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Denver Nuggets Film Friday: What if they don’t come back?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-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.

Earlier this week, it was announced that Nuggets’ forward Michael Porter Jr. had experienced a setback in his recovery from lower-back surgery that he underwent in December. It was reported near the end of February that he had been cleared for on-court contact and was hoping to return to play some time in March. Well, it’s now April 1st, and we have no idea if he’ll be able to return to the floor this season.

Meanwhile, Jamal Murray is just 11 days away from the one-year anniversary of the torn ACL he suffered while playing against the Golden State Warriors. He hasn’t suited up since then, and he has yet to have a timetable announced for his possible return this season. Denver has played admirably without these two for nearly the entire season, but it’s beginning to become a realistic possibility that we could be waiting until the 2022-23 season to see Denver’s preferred starting five on the floor at the same time.

If that were the case, Denver would have their rotation of players that they would be heading into the playoffs with. Outside of the LA Clippers, there isn’t another team in the Western Conference that is missing two of their top three players in contract value as things currently stand. Denver’s roster can make some noise, but they will have to focus on a few key areas to really progress when the games matter the most.

Keep Aaron Gordon Engaged

It’s been talked about in great length the kind of impact that Aaron Gordon was set to make when the Nuggets traded for him last season. Upon his arrival, it took a game or two for the starting five to mesh, but, once they did, the entire league was looking over their shoulder at this Denver squad. They had multiple shooters to spread the floor to give Gordon room to work on offense as a cutter, and they had him as their defensive ace that could guard whatever position you needed. This year, we’ve seen Gordon go on hot streaks from time-to-time, but they’ve been far from consistent. In the playoffs, that has to change, especially on offense. When Gordon is actively involved on offense, he’s more engaged on defense which helps everyone else out.

The play above happens around the midway point of the first quarter. Gordon already has 13 of the team’s 23 points, and he’s crushing it on the offensive end. He’s worked as a cutter and down on the block, but, on this play, he’s setting himself up. It all comes from his confidence. He’s been scoring at will early in the game, so he has no reason to think he can’t keep that rolling. He sets Miles Bridges up with a dribble move and proceeds to drive past him. Thanks to his size, he doesn’t get bumped off of his spot when Bridges tries to cut off the baseline, and he gets the easy two points.

One of the main things that goes unnoticed when you get Gordon involved in the scoring side of things is the room he creates for others, specifically Nikola Jokic. On this play, Gordon has already scored all 21 points that he has in the game. Down the stretch, Jokic is the primary option on every play, so that’s where the extra defenders should be going. Instead, Gordon’s man, Isaiah Roby, is more concerned about Gordon cutting in for the backdoor pass. He stays out on Gordon which gives Jokic plenty of room for the layup inside. Gordon’s offensive game is great when utilized correctly, but it’s the team that benefits the most when he’s active and scoring.

Second-Half Blues

We discussed this in last week’s Film Friday piece, but it can not be overstated how important it is for this team to figure out how to hold a lead. After leading by as many as 31 points against the Indiana Pacers, Denver allowed Indiana to climb all the way back and tie the game up heading into the fourth quarter. Most of the time, in the playoffs, teams aren’t going to fall behind by 31 points, but, even if they do, they’re just as capable of crawling back and stealing a victory away.

To start the third quarter against the Pacers, the Nuggets were leading by 16. On their next six possessions, they turned the ball over four of those six times. This was just the first of those six. Monte Morris, who has been one of the best in the league at taking care of the ball since he entered the league, just flat out throws this ball away. After Will Barton gets the steal, Morris, in an effort to try to get an easy fast-break layup, flips the ball without looking in the direction of Barton. If he had taken a second to look, he would have seen that Justin Anderson was already back on defense ahead of Barton. Denver turns the ball over, and the Pacers proceeded to score. Head coach Michael Malone hates turnovers, and Denver had four of them over the course of two-and-a-half minutes.

In the third quarter of that game, the Nuggets had eight turnovers in 12 minutes. Meanwhile, in the first quarter, when they scored a whopping 43 points with just one turnover. Taking care of the ball gives the opponent fewer transition opportunities, and it also gives the offense more chances to score. In the fourth quarter, there were another seven turnovers for Denver. However, over the final four minutes of the quarter, there was zero. Denver went to their star center, and he took care of the ball and sealed the game. When you take care of the ball, it’s a lot harder for your opponent to come back.

Let The Big Fella Eat

This season, Jokic has scored 35 or more points in nine games. In those nine, Denver is an impressive 8-1. The one loss came on November 15th against the Dallas Mavericks when Denver started Austin Rivers while Bones Hyland played just 10 minutes in the game. Jokic has no problem passing to open teammates, but, over the past two seasons, we’ve seen him embrace the role of being the closer for the team down the stretch of games. Without Murray, he hasn’t really had a choice.

This possession is just a beautiful example of Jokic being the big kid on the playground. Denver sets screens to give him just enough room to operate, and he just starts bullying the New Orleans Pelicans after that. He easily gets to the baseline, and, once he gets position near the basket, he just bumps his defender out of the way and gets the layup.

It’s a one-point game with under two minutes remaining while the Sacramento Kings are playing without their new star center in Domantas Sabonis. There’s no reason why Denver shouldn’t be winning comfortably by now. That doesn’t matter to Jokic. He’s fighting for the win. As Gordon puts up the shot, Jokic is crashing towards the boards. With three player defenders inside the paint, he manages to not only tip it to himself, but he also is able to get the ball up and score through the foul. Jokic put up 38 in a close win for Denver, and, when the lights shine brightest, you’re going to go as far as your superstar can take you. So, with that being said, hop on board the Jokic train and take that ride.

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.