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Denver Nuggets Film Friday: Into the desert

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NBA: Denver Nuggets at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-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.

Well, it looked like Denver was headed for another Game 7 showdown, which would have been their fifth Game 7 in their last six postseason series, as they were trailing by as many as 14 points in the third quarter. Instead, Nikola Jokic and Monte Morris took matters into their own hands to end the series in Game 6. Jokic scored 27 of his 36 points over the final two quarters while Morris poured in 16 of his 22 to advance this team to the second round against the Phoenix Suns.

The Suns got out to a huge first quarter lead over the Los Angeles Lakers, and they never looked behind a 47-point outing from Devin Booker that saw him shoot 68.2 percent from the floor and 8-of-10 from 3-point range. This was the first time the Suns had the playoffs since the 2009-10 season when they lost in the Conference Finals to the eventual champion Lakers. The Suns have been the butt of jokes for the last decade, but they put the basketball world on notice with this series win over the defending champs.

The Nuggets and Suns were one of the most fun head-to-head matchups this season. After Denver lost in early January at home, they got revenge with a pair of overnight wins on the road in back-to-back nights against the Suns a few weeks later. The Denver team that we saw in those three games is dramatically different than the one we’re about to see though. Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap were all starters in those games, and, for their own individual reasons, none of them will be starting in this series. Meanwhile, the Suns’ starting lineup is largely the same outside of the swap of Jae Crowder for Cameron Johnson who has moved to a reserve role. Denver can win this series. They’re facing a team with less firepower than the Portland Trail Blazers, but Phoenix is much better defensively. How is Denver making it to the Western Conference Finals?

Get Nikola Jokic an advantage

Before we go any further, I understand that Jokic has an advantage against just about everyone in the NBA. That will happen when you’re about to be the first true center to win the award since Shaquille O’Neal back in the 1999-00 season. What we’re talking about here though is switching. Deandre Ayton is the only player on the Suns that can somewhat match Jokic’s size and physicality. The Suns don’t have another player that starts that is taller than 6’6,” and Jae Crowder is the only other starter that’s listed as weighing more than 209 pounds. On this play, Jokic gets a switch with 6’8” Johnson guarding him, and he just steadily backs him down towards the rim. Once he generates a little extra separation, it’s an easy spin to the basket for the layup.

In Denver’s series win over Portland, there was a common theme. When Jusuf Nurkic was off the floor, Denver was the clear better team. Their points per possession rose from 1.16 to 1.34 on the offensive end with their shooting percentage rising from 45.9 percent to 49.3 percent. The Suns don’t have another starter that can switch on Jokic, and neither of their bigs off of the bench can slow Jokic down. On this play, Ayton had fouled out in the first overtime which forced Frank Kaminsky onto the floor to try and guard Jokic. Kaminsky just doesn’t have the size, and, similar to how things went against Cam Johnson, Jokic backed him down before dropping in a little hook shot.

Get Phoenix Off of the 3-point Line

For his career, when Booker shoots better from 3-point range, his team wins more often than not. His 3-point percentage in wins is 38.7 percent compared to 32.8 percent in their losses. In the series against the Lakers, the Suns shot 34.4 percent from 3-point range in their two losses compared to 36.4 percent in their four wins. That gap isn’t monumental, but it is present. With Murray out, Denver doesn’t have the 3-point power to keep up with Phoenix if they get hot. On this play, Harris does a great job of chasing Booker over the screen, and Jokic stays out close to the 3-point line to keep Booker from rising up and knocking one down. When Booker gets hot, it’s white hot, and Denver can’t afford to let him stroke it from outside where he can get points up in a hurry.

It’s plays like this that win you games but don’t show up on the stat sheet. Denver’s down seven, but there is still more than a full quarter to go. Morris doesn’t think about that though, and he blitzes Crowder who’s open for the 3-point shot. Morris goes by, but Crowder is forced to dribble in and attempt the jump shot. Murray wipes it out with a block. Hustle plays like this are how you win a series when you may not have the same talent pool. Denver’s hustle needs to continue to show up every night.

Answer the Bell MPJ

In Game 6, the case can be made that the only reason Denver won that game was the performance Michael Porter Jr. put on in the first quarter. 22 of his 26 points came in the first period, and he did so while shooting 8-of-10 from the floor and 6-of-7 from 3-point range. The rest of the Nuggets combined were 3-of-10 while the Blazers were 11-of-20 as a team and 6-of-9 from 3-point range. Porter cooled off significantly for the rest of the game, including making the mature decision to have coach Michael Malone bench him in favor of JaMychal Green who was bringing energy to the team while Porter was struggling. Porter averaged over 21.3 points per game in their four wins, and he did that in a couple of ways. One of those was getting to the rim. His 3-point shooting and jump shooting in general force defenders to honor him away from the rim. Mikal Bridges, who went a few spots ahead of MPJ in the 2018 NBA draft and is a great on-ball defender, is in great positioning on Porter. However, because of Porter’s ability to rise up at any time and anywhere with his height, he draws Bridges in, and he gets to the rim for the easy dunk before the help defense is able to rotate over.

This is the other big jump that Porter has taken in his second year of play. Last season, he was a complete sieve on defense that teams attacked relentlessly when he was on the floor. He still has some work to do on that end, but his bump in off-ball defensive awareness has allowed him to use his athleticism for plays like this. He’s guarding Kaminsky in the corner, and he sees that Abdel Nader is committed to getting a shot up. Once he recognizes that, he slides over for the block and immediately pushes to the offensive end. Morris finds Murray, who could have put a good shot up, but Murray rewards Porter’s defense and hustle for an easy triple in transition with Suns’ defense still not set. Booker and Chris Paul will undoubtedly try to attack Porter on the defensive end. It’s up to him to answer that call when it comes.

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.