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The Sixth Man: How this resilient group can beat the odds yet again

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We have seen this team overcome too much to start doubting them.

Denver Nuggets v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

We will get through this Nugget nation. Jamal’s horrific injury cast despair throughout the NBA landscape. He seemed to be the heartbeat of the team, and somebody to count on in precarious situations. My thoughts are with the team, coaching staff, and most of all Jamal and his family.

With that being said, we should not doubt a franchise that conquered a 3-1 deficit twice. That had never been done before.

As I said in our roundtable discussion, this team does not skip steps. They lost a play-in game to Minnesota for a chance at the playoffs. Next year, they lost in seven to Portland for a crack at the West Finals. Last year, the Lakers beat them to go to the Finals. Each year a new crushing blow, yet the franchise has improved every year.

Fundamentals, execution, and basketball IQ will be paramount for Denver if they want to beat the odds yet again.


Know your personnel (KYP)

The coaching staff preaches this message often, and usually Denver is very effective at recognizing mismatches. Knowing your personnel is crucial in taking advantage of a defensive or offensive mistake. When Jokic is matched up with a smaller guard, you give it to him. If you hesitate, the defense has an opportunity to correct its mistake.

The Nuggets like to play inside and kick it out to open shooters, so when there is a mismatch in the paint, they have to capitalize quickly. I know this is not the most opportune time to show this Jamal Murray clip, but it is a strong example of a missed opportunity during this losing streak.

Here we’re going to get the two-man game between Jokic and Murray. Prior to the pass, Draymond Green is matched up with Jokic. The screen on Murray’s defender forces Green to pick up Jamal. Jokic does a great job of sealing his defender and cutting to the rim. If you pause it at the 0:03 mark, you’ll see Jokic has the mismatch on a guard. At this point, if Murray gives Jokic a bounce pass it might force another defender to come double, leaving a Nugget wide open for three. Instead, Murray drives on Green and forces a tough fadeaway against one of the best defenders in the league.

Here is an effective way to take care of a mismatch:

If you watch Will Barton, you will find a smaller guard in Nico Mannion picking him up on defense. Barton notices and instantly runs to the paint to post up. MPJ passes to Jokic, and there might not be a second that goes by before Jokic detects and defeats the mismatch. He passes it right to Barton’s outside shoulder where Mannion cannot get to it, and it is an easy bucket for Will Barton.


Transition defense

Over the past two games (before Wednesday night’s win), Denver struggled mightily in transition defense. They held a lead at half in both games, but once the opponent started running and putting pressure on the defense it folded like a lawn chair. The constant disagreement with the referees, right call or not, has cost this team massive momentum swings.

Here is an example of Denver letting the referees dictate their defensive position and effort. What you don’t see in this clip is a missed Jokic shot. He thought he got fouled, so he talked to the referee the entire way until he got to half court. If you pause the clip at the beginning, you see Jokic looking at the referee while Kemba Walker is on a dead sprint. Obviously, Kemba is a veteran so he recognizes Jokic’s lack of attention and forces the action. Since Jokic never positioned himself on defense, he chose to pick up Kemba beyond the three-point line. Facu comes to get his man, but Jokic does not leave so there are other men open. Once Kemba swings it to Smart, there are three Celtics open and ready to shoot. Jokic does not return to his man quick enough, so Smart picks the best option closest to the paint for a dunk.

Here is another instance where Denver gives up an easy transition basket:

When Denver struggles on offense, it often sets their mentality on defense. Barton puts up a wild shot, forces a turnover, and the result of this play will make any coach scream. The number one rule of transition defense is to stop the ball. Before Kemba passes the half court line, Denver has three defenders with two others trailing to stop a three-man Celtic fast break. Once Millsap turns his hips and flattens his feet, he is a causality because of Kemba’s speed. Now, Morris and Green are in front and have a chance to stop the ball. Instead, neither of them cease Kemba’s momentum as he glides to the rim for an easy basket plus the foul.

Sure, it’s only one layup on one possession, but this helped turn the tide of the entire game. After that shot, Denver surrendered 34 points and scored only 8.

This is the mentality Denver would like to restore.

Draymond Green makes a nice play and strips it clean off Jokic. Nico Mannion is running free for a layup or a pass back to his teammate. We’ve seen several times where Denver pouts and does not get back on defense, but this time Porter is going to pick up his teammate. Mannion is so nervous Porter might block his shot that he glances at MPJ three times during his drive. If you’re looking behind yourself three times while you have the ball, you are likely slowing down while your opponent is speeding up. The third peek at Porter is the most detrimental as Mannion simply drops it out of bounds.

Transition defense is not always about the glamour of steals and blocks. It’s often about effort and influencing a negative play. MPJ does nothing on this possession beside sprint to the other end yet his effort caused a turnover.


Rebounding

The Celtics swept the season series against the Nuggets and one reason why was rebounding. Boston out-rebounded Denver both times en route to two double-digit victories. The main pillar behind rebounding is boxing out. A successful box out, more times than not, is finding a man as or after the shot goes up, pushing the rear end into a body, and extending the arms horizontally to shield the defender.

This is an instance where Denver does not focus on rebounding.

Porter is matched up with Jaylen Brown in the top corner. He’s going to slide in the paint to help on a potential Tatum drive to the hoop. Tatum passes up the drive and shoots a contested three. As the shot goes up you might think, “This is a tough shot, he might miss so his teammates might look to crash the offensive glass.” Not Denver. MPJ glances at the corner before the shot attempt and sees Brown in the same spot as before. This causes him to be lackadaisical and place no effort into finding a man to box out. Brown notices, sneaks behind Porter, and dishes back to Tatum for a wide open three.

When you are trying to maintain a lead, this is the type of play that gifts momentum to a trailing team. It gives them confidence, shows they want it more, and Boston fed off that.

Here is how to effectively box out the opponent:

Facu is the smallest man on the court at 5’10” 195 pounds, but that does not stop him from capturing this rebound. He sees the shot attempt and quickly observes Looney heading to the offensive glass. Kevon Looney is 6’9” 222 pounds, so he has a good chance to get this rebound in some open space. Maybe against other guards in the league but not Facu here. He spots Looney, achieves a great box out, and rises for the rebound.

This is what the team needs to rally around. A mentality that says, “You may be better, more athletic, stronger, faster, and all the above. But you will not keep me from impacting this possession.”

It was an outlook they embraced when the Clippers told them “Get ready to go home,” and the rest was history. So that begs the question, how will the Nuggets write their next chapter?