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The Sixth Man: Setting the Tone

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As the playoff race begins to heat up so has the Nuggets intensity.

NBA: APR 01 Nuggets at Clippers Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Effort beats talent when talent fails to give effort. It’s a saying many hear around the sports world, but it reveals its truth every night.

The Nuggets have solidified themselves as a danger to every team. They have won six straight games, and it is no secret they have brought intensity to both ends of the floor.

There is no more intense time than clutch situations towards the end of games. Denver leads the NBA in clutch field goal percentage at 52.1%. During the most critical moments, the Nuggets seem to play their best. It has developed into part of their identity.

Yes, the team has great talent, but when you can combine talent with focus and ferocity on both ends of the floor, that raises eyebrows throughout the league.

During many of the previous games, Denver has begun each contest with aggression and persistence setting the tone for the rest of the night. It is a welcome sight because many Nuggets fans do not want to see Denver down 3-1 in multiple playoff series again.

This Nuggets team has the potential to gain a 3-1 or 3-0 game advantage in the playoffs with expectations to finish the job. Here are some ways they can do that.


Being Aggressive Towards the Rim

The NBA’s evolution has seen the game pivot from preaching layups and close-range baskets to exalting anyone who can shoot the three-point shot. Although it may act as a necessity for many teams, the legend Bill Russel once said, “This game has always been, and will always be, about buckets.” And the most efficient way to get a bucket is by penetrating the defense to the basket.

Denver is tied for the 4th highest field goal percentage in the league at 48.8%. In front of them are the Nets, Suns, and Bucks. What do all these teams have in common? A lot of their baskets are generated from their ability to spread the floor, drive, and pass to open shooters.

The Nuggets have been on a roll lately winning 15 of their last 18 as the rest of the NBA and mass media has taken notice. Denver has developed a target on their back, so it is crucial to set an aggressive tone early and that is exactly what happened last Thursday against the Clippers.

No, it isn’t the prettiest offensive possession for Denver but it’s a smart one. Barton initiates the offense with a pass to Porter Jr. beyond the three-point line. Last year, MPJ might have forced this shot resulting in a block, but he has learned to play within the offense, so he recognizes he must give it back to Barton. Barton sees the perimeter miss match he has as the Clipper’s center closes out for a potential three-point shot. Barton wisely gives a shot fake, realizes there is no big man near the basket, and attacks the rim.

This was an important possession for Denver because it sends an early message conveying the Nuggets are not settling for mediocre looks. It also helps collapse the defense where they now have the tendency to guard the basket and forget about Denver’s snipers on the perimeter.

This is fantastic transition offense by the Nuggets. If you pause the clip as Barton passes the half court line you can see the 76ers actually out-man the Nuggets 4-3 initially. Barton judiciously does not hesitate and attacks the basket immediately. This provokes the corner defender Danny Green to help on the drive. As Green jumps, Barton plays pitch and catch with one of the more dangerous three-point shooters in the league for a wide-open look.

These are critical moments for Will Barton because when he is not forcing shots and letting the game come to him, he can be the X-factor for this team.


Star in your Role

The New England Patriots developed a dynasty off three words. “Do your job.” The Patriot culture excelled with players playing within the system and not trying to overcompensate for their flaws. As of late, the Denver Nuggets have been doing a terrific job at exactly that.

Whether the job is being a rebounder, cutter, or floor general, many individuals on this team have been starring in their particular roles to help the team.

Here’s a bit of sloppy play from Denver, but it shows the importance of playing within your role even if you are a star player. Jokic has many roles on this team but taking anybody off the dribble from the three-point line is not one of them. The Clippers produce a wall in front of the basket and take it away from Jokic, but to his credit, he sticks with it and facilitates another possession. Facu then finds Porter who plays within his role and spots up for an open three.

Now, to the other side of the ball where we finally get to see and test Aaron Gordon’s ability to guard a superstar talent. This is exactly why the Nuggets acquired him. They want him to be their defensive anchor and he shows it here.

