
3 passes made, 4 players touch the ball, 10 seconds on the clock
The first two possessions of the game weren’t bad. On the first play, a scripted action gets Nikola Jokic near his favorite spot on the court, the left block. He’s scoring 1.02 points per possessions on post ups from that spot and drawing fouls at a pretty consistent rate but at times he can focus a bit too much on trying to draw contact.
Possession 2: Jokic-Harris two-man game
2 passes, 2 players touch the ball, 9 seconds on the clock
In the second possession, the Nuggets take the ball out of bounds and go right into a two-man game with Jokic and Gary Harris. Harris does a nice job of timing his attack and finding a seam to get to the rim but isn’t able to finish through contact.
Possession 3: Will Barton step-back three
1 pass, 2 players touch the ball, 14 seconds on the clock
The third possession might’ve been the worst field goal attempt of the entire game. At practice on Monday, head coach Michael Malone said that there were 13 clips that he pulled from the game that highlighted how selfishly and impatiently the team played and I would wager that this was the first one on the list. This possession set the tone for what turned out to be an awful half of basketball for the starting unit.
Will Barton and Paul Millsap run a screen and re-screen action on the left side in Denver’s “open” offense. Typically, if that two-man game doesn’t produce an open look, the ball should find its way back around to the other side of the floor, opening a new set of actions for Jokic, Harris, and Jamal Murray. Instead, Barton takes a couple of dribbles and forces a step-back three-pointer over the 7-foot tall Kevin Durant. This possession was awful.
Possession 4: Double Pin down for Jamal Murray
1 Pass, 2 players touch the ball, 10 seconds on the clock
The fourth possession wasn’t much better for the Nuggets. Murray received a double pin down handoff going to his left and settles for a contested pull-up mid-range jumper that gets blocked by Cousins.
The Warriors do a nice job of containing this action, but Murray must be able to read the defending big man better and put more pressure on him in these types of actions. Murray has a tendency to commit to his decision too early, picking up his dribble before getting the big off-guard. A hesitation dribble as he turns the corner will allow Jokic to roll while keeping the on-ball defender in jail. He could also force Cousins to move his feet. Instead, Cousins is able to hold his position and contest the shot. In other words, Murray made this as easy as possible for the defense.
Possessions 5 and 6: Transition baskets
The Nuggets finally got a few points with a pair of transition baskets. The first was a run-out by Harris who got fouled and knocked down one of two free throws. The other was the 5-1 PnR between Jokic and Murray that has been so deadly all year.
Possession 7: Barton sloppy turnover
0 passes, 1 player touches the ball
This was one of Barton’s worst games of the season and he was at the center of many of the team’s worst possessions in that opening quarter.
Possession 8: Millsap three
2 passes, 3 players touch the ball, 10 seconds on the clock
The Nuggets are once again trying to get into their free-flowing offense which would start with the Murray-Harris pin down into a two-man game with Jokic. The Warriors are great at switching this pin down so Harris tries to shortcut the pin down but he isn’t able to beat Steph Curry backdoor. Murray’s read is then to become the receiver of the handoff but instead, he also tries unsuccessfully to cut backdoor.
Both players trying to cut backdoor places Jokic in a bit of an uncomfortable position. He can either attack in isolation or swing the ball over to Millsap. Cousins gets a hand on the ball and it influences Jokic to dribble into a handoff with Millsap, my least favorite option in Denver’s free-flowing offense and one of the main obstacles to playing Millsap and Jokic together. Most teams just go under this screen or switch, preventing the Nuggets from creating an advantage. That’s what happens on this possession and as a result, Millsap settles for an off the dribble three-pointer.
Possession 9: Jokic goes off-script
0 passes, 1 player touches the ball, 18 seconds on the clock
The Nuggets called their first timeout of the game and then appear to get set up to run one of their most common actions out of a timeout: a cross screen for Jokic that would get him the ball on the right block. The play calls for Jokic to pitch the ball to Barton before cutting through the paint and receiving a screen from Harris. Barton swings the ball to Murray who enters the ball into the post.
Instead, Jokic tries to go around Cousins and drive to the basket. This is an audible Jokic can and probably should call from time to time but probably picked a bad time to become so aggressive. Draymond Green is the rim protector and Millsap isn’t in position to drag him away from the paint. The play calls for Millsap to stretch the floor by occupying either the left dunker spot or left corner. Jokic drives, loses the ball, and gets the out of timeout turnover, a brutal outcome for a team in desperate need of a bucket.
Possession 10: Murray entry pass turnover
2 passes, 3 players touch the ball, 14 seconds on the clock
This is the play the Nuggets were hoping to run on the previous possession. This time, they get two passes further into the action but Klay Thompson is able to shoot the gap and get the steal.
Murray and Jokic seem to struggle with this pass more than any other duo in the NBA. Jokic can do a better job of using his body to hold off the defender and Murray can do a better job of setting up the pass and delivering it on time. It’s hard to say exactly what percentage of the blame lies on each player but on this play, I’d say it’s about 70% on Murray.
Possession 11: Will Barton transition mid-range
0 passes, 1 player touches the ball, 19 seconds on the clock
This is another example of knowing the time and place. Denver desperately needed to get a bucket so a transition, mid-range, off the dribble pull up jumper is probably the type of shot you want to pass up in this instance. There is a time for these types of shots, but that time isn’t down 12 in the opening four minutes of a game when you have yet to have a single healthy offensive possession.
Possession 12: Harris turnover
1 pass, 2 players touch the ball, 17 seconds on the clock
Harris got involved in the action by taking his own ill-advised drive after just one pass. This time, Jokic dribbled into a handoff in the corner. Harris is really good driving to his right off of this action but the Warriors do a nice job of stunting at the ball.
In a vacuum, this isn’t an awful drive attempt. But given the way the game was unfolding, Harris probably would’ve been better served reading the switch and pulling the ball out for Jokic to post up Thompson while Cousins is left trying to guard Harris on the perimeter.
Possession 13: Playing through Jokic in the post
5 passes, 4 players touch the ball, 10 seconds on the clock
Finally, after five minutes of game time and a 15-3 start to the game, the Nuggets get their first good offensive possession.
The Nuggets run the same action as the play above only this time Harris gets the ball to Jokic in the post despite the Warriors not switching the action. The weak side double pin down is also timed nicely to distract the help defense but, as was the case for most of this game, Green elects to just ignore Millsap and provide hard help in the paint. If the Nuggets play the Warriors in the playoffs, they’ll need to prepare for this and try and find ways to take advantage of Green going so far out of position to provide help.
Jokic finds Murray who does an excellent job of attacking off of the bounce, beating his man into the paint. Once again Green ignores Millsap to provide rim protection and Murray finds him in rhythm in the corner for three.
Possessions 14-19: More impatience
The next several possessions unfold much like the first 12. The Nuggets either attack off of the first option or they get discombobulated and find themselves running disjointed actions. At one point Mason Plumlee took a running floater from the foul line.
At the end of this sequence, the Nuggets were down 19. They ended up losing by 17 which means that over the final 39 minutes of the game, the Nuggets actually outscored the Warriors by two. Of course, the damage was already done. Over that first 9-minute span the Nuggets found just one healthy half court possession en route to a humiliating loss on national television.
The Nuggets aren’t as bad as they looked in this loss but they have to constantly remind themselves that their strength lies in their half court offense and their half court offense is predicated on patience and ball movement. That was Malone’s message on Monday and that will continue to be his message as the team tries to make a final push for the playoffs. With the Minnesota Timberwolves in town for a game on Tuesday night, we won’t have to wait long to find out whether or not his message got through.