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The Sixth Man: Confidence in the clutch helps the Nuggets survive without Jamal Murray

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This team shows yet again they thrive in the face of adversity.

Memphis Grizzlies v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Many seemed to write off the Nuggets after the Jamal Murray injury, but they silenced some doubters with a clutch win against Memphis Monday night. Following a two-game losing streak with Murray, they are winners of three in a row including two wins against playoff teams.

Bench scoring has been a real concern throughout the season. In previous years, the Nuggets prided themselves with good offensive depth from the bench but this is not one of those seasons. Denver is 24th in bench scoring at 32 points per game.

Murray’s absence seemed to spark this bunch as they averaged 46 points off the bench in their last three games. JaMychal Green is finding his stride from three-point land, Millsap is finding mismatches in the post, and Dozier is discovering some of his offensive rhythm.

They say baseball is all about timely hitting and good pitching. You don’t need to hit five home runs and pitch a perfect game, but get one or two hits here and there with good defense. This is the mark of a good bench in basketball. They might not get 25 minutes a game, but when their number is called, they need to execute. For instance, the Nuggets do not need 20 points from PJ Dozier. It would be nice but that is what the starters are for. They need PJ to be a defensive anchor for the bench, and score or facilitate timely baskets at the end of quarters.

Lately, Denver delivered opportune stops and baskets guiding their team to victories. Will Barton is turning back into Thrill Mode, Michael Porter Jr. is a constant sniper from deep, and of course the MVP Nikola Jokic.

If a genie gave me three wishes one of them would be to bring Jamal Murray back, but it has been entertaining to watch this Nuggets team forged through the fire of adversity. It keeps knocking on their doorstep, yet they remain true to their identity and winning ways.


Picking up the slack

Another welcome sight has been Denver’s ability to prevent the overcompensation for Murray’s absence. They are remaining true to their team ball mentality while straying away from wild shots and too much dribbling. Yes, at times it still happens but they avoid the rabbit hole where they don’t score for six whole minutes.

Over their last three games, the Nuggets are averaging 130 points per game. Granted, one was a double-overtime game, but that only means they made several clutch baskets to close that one out.

One reason for this consistent offense has been the decisiveness from the bench. It’s easy to hesitate or not trust your eyes coming off the bench because you need to acclimate to the flow of the game. Denver’s bench seemed to stay focused and ready when their time was called.

This is a very determined and confident play from PJ. He often burdens himself with too much dribbling because he is unsure of what he wants to do on offense, but he plays to his strengths here. PJ has the ability to be a very good pick and roll player because he can pass and get downhill to the rim with force.

Here Denver clears the paint and runs the screen and roll with Millsap as he quickly rolls to the paint. Dozier’s defender is on his inside hip with Millsap’s defender retreating to the paint. Memphis is in decent defensive position, so Dozier foregoes the pass at the top of the screen and drives into the lane. This is the best part of the play because by driving to the rim, Dozier forces Millsap’s defender to commit to him and leave Millsap open. Once that big jumps in the air, Dozier makes a great wrap-around pass to Millsap for the basket and the foul.

Denver’s margin for error shrinks the more injuries they incur. They do not have the luxury to set up a play, have it work, and then miss the shot. It must be executed and that is what this play illustrates here.

This is a very tactical possession by Denver here. They give it to Jokic on the right post and clutter the left side. This causes four Miami defenders to position themselves on the left side but also keep an eye on Jokic because he is one-on-one in the post. Will Barton is at the top corner but his defender is in the paint waiting to double Jokic. Once that double comes, Gordon knows his defender is now responsible for Barton in the corner. Gordon sets a great screen leaving Barton wide open for three.

These are the shots they absolutely have to make. They do a great job of recognizing the defense, exploiting their mistake, and Barton makes them pay for it.


Confident clutch play

Denver’s matchup with Memphis on Monday was a true test to see their reaction when their back is against the wall. Jokic is the closer for this team, but down the stretch, they needed clutch baskets from guys who are not accustomed to that kind of responsibility.

Michael Porter Jr. seems to be that guy who can replace Murray’s scoring late in games, and this shot tells you why.

A hectic possession turns into mania at Ball Arena when MPJ hits this three. Jokic turns it over and Memphis is looking for a dagger, so they throw it down court for a potential layup. Although it's dangerous, it is a decent idea because Grayson Allen is wide open but he doesn’t get enough juice on the pass so Facu takes it. Once he steals it, his head is up looking for who’s open and he finds MPJ. Now, MPJ has Dozier wide open in the corner, but he reveals his stone-cold confidence and pulls up in Morant’s face for an extremely clutch basket.

