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Starting Five: Facundo Campazzo, Nikola Jokić, and taking special plays for granted

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NBA: Phoenix Suns at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
  • Facundo Campazzo arrives
  • Jamal Murray streaking
  • Nikola Jokić’s missed assist v HOU
  • Will Barton is up and down
  • P.J. Dozier is a team defense weapon

Facundo Campazzo has arrived

It was quite the relief to see Facundo Campazzo arrive in a big way on Sunday night against the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves. Campazzo scored 15 points on three-pointers, dished out two assists, snagged three steals and even collected a block. He was plus-26 in the plus-minus department, showcasing the level of impact he could have on a game in just 21 minutes off the bench.

The way Campazzo baits passes from the opposing team shows an advanced level of basketball intelligence that can only be garnered from years of practice and commitment to making life hell for the opposing team. Talk to any of Campazzo’s opponents abroad; they feel the affects of his defense throughout games and in pressure moments. Just ask Jarrett Culver and D’Angelo Russell if they will ever be nonchalant with the basketball around Campazzo ever again.

In his first 33 minutes of his Denver Nuggets career prior to Sunday, Facundo Campazzo was sporting an unsavory minus-37 plus-minus. The Nuggets have struggled to incorporate him into the right rotation; with so many guards on the roster that possess a penchant for playmaking, Campazzo has been the player to take a step back. The Nuggets need him to be properly aggressive, but like Monte Morris before him, they will also need him to slide off ball on occasion and just be in the right place at the right time.

Campazzo feels like the ideal playmaker for Michael Porter Jr. when he returns. Campazzo wants to set up his teammates, and like the play below, Porter will never be shy about accepting an open shot attempt when it’s so readily offered to him by a pass from Campazzo that’s on time and on target.

When Murray sits, don’t be surprised if the Nuggets fall into a rhythm with a Will Barton/Porter, JaMychal Green, Nikola Jokić frontcourt with Campazzo and Morris manning the perimeter. There’s plenty of playmaking, shot making, and length in that group, but also a defined role for Campazzo to share point guard duties with Morris and do what needs to be done. The Nuggets want Campazzo to continue panning out, and they will give him every opportunity to get there.

Jamal Murray is streaking

The four games last week saw Murray score 21, 31, and 36 points, with Murray sitting out last Tuesday night to rest a minor elbow injury. Before that, Murray had 23 against the Los Angeles Clippers on Christmas. Murray’s single game True Shooting in each of those four games: 55.1%, 61.5%, 66.5%, and 75.1%. Nuggets fans asked for consistency, and Murray is delivering in a variety of ways.

The standard pull-up three is back, though it’s less common than in past years. Murray is 7-of-16 for 43.8% on those looks in 2020-21 so far.

One of the dynamic parts of Murray’s game that hasn’t been fully tapped into is his three-point shooting off of movement. He’s only 5-of-15 this year on catch & shoot threes thus far, but that’s sure to improve going forward as he gets better and better looks within the offense. The below clip is an excellent example of what happens when Murray can operate off ball at random points throughout the game.

Finally, the two-man game with Jokić is already operating at full capacity.

Murray is averaging 24.0 points per game to start the season while shooting 49.4% from the field and 40.5% from three-point range. His assists are down but only because Jokić’s assists are up, and Murray’s doing exactly what he needs to do to complement Jokić. One is the table-setter. The other is the flamethrower.

Nikola Jokić should not be taken for granted

Speaking of Jokić, it’s hard not to overuse superlatives when discussing the Serbian center. He continues to do things nobody has ever done before at his position. Maybe not ever. His performance against the Houston Rockets was a masterclass in creating shots for teammates, accumulating 18 assists in a variety of ways. His 15th and 16th assist were my two favorites.

The 15th proves that Jokić is still human and capable of misreads and mistakes. This might be the only time all season Jokić has missed the open cutter for a dunk. Barton makes the three anyway to pay off Jokić with a 15th assist, but Millsap dancing freely to the rim is surely one Jokić wishes he had back because he’s simply a perfectionist.

The 16th was was my favorite of the night. Who else can do this?

