The playoffs are finally here.
After a brutal, agonizing regular season, the Denver Nuggets enter the 2022 NBA playoffs in the same place as the rest of the Western Conference playoff teams. Some teams will have an easier route to the NBA Finals than others, but the journey remains the same in its essence: three playoff series victories.
For the Nuggets, the journey begins in San Francisco, California. The Golden State Warriors will play host to the Nuggets on Saturday night on ABC, a primetime matchup between the soon-to-be two-time MVP Nikola Jokić and the Splash Brothers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Bones Hyland and Jordan Poole will be taking deep threes. Draymond Green and Aaron Gordon will likely get into an emotional shoving match by Game 2. It’s a basketball fan’s dream.
For Michael Malone, the year has been particularly difficult to navigate. Without Jamal Murray for the entire season and with Michael Porter Jr. bowing out after the ninth game in early November, the Nuggets have been at a tactical disadvantage for the entire season, elevating players into larger roles and heavier minutes. Jokić handled his business well, as did Gordon, Monte Morris, Will Barton, Jeff Green, and many others on the roster. Malone has to be proud of how his team handled adversity during the regular season.
Now though is where the rotation gets cut down to size. Malone has one goal and one goal only: survive and advance. He will make the decisions that he and the coaching staff see as the best course of action, and that likely means playing less players more minutes.
So, which players will make the cut?
Heavy minutes every night
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. Jokić is the be-all-end-all of Nuggets basketball. Everything runs through him, and Denver’s prospects run through him too. He’s setting records for production and efficiency in his seventh season, and against the Warriors, the Nuggets will need him to be a big factor once again. Kevon Looney and Draymond Green will spend the majority of the minutes guarding him during the series, which should be considered mismatches for Jokić. He HAS to beat those coverages one-on-one, and he will get every opportunity to do so.
Denver’s strongest and most versatile defender, Gordon will be asked to wear plenty of hats throughout the series. From chasing Stephen Curry around the perimeter, to shadowing Klay Thompson, to matching up with Draymond Green, Gordon is Denver’s defensive chess piece. They need him to have a big, big series on both ends of the floor. Offensively, Gordon has the physicality and dexterity around the rim to take advantage of the Warriors overextending to Jokić. If Gordon takes advantage, he could swing the series.
Throughout the regular season matchups against the Warriors, Morris was the second most consistent scorer and playmaker on the Nuggets roster. The Nuggets need the versatility of Morris’ two-man game with Jokić to keep the Warriors honest. Without Morris on the court, the Warriors will likely collapse the paint and make life hell for Denver’s cutters. Morris provides some traditional elements that the Nuggets offense needs.
Now, who does Morris guard on the other end? Stephen Curry? Klay Thompson? Andrew Wiggins? Jordan Poole off the bench? That’s a very interesting question.
Matchup dependent starters and closers
Will Barton’s defense has fallen off throughout the year. His offense, though certainly important, has always been fairly streaky. The Nuggets need precision in the playoffs and have to execute their game plan at a high level on both ends of the floor.
This is the first year of Barton’s career with the Denver Nuggets where he will be reasonably healthy entering a playoff series. His challenge? Guard Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole, and Andrew Wiggins while being the leading or secondary perimeter scoring option. Have fun!
Seriously though, I’m rooting for Will. He deserves a moment of triumph with the Nuggets franchise, and those moments are best made in the playoffs.
It’s clear that Austin Rivers will be frequently called upon to be a perimeter defense option in this series. To be clear, he’s the best of a lot of bad defensive options, but if anybody has a chance of making an impact, it’s him. Rivers was brought in after Jamal Murray tore his ACL in April last year, and ever since then, he’s been a trust option for the Nuggets defensively. Will it translate against the best of the best? That remains to be seen. He will get the opportunity at heavy minutes though. That much appears clear.
Jeff Green will most likely be the starter at power forward in Game 1 and match up with Draymond Green. Depending on how well that goes on both ends of the floor, Uncle Jeff has a wide range of outcomes. If he’s successful, the Nuggets will likely play him heavy minutes and allow Gordon the opportunity to guard Curry or Thompson. If it doesn’t go well, the Nuggets may pivot to Jeff running backup center minutes in place of DeMarcus Cousins instead. More on that later.
