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The Sixth Man: The Nuggets may not be elite yet, but the offense is surely playing like it

What was once a defensive unit to begin the season has turned into an offensive juggernaut. Oh yeah, and they’re without two elite scorers

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Elite teams play their best basketball when it counts, and that is precisely what the Denver Nuggets are doing right now. Some, including myself, may not consider Denver an “elite” team without Murray and MPJ, but they certainly have been playing elite basketball this season. Their 39-26 record positions them one win under the “elite” Philadelphia 76ers with 40 wins. Without MPJ and Murray, the Nuggets have not had any stars to pair with Jokic, so their success relative to those teams flies under the radar.

I’m not trying to say the Nuggets are an elite basketball team right now, but I do think their success this season is as impressive as it gets in the NBA. They began the season slowly, but they improved their play and, more specifically, their offense each month. In October, they had the league’s 4th worst scoring offense at 101.3 PPG, but that number has risen each month, and in March, they are now scoring 123 PPG.

The big jump came from December to January. In December, they were 7-6 and scored 109 PPG with a plus/minus of -0.2. Transition to the next month, and they were 11-5, scoring 115.8 PPG with a plus/minus of 7.1. Their winning percentage and offensive productivity have increased since then, and now they are 9-1 in their last ten games which is the best record over that span.

Of course, the key to that success has been the fantastic play of Nikola Jokic. His 46 point and 32 point triple-doubles have been historical, but his mentality appears to be in a playoff dominance type of mode. We have seen him defer to other players because of the right pass, but evident in that New Orleans game, he is not taking no for an answer when the game gets close. He dropped 30 points in the 4th quarter and overtime against the Pelicans and dominated late via the free-throw line. He is aggressively attacking the basket when his team needs it, and when he is awarded double-digit free throw attempts, we begin to see the scoring numbers of his MVP counterparts.

Jokic certainly has this offense running like a well-oiled machine, but he cannot do it by himself. Nearly every player who earns minutes has been forming into their role fabulously, and that’s why the offense is peaking. In Denver’s last 10 games, they are top 10 in wins (1st), PPG (4th), assists (3rd), plus/minus (3rd), FG% (6th), free-throws made (2nd), and rebounding (7th). The Mile High offense is back folks, and they don't even have their best offensive pieces.


Pressure

In my opinion, this may be the largest factor in Denver’s success. The players know every win matters, and this is when they need to turn on their best basketball. The chemistry appears to have formed where the Nuggets are comfortable and confident playing alongside one another and it is displaying itself with each win.

The leadership cannot go ignored either. Nikola Jokic, Jeff Green, Monte Morris, and DeMarcus Cousins among others have this team focused on winning each contest. The addition of Boogie has been key in this category not only because of his production, but because he has the pedigree, intimidation, and respect to where players will listen and heed his knowledge.

This leadership and chemistry can manifest itself in many categories, but my favorite has been the notion of not settling on offense. In the early parts of the season, Denver seemed to settle for too many outside jumpers and it cost them dearly. Now that the pressure is on, they know attacking the basket is their most consistent and best chance at offensive efficiency.

This Jeff Green dunk was not just a highlight, but it was a tone-setter. He gives up the three for a more efficient shot and leads the way to a focus in the paint. They outscored the Warriors 66-52 in the paint which was a key factor to that win. Some will say, the Warriors were depleted and the Nuggets had the advantage in the paint, and those people would be correct but that depicts the beauty of Denver’s game the other night. They know they had the advantage inside, they did not try to beat the Warriors at their own game, rather they understood and executed their edge which is what good teams do.

Since the pressure of the playoffs is nearing, the Nuggets are starting to win in ways they were not earlier in the season. The trenches. At the start of the season, the Nuggets were a bottom-five team in rebounding and free throw attempts. In their last 15 games, they have completely flipped a switch. They are 5th in free throws made and 7th in rebounding. The Nuggets already have the finesse game meshed into their roster, but ever since they added the aggressive mentality in the paint, they have been on a tear.

Playing faster

In the past, we’ve seen this team play slow, half-court basketball which can be their strength, but it seemed to foster a little confusion and stagnation early in the season. Now that their chemistry has improved, they are making quicker decisions, and they are aggressive in transition.

Over their last 10 games, the Nuggets rank 6th in pace. We know Jokic loves to grab the rebound and get it up the court as quick as possible, but we have seen Gordon push the ball in transition as well. We have also seen effective guard rebounding, where Morris, Barton, or Bones will grab the board and immediately look to push the pace. In that same 10 game span, Denver is 6th in fast break points and 4th in points off turnovers, which indicates once they obtain a transition opportunity, they are executing at a high level.

This clip is almost picture-perfect transition basketball. When you can have your two bigs, JaMychal and Boogie, run the floor like that with the vision they displayed, that can strike fear in the opponent. Led by Boogie, this ball movement is as crisp as it gets. Boogie does a great job of keeping his eyes up, and JaMycal does as well because once he gets it, he immediately spots Rivers in the corner. Rivers completes the ball movement with great vision to see Forbes running down the court for three, but what else do we notice? Once the shot goes up, Boogie and JaMychal are right there ready to grab an offensive rebound.

Playing faster and more physical has aided Denver’s success and it's especially wonderful to see it come from the bench. One of the reasons it is so critical to get out in transition is because the defense is uncomfortable in that area. They are not able to have a set defense, they are scrambling to help on open guys, and mismatches occur way more frequently.


There has been criticism of Denver’s hot play, and I do think it is warranted. During this 10 game stretch, they have played Sacramento twice, Portland, Houston, a depleted Golden State unit, and a loss to Oklahoma City. Do those teams make their 9-1 record less impressive? Sure, you can argue that. Does the scheduling make those wins any less important? No. The pressure is on and the Nuggets need to win as many games as they can no matter who is on the schedule. Denver is winning the games they need to and should win combined with impressive wins over Toronto, a scorching hot New Orleans team, and a signature win against Golden State before the break.

Their schedule gets tougher and we will see who this team truly is down the stretch. They will have to face Golden State again, Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston, Phoenix, Minnesota, and Memphis among other tough matchups. Their work is cut out for them, but they hold the sharpest blade in the drawer with Nikola Jokic.