Jokić has always been a pioneer, an innovator of new ways to pass the ball to teammates by way of new angles, different speeds, manipulations, and much more than can be described in words. His teammates are the beneficiaries of open shots at a consistent rate as well as free points where there don’t appear to be options at first glance. They can be simple reads for Jokić, such as knowing how the defense reacts to a certain motion and making the defense pay for doing what it’s supposed to do.

Sometimes, it all blends together in one highlight, such as Jokić’s no-look three to Campazzo on Sunday night. Jokić clearly doesn’t look at Campazzo, but based on the setup of the defense, it came to fruition.

Jokić knew, based on the cut by Gary Harris, that Ricky Rubio would be rotating over as the low man on defense to prevent a back cut. Jokić has seen this so many times, and he knows at this precise moment that he’s going to throw the ball to the corner:

Jokić knows where the ball is going. Does the defense?

Never take Nikola Jokić for granted. He’s averaging 12.8 assists per game which leads the NBA, and he’s passing to everyone. The MVP chants are going to come if Denver gets back onto the right side of the playoff picture.

Will Barton is up and down

It’s easy for Nuggets fans to pile on Barton for one thing or another. He has had a slow start to the season offensively (not as slow as Gary Harris) but he has also done some good things on both ends of the floor. He put together six assists against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday night, and he also has had moments of good, stout defense on the perimeter and the interior.

Plays like the one above go unnoticed within the flow of the game because it wasn’t a great highlight clip, but Barton has done nicely to ratchet up the defense in crunch time. He has four steals, five blocks, and 22 defensive rebounds on his six games. He battles out there and is usually in the right place at the right time.

If there’s a primary criticism for Barton’s start, it’s poor finishing at the rim. Barton ranks 90th out of 92 players in field goal percentage on drives to the rim, counting only players with at least 30 drives this season.

Many of these drives have been lacking explosiveness at the rim to finish above, around, and through players on plays that Barton consistently made earlier in his career. A ground-bound Barton is one that Nuggets fans are unfamiliar with as the swingman previously made his name on dunks and contorting layups at the rim.

It’s only six games into the year, but Barton isn’t trending in the right direction on his drives. Maybe he simply needs time to get his body used to playing regularly again. Maybe Barton will need to alter his game. His three-point shot is still present, though it hasn’t fallen as frequently to start the year. The Nuggets will need the floor spacing version of his game going forward. It remains to be seen whether they need “Will the Thrill” though it would be nice to see that version of Barton again.

P.J. Dozier needs to play for his defense

Despite the bench mostly being a disaster to start the season, it’s difficult to fault P.J. Dozier. Dozier has spent most of his time at small forward and some time at power forward this season. Basketball Reference lists Barton as the power forward in lineups where he and Dozier play the forward spots, but Dozier consistently guards the bigger players, whether they be wings like Cameron Johnson and Nicolas Batum or true power forwards like PJ Tucker, Nemanja Bjelica, and even Marvin Bagley.

The utility of having Dozier on the floor in these situations having him as an option to guard the ball handler in semi transition, zone up on two different players on the weak side, or even prevent a larger player from backing into the paint. Against the Suns, Dozier had several opportunities to guard Chris Paul and was the most effective defender against him. Length, athleticism, and technical discipline helped in that regard.

Dozier also spent time on De’Aaron Fox against the Kings with Monte Morris struggling to stay in front of the lightning quick point guard. In lineups with Morris and Campazzo on the floor, Dozier is consistently the best at bothering stars and will frequently take on that matchup. From the Suns with Paul to the Kings with Fox to even the Rockets with James Harden, Dozier had a great week of defense both on and off the ball

The Nuggets currently rank 29th in defensive rating on NBA.com, though that’s a misleading number. Denver is allowing less shots at the rim AND less above the break threes than ever before to start the season. They’re giving up a high frequency of corner threes though, and opponents are shooting an absurd 46.9% on corner threes to start the year. If Denver maintains that current shot profile, their defense should stabilize over the next five to 10 games or so and return to less absurd levels.

Dozier is a large part of that. He understands and executes Denver’s defensive schemes well, preventing the ball from reaching difficult spots on the floor for Denver’s defense to guard. The Nuggets have generated a 96.6 defensive rating when Dozier is on the floor. Take Dozier off the floor, and that number balloons up to 126.1!!! There are other dependent factors at work, but Dozier seems to help the defense extensively. Michael Malone will love that and use it to his advantage going forward.