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Stiffs Mailbag: Taking questions before Game 4

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Stiffs Twitter asks important questions before the Nuggets play Game 4 tonight

LA Clippers v Denver Nuggers - Game Three Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

As Denver Nuggets fans cope with the pressure of a close playoff series between the Nuggets and an elite Los Angeles Clippers team, there are a number of takes and questions to be shared. I won’t pretend to have all of the answers, but here are some opinions supported by some empirical data.

Enjoy!


Let me first say that going down 2-1, though it’s clearly not a death knell as the Nuggets have proved multiple times in the past two years, definitely spells trouble. I would have preferred to see Denver win Game 3 and at least get some cushion heading into the rest of the series. Now, their backs are against the wall again.

Game 3 was an interesting game, and I thought the Nuggets were going to win it until the point where Jerami Grant missed three shots in a row. As a big proponent of Grant and what he has done for the Nuggets to this point, that caught me off guard. After making his first three three-pointers in a row in Game 1, Grant is now 1-of-14 on his last 14 attempts. That’s something the Nuggets are just going to have to hope he recovers from because his defense on Kawhi Leonard is incredibly important.

I’m encouraged that the Nuggets can compete with the Clippers, but Game 3 was the first time in awhile that Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray outright lost a close game. Game 4 against the Utah Jazz was a question of not being able to get stops, not Jokic or Murray failing on the offensive end. I don’t think that will happen again. I trust those two especially in close games, knowing that they have the versatility, potency, and mentality to score and create offense in any situation. Both guys have to make great decisions though, and if they can handle the pressure LA throws their way, Denver can win the series.


Frankly, I don’t really get it. Nikola Jokic likes to work for drawing fouls on the floor in the flow of the action, but for some reason, he doesn’t get calls while in the act of shooting, despite being pushed and hacked fairly frequently while in the post and the paint.

Here are the numbers on nine of the top 10 players in the playoffs from my estimation:

I don’t want to appear too biased here, but stars are supposed to get more calls. Jokic hit the game-winning shot in Game 7 over Rudy Gobert, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. It’s nuts that we have to have this conversation time and time again. If Patrick Beverley has trouble with Jokic “flailing” then he sure as hell should have a lot more trouble with any of the other stars, who all do it while yelling and screaming to get calls they feel they deserve.

It’s a self-promotion business, and unfortunately for the Nuggets, Jokic isn’t going to go do the self-promotion he needs in postgame pressers, commercials, and on national talk shows that will get him the credit he more than deserves.

As for the rest of the team, it starts with being more aggressive getting to the hoop through other players as opposed to going around them. Murray going up for multiple dunks and tough layups was a great sign, and him maneuvering the ball a bit more to force opponents to hit his arms as opposed to the ball or open air will get him to the line more frequently. Easier said than done against the Clippers who have a major size advantage against him. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will get the benefit of the doubt every single time, so Murray will have to show the refs where the foul is occurring in a methodical way.


Getting to the free throw line would be a great start. Murray has attempted seven total free throws in this series and could use free points when going to the rim as opposed to the contested layups or dunks he generally sees.

Other than free throws, Murray’s biggest issue in this series has been the length of Paul George, which has been even more bothersome than Kawhi Leonard. Through three games, NBA.com’s matchup data has George holding Murray to just 11 points on 4-of-16 from the field. The best way to get going against George is to use screens effectively. George is excellent at containing pick and rolls in these playoffs, allowing just 0.64 points per possession against pick and roll ball handlers. That number shoots up 1.09 points per possession on handoffs, so getting George moving at setting screens at a different angle could be helpful.

When in doubt though, the best way to free up Murray is to get him a different matchup. The best scorers in the NBA seek out the weakest perimeter defender on the floor and have whoever that player is guarding set a screen to generate a switch. In this series, that player is Lou Williams. It could also be Landry Shamet or Reggie Jackson in other sets, but the principle is the same. Set guard to guard screens, generate a switch, and have Murray attack a better matchup when he can.


I doubt P.J. Dozier gets into these playoffs, but it was notable that Torrey Craig only received six minutes in Game 3. He played nearly 22 minutes in Game 1 and 17 minutes in Game 2 before seeing a drastic reduction in time. Michael Malone decided to try Paul Millsap with the bench unit at the start of the second and fourth quarter as opposed to keeping Craig out there.

In Game 4, down 2-1 in the series, I wonder if Malone might choose to DNP Craig and instead play Dozier in the second unit next to Monte Morris. The Nuggets have been running Jamal Murray in the second unit and could continue to do that, and the move to bring in Millsap forced the 35-year-old into a situation where he was guarding Paul George. That’s not a winning formula. I’d be down to see if Dozier had more to give on either end than Craig right now who’s struggling to stop George (3-of-4) or Leonard (3-of-4), though Craig is having more success against Lou Williams.


I think Denver’s lack of an additional playmaker with the ball in their hands has really showed its ugly side in this series. Against the Utah Jazz, Murray could get in going against anybody he wanted to. Against the Clippers with Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Patrick Beverley, it has become more difficult, but not as difficult as one might expect. The three-pointers the Nuggets and Murray generated for their star guard were wide open in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, Murray just didn’t hit them. When he ran cold, Denver didn’t have another creator to turn to, and that cost them.

The Nuggets can do some schematic things to manipulate where the help comes from in the next game, but ultimately, if the Clippers send three players at the Murray-Jokic games, it will come down to the other guys making shots. Jerami Grant, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, and Michael Porter Jr. have to be ready for it. The Clippers will give up open looks, and the Nuggets role players will have to capitalize.

I don’t think the Nuggets miss the same number of open looks again. Not Murray, not Grant, and not even Porter, who’s starting to gain some confidence again.


The fact that we’ve already seen as much progress as we have is a great indicator of inexperience being a major barrier. Porter played 670 total minutes before the bubble and 478 minutes in the last 40 days since arriving in Orlando. The teaching moments have come frequently, and as the playoffs have worn on, Porter is becoming more playable defensively by the game.

There will always be difficult matchups for him, and Utah definitely presents a challenge with Donovan Mitchell being as quick, shifty, and skilled as he is. The Los Angeles Lakers will also be a difficult matchup, unless they decide to slide Anthony Davis to center and insert Kyle Kuzma or Markieff Morris, in which case they will be a moderately difficult matchup.

So much of Porter’s difficulties have come because he isn’t a natural defender, and the concepts don’t always come to him as quickly as they need to in a playoff atmosphere. Rotating too much and being unable to close out in time is one of his biggest issues, but that is a teachable mistake. When he’s locked in and executing, the only problem he ever really has is containing his man 1-on-1. He can work on that with practice as well, but that will also need to be something he wants to invest in. He could be a really good defender if he wanted to be, but we’ve seen scorers as talented as him neglect that defensive potential in the past. Selfishly, I hope he doesn’t go down that road, because I don’t know how the Nuggets win a title with their current roster if he chooses not to lock in defensively.