1. Denver’s Bubble Net Ratings
In non-garbage time minutes in the bubble (according to Cleaning the Glass), the Nuggets have generated a 118.0 Offensive Rating which ranks fourth in the NBA. With Denver’s best players on the floor, the Nuggets have had little trouble generating offense.
The issues lie with the defense, as Denver’s 122.7 Defensive Rating in the bubble ranks last in the NBA. Denver has run into several elite shooting teams and gotten a little unlucky, but the problems don’t go away with Utah being Denver’s first round opponent. Despite Bojan Bogdanovic being out and Mike Conley at least missing the first game, the Jazz shot 38% from three-point range during the regular season, the top percentage in the NBA.
All in all, Denver’s -4.7 Net Rating ranks 18th out of 22 bubble teams. Denver didn’t play well in the aggregate, though they spent many minutes with bench lineups on the floor in place of starters resting.
2. Utah’s Bubble Net Ratings
In the bubble, the Jazz have been below average both offensively and defensively. On offense, Utah’s 109.7 Offensive Rating ranks 14th among bubble teams, exacerbated by the loss of Bogdanovic and the lack of playable depth behind Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley.
On defense, Rudy Gobert’s presence only got the Jazz to a 113.6 Defensive Rating which ranked 15th in the bubble. When Gobert was on the floor in these past eight games, the Jazz put together a 104.5 Defensive Rating. When he sat, that number rose exponentially to 119.6. The Jazz are incapable of defending without their star, and unlike the Nuggets, there’s no promise of defensive reinforcements any time soon.
Overall, Utah’s -4.1 Net Rating sits right behind Denver at 17th out of 22 teams in the bubble.
3. The Murray-Porter-Jokic combo
In the future, how far Denver goes will almost certainly depend on how well Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Nikola Jokic connect together and lift each other up. Porter has moved up the timetable with some excellent play in the bubble. He made Second Team All-Bubble as voted upon by the media, averaging 22.0 points and 8.6 rebounds while sporting 55.1/42.2/93.1 shooting splits. That level of production on 50/40/90 efficiency is so reminiscent of Kevin Durant, the Nuggets are having flashbacks to losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the 2020-11 playoffs.
In the bubble, the combination of the three players has worked well together, despite some obvious growing pains. The trio is sporting a +10 plus-minus in 67 bubble minutes and +15 in 151 minutes overall. They haven’t been perfect, but some of the offense has been extraordinary. Even though Denver has had some bad turnovers with that trio, there are several that can be fixed with playoff focus. In addition, when Denver locks in defensively and generates turnovers, they can lead to some high quality baskets from a confident Murray.
The Murray-Jokic combo has been deadly for years. The Porter-Jokic combo has showed its face in the bubble every single game. Putting both together will give Denver options offensively no matter what lineup combination is out there. Just put Murray, Porter, and Jokic on the floor together, and everything else is simplified.
4. Donovan Mitchell vs the Nuggets defense
It’s rare for Denver to have so many players have so much success against such a good player defensively, but the Nuggets, specifically Torrey Craig, have had Mitchell’s number this season
In three games this year, here are Denver's matchup stats when DEFENDING Donovan Mitchell, per NBA matchup data:— Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn) August 17, 2020
Torrey Craig - 5/20 FG, 3 AST, 4 TOV
Jerami Grant - 2/6 FG, 2 AST, 1 TOV
Gary Harris - 3/7 FG, 0 AST, 1 TOV
Jamal Murray - 0/4 FG, 0 AST, 0 TOV
Craig has spent more time than anyone in the NBA defending Mitchell other than Memphis Grizzlies wing Dillon Brooks, according to NBA.com’s tracking data. He knows Mitchell’s game well, and the Nuggets will need a big time defensive performance from Craig to buoy the offensive firepower of the Nuggets as a whole.
5. Denver’s Catch & Shoot three-point numbers
In the playoffs, it can come down to being a Make-or-Miss league. Here are Denver’s individual numbers measuring Catch & Shoot three-point percentage:
- Nikola Jokic - 32.5% on 2.9 threes attempted
- Jamal Murray - 39.1% on 2.3 threes attempted
- Michael Porter Jr. - 41.5% on 1.9 threes attempted
- Paul Millsap - 46.4% on 2.2 threes attempted
- Torrey Craig - 32.1% on 2.3 threes attempted
- Jerami Grant - 39.5% on 3.5 threes attempted
- Monte Morris - 39.8% on 1.7 threes attempted
- PJ Dozier - 31.6% on 0.7 threes attempted
- Mason Plumlee - N/A
Overall, the Nuggets players currently in the rotation comprise a solid three-point shooting team off the catch. Five of the nine players all sit above 39% on C&S threes, while three, including Jokic, are far more erratic. Plumlee doesn’t shoot threes, and if the Nuggets have trouble spacing the floor, he may be one of the players cut from the rotation because of it.
If Jokic shoots well on C&S threes in this playoff series, the Nuggets probably win.
6. Utah’s Catch & Shoot three-point numbers
On the other side, here are Utah’s Catch-and-Shoot numbers on the season:
- Donovan Mitchell - 43.2% on 2.7 threes attempted
- Mike Conley - 42.0% on 2.5 threes attempted
- Joe Ingles - 44.8% on 2.5 threes attempted
- Royce O’Neale - 39.8% on 3.0 threes attempted
- Rudy Gobert - N/A
- Jordan Clarkson - 39.0% on 3.5 threes attempted
- Georges Niang - 40.3% on 3.0 threes attempted
- Emmanuel Mudiay - 35.7% on 1.0 threes attempted
- Tony Bradley - N/A
Unlike the Nuggets, the Jazz didn’t have any weaknesses in C&S this year. O’Neale has evolved his game to become more impactful as a shooter, while Utah’s ball handlers can all simultaneously operate as off-ball floor spacers.