In an improbable turn of events, 26th overall pick Bones Hyland has earned the trust of the coaching staff as the backup point guard heading into the playoffs. It’s important that the Nuggets (and Nuggets fans) remark upon that before the playoffs, because this is about the be an insane trial by fire for Bones. Every mistake could be the difference in winning or going home, but playing loose will be important in the biggest moments, but a key turnover from being too loose could prompt an opponent’s scoring run.
It’s an impossible position, but the Nuggets don’t really have another option. Bones is likely the guy that has to carry the offense when Nikola Jokić sits. Malone will probably stagger at least a starter or two to help him out, but Bones is the star that stirs the drink, and the Warriors definitely know that too.
JaMychal Green ended the regular season shooting 26.6% from three-point range. Last season, Green shot 39.9% in the regular season but just 30.0% in the playoffs. Expecting a massive shooting leap from JaMychal probably isn’t a good idea.
Green will be out there for defense, rebounding, and interior scoring purposes. He’s a good dunker spot operator next to Jokić, and when playing alongside DeMarcus Cousins, Green and the Nuggets rebound the heck out of the ball. If he’s doing those things well, the Nuggets will keep playing him big minutes. If not, don’t be surprised if the Nuggets stagger Gordon or Jeff in JaMychal’s place later in the series.
Play it by ear
The Nuggets need DeMarcus Cousins to play 8 to 12 solid minutes per game. That’s gone well on some nights and poorly on others. There are moments where Cousins is an unstoppable scorer and rebounder that opposing defenses can’t handle. There are also moments where Cousins can’t stop fouling and turning the ball over.
With the Warriors backup center situation looking like a mix of Nemanja Bjelica, Otto Porter Jr., and Draymond Green, Cousins will certainly have a size advantage. He has to be able to take advantage of that, because the Warriors will certainly look to take advantage of Cousins’ limited mobility on the other end of the floor. If COusins can stay out of foul trouble while drawing fouls from the Warriors second unit, the Nuggets will take that.
Bryn Forbes dropped out of the Nuggets rotation in favor of two-way contract player Davon Reed. Reed and Markus Howard are both ineligible for the playoffs, meaning that Michael Malone doesn’t have that option to play over Forbes. The Nuggets may need Forbes’ elite shooting to keep pace with the Warriors outside shooting, but that comes with a cost defensively. Forbes will be a situational option who might play in some games and might miss others.
Break glass in case of emergency
Campazzo was ejected from the Nuggets’ final game of the regular season on Sunday, expressing some frustration with a no-call and likely at how the season has gone overall. Campazzo has fallen out of Malone’s rotation behind Bones Hyland, but there’s always a chance Facu gets the call at some point during the series to provide energy and defense. Whether it’s foul trouble, Bones struggling, or something else, Campazzo should definitely stay ready.
Coming off of an extended absence due to bilateral knee soreness, Nnaji made his return on Sunday night and looked understandably rusty. Before his absence, Nnaji was likely going to be a permanent part of the rotation at backup power forward. If JaMychal Green struggles, there’s always a chance Nnaji gets a look from Malone later in the series. Right now though, it appears that Nnaji will be on the outside, waiting for another opportunity.
Vlatko, like Zeke, made his return from injury on Sunday and displayed some rust. He looked a bit closer to being helpful than Zeke in that game though, with two points, four assists, and eight rebounds in his return to action. Čančar is a great connector in many lineups. He doesn’t have major weaknesses, and though he isn’t a dynamic athlete or scorer, he can be helpful in the right circumstance. That circumstance isn’t likely to be this year’s playoffs, but you never know.
The biggest question mark for the Nuggets right now is Jamal Murray. He’s clearly very close to a return, but he wasn’t able to get back on the court in time for the end of the regular season. If he does make his debut, it will now be in the form of a high intensity playoff game. Is that fair to him? Absolutely not. Does he care? Not if the Nuggets have a serious chance at a championship.
“Serious” is probably up for interpretation, but if Shams Charania is to be believed, it doesn’t appear likely Murray or Porter will suit up during the playoffs. I will be skeptical of every report that isn’t titled “Murray is planning to make his return” or “The Nuggets are ruling Murray out for the playoffs” at this point. The Nuggets are kicking the can down the road. Here’s to hoping Murray can return by the time the can gets run over by a school bus full of Warriors fans.
Michael Porter Jr.
The same basically goes to Porter, but his return appears far less likely than Murray at this point. It appears the minor setback was a little less minor than the word minor actually means.