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Denver Nuggets Film Friday: Possible Playoff Opponents

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NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-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.

The Denver Nuggets secured a top four seed for the third consecutive season with their win over the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday night, and GM Tim Connelly informed head coach Michael Malone after the game that they were the only team in the Western Conference that could stake that claim. While they have a chance to climb as high as the two-seed, they are expected to finish in the fourth place spot, with just under an 80 percent chance.

The Nuggets’ playoff opponents, assuming they enter as the four seed, will be one of three teams in the Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers or Los Angeles Lakers. Denver has had some great battles with each of those three teams over the last few seasons including overtimes, buzzer beating opportunities and extended playoff battles. Needless to say, the playoff series against any one of them will have a good bit of buzz to go with it.

The Nuggets have one game remaining against the Blazers, but they have already clinched the season series. However, they’ve lost 2 out of 3 to both the Lakers and Mavericks this season, including a 19-point drubbing from the Lakers in January that saw Denver outscored by 33 points in the second half. Denver can hang with each of these teams in the playoffs, but, how can they guarantee that they make it out of the first round with a victory? That’s what we’re looking at today.

*All stats, film and analysis were done prior to the team’s 5/13/2021 game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.*

Dallas Mavericks

On offense, getting Kristaps Porzingis involved in space on a guard is a way to take advantage of where he is physically at this point of his career. Multiple injuries have slowed down his movements on that end of the floor, and he’s currently grading out worse than he ever has on the defensive end of the floor. On this play, Monte Morris doesn’t do anything overly fancy, but he’s very aware of his advantage, and he blows by Porzingis to the rim. Forcing him to play out where he isn’t comfortable can get easier buckets for the guys inside. Keeping him away from the rim also opens up space for cutters behind him.

This is just another example of the benefit of getting Porzingis out in space. While Murray doesn’t take him off the dribble, there are no other rim protectors in the game which gives Nikola Jokic the easy bucket. 39.1 34.4 40

In their wins this season, the Mavericks shoot 39.1 percent from 3-point range. In their losses, that number drops to 31.6 percent. In two wins against Denver, they hit 39.5 percent from downtown. In the one loss, they shot 34.4 percent. Denver needs to force Dallas to shoot outside shots, and they have to keep a hand in their face when they do it. When Denver’s defense is buzzing around and closing out on shooters or keeping in close contention, they have better results. If they keep tight on shooters and Dallas hits shots, there isn’t anything you can do other than tip your cap and say good shot.

The last thing Denver has to do is force Luka to settle for jump shots outside the paint. He’s shooting 70.6 percent at the rim this season. Among guards with at least 100 attempts inside five feet, he ranks 10th at 65.8 percent. Throw in his ability to pass out to shooters and draw fouls seemingly at will, especially against Denver as he’s averaging 10.3 free throws per game against them this season and 9.4 per game for his career, and you have to keep him outside. Michael Porter Jr. does a great job of keeping his hands up while denying him a driving lane. Similar to how teams have guarded LeBron James for several years, if he beats you with his jump shot, you live with it, but you can’t let him beat you inside.

Portland Trail Blazers

Ok, so this is a story in three parts. It starts with Damian Lillard standing in no-man’s land between Monte Morris and MPJ. Morris misses the open triple. Lillard doesn’t go after the rebound, and he doesn’t try to close out on Will Barton, instead pointing for someone else to cover him. Barton misses, and Lillard is standing in roughly the same spot on the court he was to start this play. Porter grabs the second offensive rebound of the possession, and he eventually gets the easy bucket as Lillard watches him dunk it home. What’s the moral of the story here? Go after Lillard on the defensive end. He’s an offensive wizard, but his defense is nowhere near that level. Even if he’s able to make a play or two on the defensive end, that’s going to limit his energy for offense.

On defense, you can’t let Dame or C.J. McCollum beat you. It has to be someone else. The defenders involved on each of these plays are different, but the plan of the defense is the same. The guard and big involved in the pick-and-roll are going to force the ball-handler to pass the ball to someone else. That has to be the plan of attack all game long. Per game, McCollum and Lillard average 51.7 points per game, and they each boast a usage rate of 27.2 or higher. Force someone else to beat you because you can’t let the stars do it.

Los Angeles Lakers

In the playoffs, a few things tend to happen from a referee standpoint. They tend to let players play a little bit more, and they never want to be in the spotlight at the end of a game. Marc Gasol and Andre Drummond had decent games against Denver in the team’s 93-89 victory on May 3, and a major reason was the amount of physicality they were allowed to play with against Nikola Jokic and the rest of the team’s bigs. So, how do you combat that physicality? You put them out in space where they’re going to get beaten by quicker players. On this play, you have Gasol out near the 3-point line guarding Jokic. While he may be comfortable out there on offense, he’s kind of in no-man’s land after the ball leaves Jokic’s hands. Pulling him away from the basket limits his ability to be physical, and, if he is physical on a jump shot, you have a better chance of a foul being called rather than putting up shots around the rim.

3-point shots only should be the plan here. If the Lakers are going to get hot for a series and beat you with 3-point shooting, then so be it. You can’t let them get inside. We already know how good Anthony Davis and LeBron James are in that area, but the rest of the team features a lot of guys who are good finishers at the rim as well. In wins, the Lakers shoot 37.7 percent from 3-point range, and they were 38.9 percent in their two wins over Denver. In their losses, they shoot 32.5 percent, and they were just 21.4 percent in the lone loss to Denver. On this play, the defense is scrambling around, but it looks like controlled chaos. Austin Rivers falls down on the left wing, but he gets up and gets back into the play. Facundo Campazzo and Shaquille Harrison both do a great job of being in position as help-side defenders, but they’re still able to get back and close out on shooters. The play ends with Rivers, who fell down earlier in the play, contesting Ben McLemore’s 3-point jumper. Build a wall inside the arc, and hope that you don’t get beaten from outside of it.

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.