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Starting Five: Gary Harris is finding a rhythm after a slow start

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The film over the past week has been mostly encouraging

Denver Nuggets v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets went 3-1 during the past week of NBA action, winning a close one versus the Minnesota Timberwolves, dropping a heartbreaker against the Dallas Mavericks, and blowing out a shorthanded Philadelphia 76ers and over-performing New York Knicks squad.

Here’s what I saw from the last week:

Gary Harris is figuring things out

Entering his seventh year, expectations for Gary Harris were lower than ever. The long time starting shooting guard had regressed offensively as it had become clear that Harris wasn’t going to be the two-way star Nuggets fans always hoped him to be. Then, he started the season shooting 3-of-27 from three-point range (11.1%).

Harris bounced back with a strong week though, averaging 15.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.5 assists while shooting 60.5% from the field and 47.1% from three-point range. He managed to do so in a variety of ways, but the most important factor was a confident three-point shooting stroke.

Harris shot 8-of-17 from three-point range during the last week, and it’s clear to see how effective Denver’s offense can be when Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray can kick the ball out to a confident Harris. Opposing teams have to stay attached to the jump shooter. If they don’t, Harris is starting to make teams pay.

Denver’s starting shooting guard has also contributed in other ways throughout the beginning of the season. His defense remains solid, bordering on spectacular in different situations.

The most intriguing part of his game thus far is his finishing around the rim. Among all guards to attempt at least 40 shots within five feet of the rim, Harris’ 67.5 FG% (27-of-40) ranks fourth in the NBA. Only Hamidou Diallo, Jrue Holiday, and Zach LaVine rank higher. From finger rolls at the rim to crafty finishes farther away from the hoop, Harris is finishing at levels comparable to his 2017-18 season.

I mean, the shift and shake on this move is pretty ridiculous and reminds me of a different time.

Here’s to Harris continuing to find a comfort level within his role. The Nuggets need as much stability as they can get, and though Murray and Jokić are generally the drivers of success, it helps when others contribute at the level Harris has over the past week.

Jamal Murray has taken a back seat offensively

Here are the last four point totals for Jamal Murray from last week:

  • Tuesday v Minnesota - 15 points on 3-of-7 from the field
  • Thursday v Dallas - 21 points on 8-of-19 from the field
  • Saturday @ Philly - 14 points on 6-of-11 from the field
  • Sunday @ New York - 9 points on 4-of-9 from the field

Those are largely pedestrian numbers for Denver’s second best player. After carrying the Nuggets throughout the 2020 bubble playoffs, Nuggets fans (and NBA folks at large) have expected Murray to take a step forward offensively, impacting most games in a similar way.

So far, that hasn’t been the case, but not because Murray isn’t capable of doing so. He just isn’t taking as many shots.

In the clip above, Murray sets a screen for Barton in semi-transition, allowing Barton the advantage to get to the rim and finish over a small defender. Murray has done a lot of little things like that off ball during the last week. Rather than hunting for his own shot and holding the ball to do so, Murray is setting up teammates more frequently. Jokić is the one racking up assists, but Murray is moving off-ball into the corner, on the wing, setting back screens, and cutting more. Nuggets fans may not like that, but Denver went 3-1 the past week, and it appears that the starting group has found some efficiency in the process.

What Murray is doing feels intentional. It might be because of the hit he took to his elbow at the beginning of the season. It might be because he’s currently averaging 35.1 minutes per game and shouldered a heavy workload to begin the year. Whatever the case, Murray hasn’t felt the need to force the issue in any game other than against the Mavericks, and even then, he had opportunities to attempt even more shots that he passed up.

JaMychal Green continues to impress

While Jerami Grant is averaging 25 points per game for a 2-8 Detroit Pistons team with the worst record in the NBA, JaMychal Green has endeared himself to Nuggets fans by filling in a significant role with the second unit that occasionally sees him playing with the starters too. Averaging 11.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, and shooting 51.9% from three. He has done so in a cerebral way by maximizing the role allotted to him.

How cerebral of a player is Green? Watch him sneak in for the easiest offensive rebound tip-in of his life against the Sixers on Saturday:

A free two points just in case Murray misses.

How about lifting to slot on the left wing and cashing in on a perfect pass from Facundo Campazzo?

The Nuggets have long thought that Green would be a perfect fit on the roster, given Jokić’s unique abilities and Denver’s dribble hand-off heavy system. Green just maneuvers his way around the court, consistently finds an opening, and converts on his chances more often than not. Shooting nearly 52% from three is unlikely to sustain, but Green’s cerebral nature frequently puts him in an advantageous position. 40% from three while moving the ball and doing other things is just fine.

LOL

Nikola Jokić is a treasure. That’s all I have to say about that.

And the subsequent possession...

Quite frankly, it’s hilarious that Mitchell Robinson said “It wasn’t hard at all” in reference to guarding Jokić, and that Jokić simply made tough shots. According to NBA.com, Jokić shot 7-of-10 from the field and had five assists compared to two turnovers when matched up with Robinson.

Cap.

A weekend to get right defensively

NBA dot com had Denver with a 114.8 defensive rating in their first eight games of the season, tied for 27th in the NBA and appearing far worse.

Their last two games came this weekend and saw Denver put up a 101.1 defensive rating, not spectacular in a two-game sample size but certainly progress. It came against some truly awful competition offensively, but Denver still had to execute.

The Nuggets still allow the second fewest “wide open” three-point attempts per game in the NBA. They allow the fourth fewest shots per game within the restricted area. Nikola Jokić has been key in this, rotating well and causing opponents to settle for shots outside of the restricted area as well.

Sixers rookie Tyrese Maxey made a number of these floating in-between shots with Jokić playing drop coverage under the rim. Those are the shots that the Nuggets are willing to give up, and by preventing shots at the rim and three-point attempts, the math game starts to point in Denver’s favor.

Against the Knicks, Denver did a great job of cutting off driving lanes from brute force drives like Julius Randle and RJ Barrett and were able to protect the three-point line while doing so.

Now, it’s harder to play such stout defense when being forced to cover more ground against better players. The Nuggets were given a reprieve when the Sixers starters were all forced to quarantine, and the Knicks are...well...the Knicks. Let’s see if Denver’s defense can translate a strong defensive effort from poor offensive teams to better offensive teams, starting with the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night.