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.
When you are one of the 29 teams that fall short of winning an NBA title, it’s important to learn from the one that did. Whether the Golden State Warriors or Boston Celtics end up raising the Larry O’Brien trophy, there is a key facet of their games that can be learned from either team. That is the importance of perimeter defense, which is something that the Nuggets have been lacking for a couple of years now.
Denver has guys that can put in effort on the perimeter on the defensive end, but they don’t have anyone that can be classified as a true stopper. Aaron Gordon can play the free safety role that allows him to switch and use his athleticism to rotate to make plays. Jamal Murray had shown flashes when healthy of being an improving on-ball defender, but the team doesn’t have someone on the roster that you would classify as a shutdown defender.
In the Warriors’ lone win of the series thus far, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins shot a combined 8-of-31 from the floor, and they won the game by 19 because of the work the team did on the other end. Meanwhile, in the Celtics’ pair of wins, they have found a way in the fourth quarter of games to lock things down on the defensive end of the floor, as they’re +36 in those two quarters. It’s no secret that Denver needs to adjust their defense this offseason, and this Finals matchup is only making that more clear.
Hustle Wins Games
Energy can win you games. When 10 guys are on the floor, only one of them will be classified as the best player. So, how do you close that gap between you and everyone else, you outhustle all of them. That’s exactly what Jaylen Brown does on this play when guarding Klay Thompson. It’s a 14-point game with under five minutes remaining. The Celtics are trying to close it out and take the series lead. Brown is all over Thompson on the perimeter. He initially lets Klay get by him on his cut to the rim, but, thanks to his energy and length, he’s in position to make and gets a huge block. Was the game likely already over before that point? Yes, but that was the kind of defensive dagger that gets the crowd really rocking at a home game and takes the wind out of your opponent’s sails.
Does Will Barton get screened by Draymond Green on this play? Yes. Is he completely out of the play to where he can’t make a good at altering Klay’s shot? No. After getting around the screen, Barton sees Thompson get into a shooting motion as if he’s going to rise up for the 3-pointer. Rather than staying grounded until Thompson actually rises up, slows down to start a jump. He realizes it’s a shot fake, but, rather than staying with Klay after he dribbles towards the rim, he gets on his back and starts trying to reach around for a steal opportunity that isn’t there. Hustling to stay alongside Klay and contesting the shot would have been the better call, but it wasn’t the one that was made.
I understand that the focus of this article is on-ball defense rather than off-ball defense, but this is just a great example of what an elite defender can do when put in the right spots. Marcus Smart, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is guarding Draymond Green out on the perimeter in Game 2 with the Warriors up 12. Draymond was 4-of-11 from 3-point range against the Nuggets in Round 1. In the 3 rounds since, he’s 2-of-19 from distance, and he’s not been trying to hunt his shot either. Even when left open, he’s been hesitant to shoot. Smart knows this, and he’s able to give him as much space as he wants because, even if Draymond does start to rise up, Marcus has the quickness to close out and contest the shot. He shades over to help on Wiggins, and he comes away with the steal because he put himself in a spot to make a play.
Gordon, when surrounded by other solid defenders, can be a great defender because of his ability to make plays that others physically cannot. However, there are moments when he takes the eye-candy that the offense is putting in front of him, and it gives up the easy basket as a result. This play is a prime example. He’s guarding Stephen Curry in the corner when Austin Rivers knocks knees going around a screen and losing contact with Jordan Poole. Gordon doesn’t need to take that assignment on. There are other defenders in better positions that could work to cut him off. Instead, Gordon goes towards him and leaves Rivers hanging out to dry. Curry gets the easy backdoor layup for the easiest two points he had gotten the entire series.
During the first-round matchup between the Nuggets and Warriors, Golden State saw great amounts of success when heavily featuring their guards. Denver didn’t have the ability to match them, and, outside of Jokic, they didn’t have another offensive threat that they could lean on. Fast forward to the finals, and we’re seeing the Celtics imposing their will on the Warriors with a lineup that features a ton of length and size at every position. The shortest player on the floor for Boston is Marcus Smart at 6’3,” but he also weighs 220 pounds. Derrick White is only 190 pounds, but he’s 6’4.” Throw in three guys between 6’6” and 6’9,” and the Warriors have to player bigger than they may want to. Poole is kept on the bench, and the offense suffers as a result.
On the defensive end, they just don’t have the combination of size and athleticism to match up with Boston. Curry doesn’t have the size to keep Jayson Tatum from going around him and towards the rim, and, after switching onto Al Horford, it’s more of the same as Horford just goes right to the basket for the make. The health of Denver’s roster would have helped their ability to match and dictate lineups, but that isn’t all that could be done.
Jokic can only do so much when it comes to dictating what lineups the opponent is going to use. Generally, when he’s on the floor, the other team is going to keep a center out there. When that happens, Denver needs to have a lineup that focuses on speed and shooting rather than trying to match the size. On this play, not much is happening for Denver. Jokic has the ball near the charity stripe in isolation against Jonathan Kuminga. The rest of the Warriors’ defense should be miles away while Jokic works right? Wrong. They know that the floor isn’t flush with shooters, and they’re able to sit right near the paint to help onto Jokic if needed. Even if Jokic wanted to back him down and go to the basket using his size advantage, he’d have nowhere to go because the lineup isn’t set up for him to do so. Dictate the matchups thrown out you by using your advantages.
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