Ah, the Denver Nuggets live to fight another day. With it, Nuggets fans have copious thoughts, and hope is restored in the Nuggets making this a series again.

Let’s talk about it:

The biggest story tonight was Denver’s defense finally clicking during the second half. After allowing 63 points in the first, the Nuggets locked down in the second half and allowed just 44, the lowest amount they’ve allowed in any half of the playoffs thus far. Some of this was the Jazz just missing shots more frequently, but the Nuggets also made an adjustment too. Jokic played more aggressively on the perimeter in most coverages and the rest of the Nuggets coverage matched his more frenetic pace.

It wasn’t perfect, and it took the Jazz cooling off from their supernova pace for it to work well, but the Nuggets bothered them a little bit. Royce O’eale received the ball on the wing wide open late in the fourth quarter, and for the first time all series, a Jazz shooter hesitated. It resulted in a travel, and the Nuggets continued to dominate offensively on their way to a win.

Will this continue in Game 6? I hope so. Jokic is at his best defensively when he’s pressuring smaller guards, not when they are pressuring him. It was the first time the Nuggets really took the Jazz off their rhythm all series. I hope it isn’t the last time.

I’ve been pretty vocal about my belief in Jamal Murray throughout this season. He always had the skill set, but earlier in the season, the shot just wasn’t dropping as frequently, and his willingness/ability to be the attacker wasn’t always there.

Now, in the playoff bubble on the biggest stage, he has found a new gear. The confidence in the three-point shot is high, and his ability to get to that shot using a series of dribble moves and hesitations has aided his game so much. In addition, he’s attacking the rim, even against Rudy Gobert, with more forcefulness than he usually does. The finishing has been on point, and the decision making has been exemplary.

This is superstar stuff we are seeing from him. The flashes in the regular season are becoming more consistent in the playoffs. He clearly has another gear, similar to Jokic, that he can tap into for big moments. He’s a big time player, and the “bad max contract” talk continues to lose its luster by the day.

Probably the most difficult part of Game 5 was to watch Paul Millsap with the starting unit. That group featuring Murray, Jokic, Jerami Grant, and Monte Morris just doesn’t need another power forward out there. It’s clear as day to me, and it’s a sad state of affairs for a player who has been so important for Denver’s identity the last three seasons.

I don’t know what Michael Malone will decide to do for Game 6, but it’s pretty notable that Denver’s starting unit didn’t get out to the same impressive start they had in Game 4. The Nuggets were giving up open three after open three, and often, Millsap was getting switched onto Donovan Mitchell for isolations, which is a matchup the Jazz will take every single time.

Millsap finished Game 5 with a -11 plus-minus in 18 minutes on the floor. I’d guess he probably gets about 15 to 18 minutes in Game 6 to try and figure things out, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Denver is at its best in this series when he’s not on the floor.

It’s a wrinkle that I’m sure the Nuggets have explored, but I think there’s a reason why they continue to have Jokic on Gobert. It’s a major admission of defeat to “hide” Jokic on a player like Royce O’Neale, and I think the Nuggets should do everything in their power to avoid hiding Jokic defensively. They came up with several possessions in the second half defensively that showcased they could defend the Jazz. It just takes the right personnel, great communication, effort, and execution.

Now, if Plumlee is taking over Millsap’s minutes in a lineup that features Porter and Murray, then it might be passable for sure. I’d probably have Plumlee guarding the perimeter rather than Jokic though. Let him worry about Gobert. He won that matchup handily today.

Here are the numbers for that group:

  • +33 in 52 minutes this series for the Murray-Porter-Grant-Jokic quartet
  • That quartet plus PJ Dozier is +25 in 13 minutes
  • That quartet plus Paul Millsap is +5 in 13 minutes
  • That quartet plus Torrey Craig is +4 in 17 minutes
  • That quartet plus Monte Morris is -1 in nine minutes

Each of those players provides a different component. Dozier is a nice blend of the skill sets of Monte Morris and Torrey Craig. He’s capable of handling in the pick and roll and making the right read/pass offensively, and he can stay in front of his man defensively and make some good plays on the ball. Morris provides a steadier hand offensively than Dozier, but his three-point shot has dried up again in the playoffs. The Nuggets need that to come back. Craig has been good in these configurations too. He doesn’t do too much offensively, and he works his tail off defensively to close up space. There’s still a big role for him in this series.

But the predominant point is this: Denver’s formula of spacing the floor for Jokic and Murray with two forwards 6’9 and taller is a good one. The offense has been legit, and there’s no reason to think it will stop being good with the spacing and skill level on the floor.

As mentioned above, I like Dozier. I think he provides a lot of things the Nuggets need in terms of the fifth player in a lineup facing the Utah Jazz. He’s very switchable, mirrors movement on the perimeter well, and recognizes things at a high level defensively. He’s not a Donovan Mitchell stopper, but he has had varying success against Utah’s other perimeter players.

From a size perspective, Dozier is the best healthy player Denver has to match up with the Jazz perimeter players. Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley are forced to deal with his length and athleticism, and Ingles isn’t strong enough or quick enough to get around Dozier consistently. That alone makes things more difficult for Utah than they have been lately.

Is Dozier a Donovan Mitchell stopper? Definitely not, but over the course of a 48-minute game, Dozier’s size and defensive intelligence help Denver stop teams more frequently. I think that will lead to him having another big role in Game 6. The biggest questions are on the offensive side of the ball, but Denver’s players are all comfortable scoring in traffic, so it’s less of an issue than for other teams.

I’ve said in the past that they need to scrap it. That’s probably not completely true now. What Denver has continued to struggle with is the integration of Michael Porter Jr., a high volume and high efficiency scorer, into a healthy offense that has only ever had two focal points. Murray over the past two seasons has made sure he’s been a focal point based on his level of play. For Porter, it’s probably going to take some time.

But Denver’s formula with the Jokic-Murray two-man game has always been to space the floor for those three while insulating them with defensive pieces. As the league continues to evolve, I’m not sure focusing so heavily on the defensive side of the floor is the way to go. Like you said, the spacing tonight was a great example, with Porter and Grant on either side of the floor having proven they can shoot and drag the Jazz away from the middle of Denver’s sets.

Denver’s path forward for a championship is to use their extremely talented offensive personnel and teach them how to defend together. There may be an addition here or there that makes things easier, but the foundation of the Murray, Jokic, and Porter trio will always be how unstoppable they are offensively. That’s okay with me.