The Nuggets took a 3-2 series lead against the Spurs last night as Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and the rest of Denver’s roster appeared far more comfortable in a playoff setting than at any time before. After a Will Barton driving layup at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Nuggets led by as many as 29 points, effectively making the rest of the quarter garbage time. But after appearing as nervous and out of place as the Nuggets had for the majority of the series, how did the Nuggets get here?
Here are 10 numbers to illustrate the progression of the Nuggets-Spurs first round:
1. Offensive Rating
How each team has performed on the offensive end of the floor is the best indicator for what exactly happened during the five previous games.
While the Nuggets had an outlier bad performance in Game 1, the rest of their outings have featured performances with an offensive rating of 115 or higher. The Golden State Warriors’ top offense averaged a 114.9 rating during the regular season, so 115 is a strong indicator of healthy offense.
The Spurs, meanwhile, failed to cross the 110 threshold in four of their five games. Their Game 3 performance yielded a 126.9 rating, the third highest of the entire playoffs and clearly an outlier in it of itself. Game 3 was when Derrick White went off and simply couldn’t be stopped by Jamal Murray, and it was the last game Will Barton started before the Nuggets inserted Torrey Craig. Reducing the quality looks both White and DeMar DeRozan could accumulate during a single game was the biggest step in Denver recovering its defensive mojo.
2. Denver’s wing options this playoff series
Gary Harris and Will Barton began the series as starters, but due to Derrick White’s effectiveness and Barton’s struggles offensively, the Nuggets decided to switch things up and start Craig over Barton.
While Craig’s defensive numbers are colored a bit considering he also serves as the bench power forward next to Mason Plumlee, the key indicators here are Harris and Malik Beasley. Harris’ defensive rating of 100.9 while he’s on the floor is extremely impressive, the best on the team and just ahead of Nikola Jokic’s 102.0 mark. Beasley and Craig have also had the most consistent impact on the offensive end. The Nuggets starters have found their groove with Craig, who aided things with a 5/7 performance from behind the three-point line in Game 4. Beasley has been a consistent threat from the perimeter throughout the series and has had a major impact because of it.
The Nuggets and Spurs are averaging 94.3 possessions per game, the slowest pace of any first round series. Combining the low possession count with two teams that have done a great job of taking care of the ball (more on that later) and the games become much more about avoiding mistakes. For the Nuggets in Game 1, that meant pressure to make every possession count, and they didn’t handle that pressure well from an efficiency perspective.
4. Turnover Rate
I mentioned about that turnovers would play a part in this discussion, and they have. The Spurs, as efficient as they are at taking care of the basketball, have the lowest turnover rate in the playoff field at 9.5%. The offense for the Spurs is very simple, generally involving pick and rolls or post ups with DeRozan, pick and pops or post ups for Aldridge, or kick outs/dump offs to the other options. Very low mistake basketball.
The Nuggets play a version of basketball with their free flowing system of reads, cuts, and post ups that generally yields a higher turnover rate, but in the postseason, they have done a great job limiting those mistakes. The 10.8% turnover rate is third lowest among the playoff field. Nikola Jokic in particular has been excellent, reducing his turnover rate from 15.4% in the regular season to 10.9% in the playoffs.
5. Rebounding Battle
For much of the regular season, the Nuggets were the best rebounding team in the NBA, owning a 52.4% rebounding rate, second to the Portland Trail Blazers. During the playoffs though, the Spurs have won the rebounding battle in four of the five games. Denver finally accumulated a 49-42 advantage on the boards in Game 5 last night, but it’s been interesting to see how Denver has reacted without the aid of extra possessions on their side. The most notable drops in individual rebounding rate during this series have been Mason Plumlee and Paul Millsap, who are accumulating 4.5 and 5.2 rebounds per 100 possessions fewer during this playoff series. Jakob Poeltl, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Rudy Gay have all been excellent on the glass.
6. Nikola Jokic touch count
During the regular season, Jokic led the NBA with 92.5 total touches of the basketball per game, handling everything for Denver as a playmaker, grabbing rebounds, and operating as the first option. In the postseason, that number has skyrocketed to 110.2 touches per game, 15 more than second place Russell Westbrook. In addition, he has 20 more touches in the front court than second place Al Horford in the playoffs.