This is perhaps the most dangerous factor regarding the Jazz in the playoffs. Even without Bogdanovic, and even without Conley for at least Game 1, every Jazz guard and forward is still a competent knockdown perimeter shooter. Denver can’t leave anyone open. If they do, I’d start with O’Neale and Clarkson, as well as any time Mudiay is on the floor, though it’s a dangerous game to play.
7. Best lineups for Denver in the bubble
The Nuggets had five four-man units in the bubble that yielded a +10 Net Rating or higher (greater than 20 minutes played):
- Daniels-Porter-Grant-Plumlee: +53.4 Net Rating, 20 minutes
- Morris-Porter-Millsap-Jokic: +18.8 Net Rating, 52 minutes
- Murray-Craig-Grant-Jokic: +16.4 Net Rating, 33 minutes
- Morris-Craig-Porter-Millsap: +14.5 Net Rating, 41 minutes
- Murray-Craig-Grant-Millsap: +12.0 Net Rating, 24 minutes
Denver’s lineups are much more varied than Utah’s (which can be found in the next section), and though Denver’s lineups aren’t as potent as Utah’s combinations, having several players involved actually speaks to a healthier system beyond just the best players. Most notably, Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant finding several combinations in which they are impactful positively is a big deal.
8. Best lineups for Utah in the bubble
The Jazz had seven four-man units in the bubble that yielded a +10 Net Rating or higher (greater than 20 minutes played):
- Conley-Clarkson-Ingles-Gobert: +28.6 Net Rating, 22 minutes
- Conley-O’Neale-Ingles-Gobert: +22.2 Net Rating, 93 minutes
- Conley-Mitchell-O’Neale-Gobert: +20.6 Net Rating, 100 minutes
- Conley-Mitchell-Ingles-Gobert: +18.3 Net Rating, 94 minutes
- Conley-Mitchell-O’Neale-Ingles: +18.1 Net Rating, 94 minutes
- Mitchell-O’Neale-Ingles-Gobert: +14.8 Net Rating, 93 minutes
- Conley-Clarkson-O’Neale-Gobert: +14.8 Net Rating, 24 minutes
It’s plain as day that Utah’s most effective lineups are the ones where they utilize their six best players in the bubble: Conley, Mitchell, O’Neale, Ingles, Gobert, and the sixth man in Clarkson. Utah being without Conley to start the series is a big deal.
While the above numbers may look concerning if you are a Nuggets fan, take them with a grain of salt. Among all other Jazz four-man lineups, only one was positive. The Nuggets had eight other positive four-man combinations in the bubble, several including Porter, Grant, and Jokic in some form.
9. Net Rating by quarter
On the season, the Jazz had some interesting tendencies to monitor from a quarter by quarter standpoint:
- First Quarter: +4.0 Net Rating (8th in NBA)
- Second Quarter: +0.6 Net Rating (15th)
- Third Quarter: +5.7 Net Rating (8th)
- Fourth Quarter: +0.2 Net Rating (14th)
The Jazz concentrate on getting out to good starts with their starting units and initial rotations in the first and third quarters. After that, things get a little more wild. Rudy Gobert generally spends the beginning of second and fourth quarters on the bench, and that’s when teams try to take advantage.
Here’s how the Nuggets stacked up by quarter this season:
- First Quarter: -2.6 Net Rating (19th in NBA)
- Second Quarter: +3.8 Net Rating (8th)
- Third Quarter: +6.7 Net Rating (7th)
- Fourth Quarter: +1.1 Net Rating (9th)
The Nuggets were surprisingly positive after getting out to poor starts for most of the season. Part of their identity as a team centered around conserving energy throughout the game for when it was needed. As can be seen by the numbers, the units that were ineffective in first quarters generally turned things around after halftime. At that point, it was about maintaining a lead in the fourth quarter and getting just enough separation to win games.
10. Nikola Jokic: 1-on-1 machine
On 4.8 post up scoring possessions per game, Jokic averaged 1.06 points per possession, good for the 85th percentile. Among all players to average at least three post ups per game, Jokic ranked second in efficiency behind Joel Embiid.
On 1.2 isolation scoring possessions per game, Jokic averaged 1.02 points per possession, good for the 82nd percentile. Among all centers to average at least 1.0 isolations, Jokic ranked third in efficiency behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Montrezl Harrell.
Jokic is one of the best 1-on-1 scoring big men in the NBA. He doesn’t have that reputation due to not going to it as frequently as others, but he’s more than just a passing savant. Jokic’s footwork and scoring touch while working 1-on-1 is his second most valuable NBA skill behind his playmaking for others.
The Nuggets will need this version of him against Rudy Gobert throughout the first round. For a long time, Gobert was an intimidating presence for Jokic, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Jokic has figured out various ways to stifle the Stifle Tower, and his many counters, jabs, and fakes keep Gobert guessing on a consistent basis.
This is most likely where the matchup will be won or lost. If Jokic can go to work on Gobert and feast in the post or on midrange jumpers, everything else will open up, and the Nuggets will have a great chance to win this series going away. If Gobert can come back and find a way to get into Jokic’s head though, that would change the entire dynamic of the series.