• Jerami Grant is making a case to play big playoff minutes
  • Denver’s defense can reach higher levels with height when locked in
  • Nikola Jokic is a passing maestro
  • The bench has clear deficiencies
  • The Nuggets can beat the Clippers if MPJ and Murray are playing well

As the Denver Nuggets continue to work themselves into playoff shape, they ran into a Los Angeles Lakers team on Monday that was having some struggles and played their starters the entire game. Despite LeBron James and Anthony Davis each playing minute totals in the high thirties well after Denver’s starters sat, Denver kept pace. Tonight, it was déjà vu against the Los Angeles Clippers. There were some cracks in the armor, but the first half showcased some of Denver’s strengths in a prospective series against what I believe to be the best team in the NBA.

Here are my five takeaways:

Jerami Grant is quickly becoming invaluable

It took a long time for Jerami Grant to start feeling comfortable in Denver’s offensive and defensive schemes. The skill set was there, but the impact was not, and Denver was much better with Paul Millsap on the floor over Grant for the beginning stretch of the season.

In January, things turned around for Grant. He started locking in on both ends and showcasing his utility against some of the best teams in the NBA. He defended Kawhi Leonard well, he blocked Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim multiple times, and he spent significant time guarding LeBron James and Anthony Davis back in February to modest results.

In the bubble, and especially tonight, Grant has clearly showcased a need for a larger role next to Denver’s starting group. 25 points and six rebounds tonight are good stats, but in the bubble as a whole, Grant is averaging 17.8 points per game and shooting 55.7% from the field.

Grant is scoring in a variety of ways, but the most intriguing part has been an increased comfort in handling the basketball on the perimeter or in the post and driving toward spots on the floor where he’s comfortable shooting. Sometimes, he can get all the way to the rim like in the clip above, and his athleticism truly shows through in those moments.

Defensively, he’s dynamic as a switchable piece on the perimeter (more on the defense in the next section). Grant’s ability to defend up and down the Clippers lineup and not be at a major disadvantage everywhere is going to be incredibly impactful.

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Denver’s defense can reach higher levels with size on the wing

It was very evident tonight that Michael Porter Jr. on defense was slightly behind schematically, but not athletically. Many of LA’s open baskets came on miscommunications and a bad rotation here or there, but in the first half, the Nuggets were pretty locked in. The Clippers scored just 50 points in the first half compared to 74 in the second half, but it’s the potential and capacity for defense that I want to focus on.

I generally worry more about offense with the Nuggets. We have seen (this season and in years past) that when Denver’s back is against the wall, they are capable of locking in defensively and making life difficult for an opponent. Jamal Murray has improved leaps and bounds on the defensive end from last year’s playoffs to tonight. Torrey Craig is always willing to go blue collar mode and make life difficult for opposing stars. Paul Millsap is very steady.

But the dynamic that shifted tonight is Michael Porter Jr. not looking lost in the first half. He contested a variety of shots, stayed in position, and spent a lot of time on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Often, he was switched onto those assignments, and his combination of size and athleticism helped limit Leonard and George in the first half.

Given the murky injury situations for Will Barton and Gary Harris, I think the Nuggets have to go forward with Murray, Craig, and Porter as their starting perimeter trio. Against some teams, that might not be the best situation. Against the Clippers, there’s at least an argument for it.

Don’t be surprised if the Nuggets ultimately start Grant at power forward as well and decide to switch 1 through 4. Murray’s post defense against Kawhi was illuminating tonight, and his added strength and instincts on that action may give Denver some options. Nobody’s perfect guarding Kawhi, but throwing as much solid coverage at him as possible will be a good situation for Denver. With Grant on the floor, Porter can also start the game on Marcus Morris and entice him into more jumpers, because more shots for Morris means less for everyone else.

Nikola Jokic is a passing maestro

A lot has been made of Luka Doncic and James Harden making absurd passes in the bubble. Personally, I will take this guy:

Jokic finished the game with 13 assists in 28 minutes and was playing some great basketball through three quarters. He was a scorer initially but turned into a playmaker as the game went on. It was good to see Jokic dominate offensively in his matchup against Ivica Zubac. The Clippers have very few bodies to throw at Jokic the scorer, and the more doubling they do, the more playmaking Jokic does.

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Denver’s bench still has some issues

Lou Williams had 23 points and seven assists in 25 comfortable minutes tonight. He looked great as a primary scorer and creator for others as the Nuggets had trouble keeping track of him. Two Clippers bench bigs — JaMychal Green and Patrick Patterson — combined for three made three-pointers on limited opportunities. George and Leonard each feasted when they had their rotations against Denver’s bench units.

The Nuggets have a defensive problem with Murray, Jokic, and Porter off the floor. When at least two of those guys sit, Denver’s offense naturally struggles a bit more than normal, which is why the defense has to lock in. Unfortunately, the Nuggets either don’t have the personnel or the cohesiveness to defend well on that bench unit. With a bunch of smart and capable defenders, it’s surprising to see so many mistakes made in those cases.

Personally, my solution would be to add a healthy Gary Harris and Paul Millsap to that group. Smart defensive players generally make things easier for everyone else, and those two Nuggets (if healthy) are the best Denver can offer as team defenders. Denver’s goal should be to grind out possessions with that unit, and I think they can.

This team can compete with the Los Angeles Clippers

For most of the season, Nuggets fans heard time and time again that the Clippers and Lakers were the class of the Western Conference. Despite Denver winning games consistently, showing they were good against elite teams, and winning games with clutch play from Jokic and Murray, they received no respect from almost anyone as a legitimate threat to upset the Battle for LA that many crave to see.

Tonight, the Nuggets offered a formula to keep up with the Clippers. Score enough points with Nikola Jokic on the floor by surrounding him with elite weapons like Murray and Porter, and hope the bench finds a way to maintain a lead. The Clippers deployed Leonard and George on Murray and Porter for most of their shared minutes, and while neither of Denver’s perimeter players was perfect, they were good enough in those minutes to help give Denver an eight-point lead at halftime.

As long as the Nuggets can keep the pressure on defensively with some of their lengthy wings like Porter, Craig, and Grant, I think they can make the Clippers sweat. Will the Nuggets be the favorite against the Clippers if a playoff series happens? No. Does this game prove that they have the capacity to pull off an upset?


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