It feels like every time I write this, there is another injury to a critical member of the Nuggets. PJ Dozier left last night’s game with a reported right abductor strain, per Mike Singer. His timetable for return and severity of the injury are unclear at this time, but it is worth noting Gary Harris struggled with a left abductor strain in his time with Denver this season.
Depending on the injury’s severity, it could be another crushing blow to an already decimated lineup but it is nothing new to this squad. Their last man-up mentality seems to be unmatched by any team in the league. Over their last ten games, they hold the second-best record in the league at 8-2, and post all-star break they are tied with the Suns for the best record in the league at 22-7.
You can’t expect this lineup to hold teams under 100 every night, but they are playing some of the most inspired defense of the season and past seasons. In their last ten games, Denver is 5th in blocks (5.8) and defensive rating (108.2). Although the Nuggets are without most of their rotational guards, their replacements have been outshining them on the defensive end. We are not talking about second-string players, we are talking third-string, just signed off the couch type of players.
The defense of the new additions Aaron Gordon, Facu Campazzo, and Shaq Harrison have been revelations. It’s not just their defensive talent, but their hustle and will to impact the game prove evident on most possessions. When you watch guys like Shaq Harrison and Facu play it is very difficult to find a defensive possession where they are not playing at full speed. This type of effort is contagious and persists throughout the whole lineup.
As I watched game tape, I was shocked at how many times I had to write down “great defense.” I could pick about 30-40 clips defensive clips, but I don’t want Nugget fans to get tired of watching good defense so I will stick to five.
In this first clip, I want to pay homage to PJ Dozier because he filled the Will Barton role arguably better than Barton. He is a huge part of why Denver’s defense is among the league’s best lately, and he has been confident and effective at the offensive end.
Initially, PJ is matched up with KCP in the bottom corner, but there is a potential Caruso-Drummond screen and roll action on the other side. PJ notices the action and slides to the paint. Caruso passes up the screen and roll driving right, but Dozier knows Jokic and Campazzo are on him, so he is going to help on the Drummond roll to the basket. For those who don’t know, Andre Drummond is a machine of a man. They list him at 6’10” 280 lbs, so anyone who stands in his way with his momentum moving forward is in a precarious spot to say the least. PJ takes my precarious situation and crumples it to dust because he stands his ground, goes straight up and raises his arms to block the shot.
This is a great illustration of how this defense has been playing lately. Intense and fearless with great execution.
In this second clip, I want to introduce the fantastic play of Shaq Harrison.
Clippers guard Reggie Jackson has a mismatch with Nugget forward JaMychal Green at the top of the three-point line. Shaq is creeping to help on a potential drive because often guards will drive by bigger players because they are quicker. Shaq’s instincts are correct as Jackson drives and he is right there to stop his momentum. What’s fascinating about this play is that many defenders will just show the help for a moment and then go right back to their matchup. What’s great about Shaq is he doesn’t just want a missed shot, he wants the ball. So he stays right in Jackson’s air space and strips it off him for the turnover.
Here is another Shaq clip that isn’t as sexy, but it displays his fierce motor.
This is almost a mirror image of the first clip because we’re going to get screen and roll action on the right side of the floor and that corner defender (Shaq Harrison) shows help by sliding to the paint. This time Caruso sees the open man sooner so he kicks it out to McLemore for what seems to be an open three. As soon as Caruso passes it, Shaq is on a dead sprint to the corner. You can’t run any harder than he is, but what’s interesting is it is still a controlled closeout. Usually when you see a defender on a dead sprint like that, they commit to the block too early and the shooter pump fakes. Shaq doesn’t commit to the block until he sees McLemore in the air, and if you can pause it at the end of the three-second mark, his hand is nearly parallel to the ball. Again, not a “WOW” clip, but one of the best closeouts I’ve seen out of Denver this season.
What would a Tommy Knowlton article be without a couple Facu Campazzo clips? I really am sorry if it is getting redundant, but I simply cannot talk about defense without mentioning him. It’s like having Anthony Davis drive to the rim without yelling “AYYYYYYYY.” It just can’t happen.
This possession is a near-perfect portrayal of why players around the league are getting frustrated with Facu. You just cannot shake him off. KCP even backs up to get a running start and he still cannot get rid of him. It is mind-boggling how quick he is on the defensive end. At the two-second mark he goes for the steal and misses, yet he still recovers and forces up a shot Laker fans do not want KCP to take.
Here is a clip of Facu taking on the Laker’s biggest players in Davis and Drummond on one possession.
There is absolutely no quit in this man. Facu comes to double Anthony Davis and is pestering him like when a taller, older brother holds your lunch over his head because he knows you can’t reach it. Nevertheless, Facu chases him wherever he goes. Now when Davis drops it to Drummond ironically the 280-pound big man becomes prey to the 5’10” point guard. When Drummond drops the ball below his belt he really has no chance of keeping it. Facu’s hands are too quick so he steals it and saves it from going out of bounds.
I know. It’s unhealthy my obsession with this energetic Argentinian, but if you like the underdog who hustles every single play and maximizes his ability, there might not be any better player to look at than Facu Campazzo.
With that being said, I will get off my Campazzo soapbox and return to the Denver defense.
Last night’s game against the Lakers was not a moral victory by any means because they had countless opportunities to win it, but they showed they could be physical with a physical team. MPJ struggled in the first half in part due to physical play out of Laker defenders, but he found room in the second half and assisted the Nugget comeback. Jokic was not hitting shots he normally makes yet he still dropped 32.
The Nuggets played one of their worst, if not the worst, offensive game of the season and they still had a shot to win. The reason I’m harping on this is because in the past we’ve seen Denver miss multiple shots and loaf it on the defensive end. This time, players exercised a short memory and maintained the focus and energy to excel on defense.
These type of performances in stretches such as this are essential to this group. When you look at Denver overcoming two 3-1 playoff deficits, do you often see them quit because they are behind by too much? You do not because this team has proven they are resilient, and they remind themselves of it.
We see Denver playing top-5 level defense over this stretch. So now there is evidence they can be a very effective defensive unit, and when they struggle they will recall this stretch. Even when Murray, Barton, Morris, and Dozier all come back together they will want to prove it wasn’t a fluke. So while some see this period as only eight regular season wins, the team sees it as motivation when it underachieves and that can last years.