Some will say he should have passed it to Dozier. I disagree. It’s only my opinion, but I would rather have MPJ take a softly contested three than Dozier an open one especially in that spot. Porter Jr. needed to define his status at that moment, and this shot shows fans and the coaching staff he can be trusted late in games.

This next clip displays critical defensive execution for Denver.

Late in this game, Ja Morant was killing them by penetrating to the rim either getting a basket or a foul. Denver did not have a timeout to set up their defense on this play, so the guys on the court must exercise quick and critical thinking to execute. They decide they will force anybody else on the Grizzlies to shoot this shot and it’s a smart decision. Barton is matched up with Allen in the top corner, but he sees the pick and roll for Morant so he sprints to double. That leaves Allen wide open but that is the intention so they can get the ball out of Morant’s hand. Ja recognizes the double and passes it cross-court to Allen. Once Ja raises his hands to pass, Jokic immediately sprints to Allen, and contests the missed shot.

Allen very well could have made this shot, but Denver forced him to shoot it because he is not as much a threat as Morant. If you look at the clock when Allen releases this ball, there are still more than two seconds on the clock. Jokic is absolutely selling out, so Allen could have shot faked and drove towards the rim for an easier shot. Instead, Allen lets the pressure get to him, panics, and forces a tougher shot than need be. Smart play from the Nuggets.


Need to give Aaron Gordon more looks

There are always areas to improve but a glaring one is getting Aaron Gordon involved in the offense. Gordon is not an elite three-level scorer in this league. His strength is not taking guys in isolation and creating for himself. He excels by playing off others, cutting, and playing in the post.

It’s nice to get Gordon involved in this two-man action but there’s a reason Miami doesn’t give a hard hedge and Butler goes under this screen. It’s because they are daring Gordon to shoot. He can definitely make some open shots from three, but this is not where you want Gordon positioning himself. He takes the Jokic handoff, centers himself pretty well, but throws that shot up on a frozen rope. If he takes his time, makes Adebayo commit to him, he will have a mismatch with Butler on Jokic.

Gordon can do some damage in the paint and Denver has great facilitators to get him the ball. This play is a great example of where Gordon can shine.

Gordon is matched up with Jimmy Butler on the bottom corner. Butler is definitely no slouch. He is a five-time All-Star and an All-NBA defender. With that being said, that does not mean Denver should not attack him where they see fit. Right when Jokic receives the pass from Morris, Gordon cuts to the rim. He catches Butler off guard and obtains effective post position. When Gordon catches this ball, he actually waits a little giving Butler time to think and position himself where he needs to be. Even though Butler is in decent position, he is still too small to handle Gordon that deep as he just overpowers him to the rim.

Butler is an excellent defender, but when you get a bigger forward that deep in the paint, Butler is more of a guard in that position just too small. Gordon will see these types of matchups often where a smaller forward/guard defends him. He does a great job of recognizing potential passing lanes here and puts himself in a position to score. Denver will need him to continue this type of play to maximize his abilities.

You would like to see it more, but Gordon is a fantastic cutter and it is evident here.

Denver is going to swing the ball to Barton in the corner and he forces the action by driving to the rim. Right as Barton drives, Gordon moves towards the basket because he sees an open lane, but he also knows multiple defenders will key on the Barton drive. He’s right as every Clipper defender locks their eyes on Barton while Gordon sneaks in for the basket and the foul.

The Nuggets made the Gordon move to maximize their championship potential. Murray is out, but that does not mean this Gordon experiment is a failure. This is going to give him a great opportunity to ingratiate himself into the core of this team. He is athletic, a great defender, and a smart off-ball player. The looks will be there for Gordon, it’s just a matter of Denver capitalizing on them.


The last 15 games of the season will be telling. There will be fatigue, guys missing open shots, turnovers, etcetera. The schedule is sprinkled with below .500 teams like Houston, Minnesota, Detroit, Toronto, and New Orleans. Denver is still in a battle with the Lakers to keep home-court advantage with the fourth seed. Those are must-win games because you are expected to beat them and others will rise in the standings if you do not.

The tougher games include matchups with Portland twice, Golden State, Memphis, the Lakers, Clippers, New York, Utah, and Brooklyn.

Every team has injuries, and nobody will feel sorry for the Nuggets besides the fans. This is still as talented a team as there is in the league led by the MVP Nikola Jokic.

He is shattering numerous records previously thought to withstand the test of time. Now can he lead the Nuggets past their trial of adversity? We will find out, but first, a matchup with division rival Portland stands in their way.