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.
Prior to Wednesday’s loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Nuggets were one of the league’s best teams against sub-.500 teams this season, as they were sporting a record of 23-6. Despite some of their struggles against the league’s over-.500 teams, they were making up for it with those wins over lower-end teams. However, they’ve now lost two of their three matchups with the Thunder this season, and they nearly lost the third after blowing a huge lead when these teams met back in January.
The Thunder have the fourth-worst record in the NBA, and they’ve struggled all season. Yet, they’ve managed to cause problems for Denver every time they’ve matched up. So, what are they doing that is causing the Nuggets to struggle with them so much more than the league’s other top teams? That’s what we’re trying to look at today, because every game, whether it’s a win or a loss, can be a learning experience.
During the regular season, it’s tough for teams to watch film every night on an opponent to see what was working against them, but that changes in the playoffs. Everyone will be able to watch the Nuggets play against the Thunder to see what they’re doing differently to try and knock Denver out. The Nuggets need to keep that in mind and work to eliminate these weaknesses from their game before they get to the point of the year where losses end your season.
A Ton of Physicality on Defense
This clip comes from the team’s matchup back in December, but it’s something that continued to ring true in Wednesday’s game. The Thunder play with a lot of physicality on defense, and the Nuggets just weren’t coping well with it inside. When they don’t draw foul calls, they start settling for outside shots. On the year, two of their top three games in 3-point attempts were their two losses to the Thunder. On the above play, Barton drives into the paint early in the first quarter and is met with a ton of resistance. You could argue that a foul occurred on the play, as Barton does following the miss, but the refs have now set a precedent early in the game as to how they’re going to call things inside. They’re going to allow everyone to play more physical inside. Denver should take advantage of that with players like Nikola Jokic and Aaron Gordon, who have a ton of strength thanks to their athleticism. Instead, the team put up 44 of their 84 shots from 3-point range and allowed the Thunder to win the game of physicality inside.
Early in Wednesday’s game, we saw a clear game plan from the Thunder when it came to defending Jokic. They were going to send bodies at him, and they weren’t willing to give him easy looks inside. Jokic is inside with four Thunder defenders inside the paint. He finds a way to get the rebound after being double teamed initially, but the Thunder defenders are still there to harass them before Isaiah Roby gets the block on Jokic. Oklahoma City was down several rotation players, but the guys in their place maintained that added physicality when it came to guarding Jokic.
The Nuggets very nearly accomplished something they hadn’t done since 2013 on Wednesday night when the starters were a combined 0-of-24 from 3-point range prior to a last-second triple from Gordon keeping the streak of games where a starter made at least one 3-point shot alive. In the team’s two losses to OKC, the starters have shot a combined 6-of-42. That’s a whopping 14.3 percent. If you throw in the stats from the win, they improve to 18.6 percent on 3-point shots against OKC. The worst part is the fact that they’re often not taking hugely difficult shots. On the shot above, Barton has a defender closing out on him, but he has plenty of time to get the shot off. He comes up short, and that was a common theme for a lot of the starters. Despite multiple days of rest, they were missing looks that they shouldn’t be.
Really, the only way that Gordon gets more wide open on this play is if the Thunder defense completely left the floor. Gordon saw three or four shots like this where he was essentially wide open, and he couldn’t knock them down. When the defense is going to give your offense looks like this, you absolutely have to knock them down. If you don’t, that allows them to pack the paint which makes for harder shots inside along with fewer second-chance points off of offensive rebounds.
No Easy Buckets
Defensive miscommunications and breakdowns are going to happen, but they can’t happen so frequently throughout a game that they become noticeable. Several times throughout Wednesday’s game, the Nuggets gave up open shots because their defense wasn’t working together. On the play above, Bryn Forbes is guarding his man on the left wing. He sees someone cutting to the rim behind Jokic and JaMychal Green, so he tries to rotate over to cut off that passing lane. The problem with that is he leaves his man wide open while Jokic has already cut off the passing lane by just putting his hands up. If Forbes just trusts Jokic to do his job, he doesn’t give up the easy jumper. When you’re trying to come back in a game, you can’t just give the opponent easy shots.
Our final clip of the day sees Barton just getting beat in transition, and there’s no real excuse for it. When the Denver possession ends, they have three defenders as the farthest back players on the floor while all five of the Thunder players are inside of the free-throw line on the other end. Denver’s defenders have time to get set or at least stop the drive in transition. Instead, Barton lets Shai pick up speed, and he just drives right past him for an easy layup. This wasn’t a 1-on-3 situation. Denver had three different defenders ahead of the play, and they gave up an easy layup in the middle of a potential comeback. Those plays can’t happen against the best teams when we get into April and May.
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.