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Denver Nuggets Film Friday: It’s time to lock it in

NBA: Preseason-Denver Nuggets at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re not familiar with Film Fridays, each Friday, I’ll be looking at some recent Denver Nuggets’ games, lineups or something else from a film aspect to try and bring you a piece of content that you’re not getting somewhere else. Feel free to give any feedback positive or negative in the comments or find me on Twitter.

A week from now, the Denver Nuggets will have one game under their belt, and they’ll be waking up for their second game of the season, which also happens to be their home opener for the 2021-22 season. As was the case with a few other contenders in the preseason, Denver was content with letting autopilot do the work while giving their young and inexperienced players a lot of run. Now, the preseason is over, and it’s time for the rest of the rotation to knock the rust off in a hurry.

A year ago, the Nuggets coasted through their first 10 games of the season en route to a 5-5 record. These struggles happened despite Nikola Jokic averaging a triple-double over that stretch, which was the best start he had ever had to a season. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. were both averaging over 19 points per game while shooting better than 48 percent from the floor. This year, without Murray, there is even more importance to lock in from the get go.

In their first 10 games, Denver plays six games against teams that went to the playoffs last year with four of those six games being on the road. Looking ahead, Denver has a long road trip that lasts about two weeks starting at the end of November. That trip is directly preceded by Denver playing seven out of eight games against playoff teams from a season ago. They need to bank some early wins when they can, and they need to come out firing on all cylinders rather than waiting to get up to speed. The Western Conference is just too deep to allow for that.

Defense Matters Always

Every team is guilty of this, so I’m not just faulting Denver. I know playing defense for a full 82-game season and the playoffs is hard, but you have to do it from Day 1. In their first five losses, Denver gave up 120 or more points in four out of the five matchups. On this play, I get that it’s late in the game early in the year, and you have to preserve yourself all year. Monte Morris can’t get beat off of the dribble this easily. De’Aaron Fox gets by him when Morris fails to slide over despite not really being screened out of the way. This gives up the easier shot attempt, and it all but seals the loss for Denver. Even if Morris just forces Fox to take an extra second or drive more to his left, that could make the difference in shot difficult in game outcome.

This bucket happens because Will Barton goes for the splash play instead of making the right play. Fox is driving towards the rim, and Barton starts to rotate over to go up for the block. Fox has Murray in front of him with Jokic looming behind him and Porter off of his right hip. There’s no reason for Barton to rotate here to go for the block. If Fox gets that layup through all of that congestion, you just have to tip your cap to him. Going for the block here in a tight game isn’t necessary, and it’s up to Barton to set the example as one of the veterans of the locker room.

The Bench Needs to Score Too

Last season, during the Nuggets’ slow start to the season, their offense was almost entirely carried by the starting unit. That’s not really going to change this year, but the bench needs to bring more to the table this year. JaMychal Green and Monte Morris were the only reserve players with an offensive rating greater than 112.3, which was defined as the league average, for the first 10 games of the season. Meanwhile, all five starters were above that metric. The play above shows off bad offense for a few different reasons. For one, there is just no spacing on the left half of the floor. Barton is cutting towards the rim which cuts off the room for Morris, who already has Isaiah Hartenstein rolling towards the hoop. Morris passes it out to P.J. Dozier, who drives into a sea of defenders and ultimately turns the ball over. That just can’t happen. Whether they need to throw this play out or adjust who’s involved, something different needs done.

Too often, this is what the Nuggets’ offense would look like without one of Murray or Jokic on the floor. It’s a guard dribbling the ball for a bit with everyone standing around, and that player would get a screen and drive towards the rim. That doesn’t work for this unit. Motion needs to occur. Facundo Campazzo has plenty of time on the shot clock when he gets the screen from Hartenstein. He drives, and he’s committed to the shot even though Hartenstein is open for the dump off pass where he would have a better look at the rim. This second unit cannot afford to stand around and hope someone makes something happen. That’s the type of offense that wears your starters out when they have to come back in early to stop a scoring drought.

Make The Free Ones Count

In the first 10 games of the season, the Nuggets shot a measly 74.3 percent from the free-throw line. This had them ranked 23rd over that stretch, although oddly enough they were ninth among all teams from the charity stripe in losses. By the end of the year, they were seventh overall at 80.3 percent and one of just seven teams to shoot over 80 percent as a squad. Denver is not the type of team that is going to make 30 trips to the line on a nightly basis, so, when they get there, they have to make the free ones count.The play above happened in Denver’s final game of December. Denver ultimately went on to lose the game by 10 points, but this was a pivotal moment in the game. Down by two, Jokic gets to the bucket for the layup and the foul. He makes the free throw which gives the team their first lead since the early second quarter after trailing by as many as 14. Jokic, who won the MVP last year, plays a physical brand of basketball and isn’t afforded the same calls as others. Yet, here, he’s starting the season off by showing everyone that he wants to be better than everyone else, and he did that by year’s end.

Now, let’s look at this play from opening night. It’s the same opponent. It’s another close game, with Denver trailing by five late in the fourth quarter. Ultimately, Porter grabs the rebound and gets the two-point make, but it shouldn’t come to that. Jokic has already done the hard part of making the fade away jump shot. Now, you just have to do the easy part. In a tight game, Jokic is going to make those more often than not, as evidenced by the fact that, among all players with at least 20 clutch games and one free-throw per game, he ranked seventh in clutch free-throw percentage. Regardless, you want to see your star player make this shot. When you get a free throw, make a free throw.

For those of you that are still here, remember to leave your feedback in the comments or over on my Twitter, and have a fantastic film-filled Friday.