Kawhi Leonard has a myriad of moves he can reach into his bag which strikes fear into many defenders. Not Gordon. He shows an early hand acting as a potential contest while also blocking part of Kawhi’s vision. Leonard sees Gordon’s hips as they are open to the right side of the floor, so naturally Kawhi drives left to make Gordon flat footed. Many defenders would be left in the dust, but look at Gordon’s fluid hips as they shift immediately according to Kawhi’s direction. Leonard is then forced to pass it to an open shooter, and the only reason he is open is because Porter thinks Gordon will need help on Kawhi.

Shakira gave us an important lesson once upon a time that hips don’t lie, so there is no fiction behind Aaron Gordon being an elite defender.


Persistence and Intensity

The Nuggets roster some of the best talent in the league without question. We know the physical tools are there, but can they withstand the mental pressure and adversity when the competition heats up? The perseverance from last year’s group tells us they do have what it takes. The NBA, like many sports, is a “What have you done for me lately” business. So what have the Nuggets done lately to prove they are locked in mentally?

Here’s your answer:

It is clear, as of late, Michael Porter Jr. has been very active and engaged on the defensive end. Here we have MPJ matched up on the perimeter with a quicker guard in Seth Curry. Curry recognizes MPJ is a bit flat footed with forward momentum, so he blows by him to the rim. Some players do not have the ability nor the length to recover, but MPJ is 6’10” with a 7-foot wingspan. Porter Jr. shows great persistence and athleticism as he jumps from the dotted line to swat Curry’s shot to smithereens.

Here is another example of MPJ’s determination:

He gifts a very weak and inaccurate pass right to the Clippers, but instead of pouting he immediately runs down the floor to help Murray in transition defense. Yes, Morris absolutely blows the layup, but that is facilitated by having multiple bodies around the shooter. The ball bounces right back to Paul George who gives a shot fake, but MPJ does not bite so George is forced to pass it to Zubac. He rises for the dunk but gets humiliated by Porter Jr. at the rim. Three potential shot attempts and not one of them falls because of the persistence and tenacity on defense.

This possession happens almost three minutes into the game. If the Clippers score in that moment it won’t make or break the game, but again, it sets the early tone that nothing is coming easy for the opponent.


Offensive Cutting

While Denver may have lost their best cutter in Gary Harris, they gain a fantastic cutter in Aaron Gordon. Many people take longer to acclimate to Nikola Jokic’s game because you must expect the unexpected but Gordon flourished instantly.

When asked about Gordon, Monte Morris is quoted as saying, “He’s in the locker room, he’s like, ‘Man these are the easiest baskets I done got.’”

Here is what he’s talking about:

This clip illustrates the genius of Nikola Jokic, but also the recognition and basketball IQ of Aaron Gordon. Jokic has a “Mouse in the house” as we like to call it, so he takes the smaller defender down to post. The Clippers also see this so they double Jokic by sliding their center to him. Many players will make this pass to Murray immediately following the double team but Jokic does not panic. He has the foresight to see if he passes to Murray Kawhi will be right there. Gordon wisely does not settle at the three-point line and creeps to the rim for a wide-open dunk.

Here is what makes the Nuggets unguardable at times: Jokic backs Morris down in the post, and the Clippers know if they let Jokic get any deeper to the rim he will have a shot. Once Jokic pivots to the middle of the floor, five Clippers have their eyes on him. Let me repeat that. Every one of the Clipper defenders has their eyes on Jokic and not their man. If you stop the clip at that point, you will see three wide open options for the Nuggets. Porter Jr. has an open three as well as Barton, and Gordon is open cutting to the rim behind Murray. Once Kawhi commits to Murray, Gordon sneaks behind him for the reverse slam.


As the Nuggets look to maintain their dominant play, they will continue to be tested. In their next ten games, they will face six opponents fighting for playoff seeding. Among their toughest competition is San Antonio twice in two days, an early 1:00 start against Boston, home against Miami, on the road against Portland, and two prime time games against Steph Curry and the Warriors.

We have witnessed inspiring play from Denver of late. Michael Porter Jr. is finding timely looks within the offense, Gordon is finding his niche by cutting to the rim, and Will Barton is starting to play like Will the Thrill.

Denver’s playoff potential rests on the mental fortitude of this group. There is an abundance of talent on this team, yet champions are not revealed through the possession of talent but how it is utilized.

The Nuggets look to utilize that talent to heights Denver has never seen before.