Jokic is the fulcrum around which everything runs, and while the fear was that the offense would become more ball handler centric in the playoffs, the opposite has happened. The Nuggets are getting Jokic more involved offensively, and it has led to higher assist totals for him and better offense for the Nuggets as a team. When he has a mismatch, the Nuggets get the ball to him nearly every time, and the Spurs double nearly every time, leading to looks like this:
7. The respect for Derrick White
Check out of the points and field goal % of each game from Derrick White this series to determine when Denver decided a change in personnel was necessary.
- Game 1: 16 points on 70%
- Game 2: 17 points on 63.6%
- Game 3: 36 points on 71.4%
- Game 4: 8 points on 37.5%
- Game 5: 12 points on 45.5%
White was excellent for the first three games of this series, complementing DeRozan and Aldridge in the first two contests before showing out in Game 3. At that point, the Nuggets slotted Gary Harris onto White, moving Torrey Craig into the starting lineup to check DeRozan. Since then, neither player has had much of an impact on this series, with DeRozan going so far as to eject himself from Game 4 by chucking the ball at referee Scott Foster.
The NBA website uses matchup data to track which players defend each other the most effectively. During this series, White has absolutely destroyed Murray, scoring 52 points on 23/31 from the field across 133 possessions. In White’s 59 possessions defended by Harris, the young guard has scored just 2 points on 1/6 from the field.
8. Jamal Murray pull up shooting
Murray’s most disappointing skill during the regular season in my eyes was his inefficiency as a pull up jump shooter. He posted a 45.8 effective field goal percentage on these shots in the regular season, in line with shooters like Donovan Mitchell, Lou Williams, Bradley Beal, and Zach LaVine, high volume guys with limited efficiency.
That has completely changed so far in the playoffs. Murray is shooting more pull up jumpers than ever, and he’s hitting them with elite efficiency for the first time in his career.
His 58.1 eFG% is more in line with Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, and CJ McCollum now, smooth and skilled jump shooters that make a living off of such a skill. This is of course small sample size, but Murray feeling himself has been a big part of Denver’s maturation process over the course of this playoff series. From one quarter long outburst in the first three games to two solid outings in Game 4 and Game 5, Murray has officially turned it on and looks like he belongs on the big stage.
9. The low impact of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge
DeMar DeRozan is not an impactful scorer. He puts up crooked numbers here or there, but the Spurs’ biggest impact comes from their bench scoring and the scoring of their supporting cast. Whereas the Nuggets seemingly go as Jokic and Murray go, the Spurs’ two wins came in games where Bryn Forbes and Derrick White were the more impactful guard scorers. In Games 2 and 4, DeRozan certainly put up some good numbers, but the Nuggets learned to live with that as long as they were limiting others. In Game 5, DeRozan had his first truly subpar performance (17 points on 15 FGAs and just one assist) and the Nuggets blew the doors off the Spurs, not because of that, but because nobody else had above 17 points either.
As for Aldridge, he has spent the majority of his time matched up with Nikola Jokic or Paul Millsap on him defensively. Both players have been excellent. Aldridge has scored 36 points on 15/36 from the field against Jokic and 29 points on 11/27 from the field against Millsap. The Nuggets will take that math from two-point range against Denver’s more three-point centric offense.
10. The Spurs’ math problem
Perhaps the biggest reason the Nuggets are pulling ahead in this series is their willingness to take more threes every game. While the Nuggets don’t necessarily blow anyone out of the water with their perimeter shooting (29 threes attempted per game) the Spurs have such a dearth in shooting (18.4 threes attempted per game) that they must remain the more efficient offense. Through five games, that hasn’t been the case, The Nuggets are shooting over 41 percent on their threes. The Spurs are at just 33.7 percent as a team.
There’s simply no way for the Spurs to make up this gap without being a good defensive team, but the Nuggets have slowly figured out how to operate offensively in these playoffs. Nikola Jokic has been steady. Jamal Murray has grown up quickly. Gary Harris is stroking it from three-point range, and the Nuggets are passing like crazy to get these shots.