Denver hopes to join both the Celtics and Rockets as the team down 3-1 forcing a pivotal game 6. Unlike both Boston and Houston, however, Denver were the favorites going into this series and through a series of unfortunate events, find themselves headed for yet another first round out. The question now becomes, can the Warriors sustain what they have done effectively so far and whether Denver has truly fixed its defensive woes with their game 5 victory.
[David Walker will take over the @KJG_NBA Twitter handle on Thursday to call Warriors-Nuggets game 6. Make sure to tune in.]
Coming into the series Denver’s defense was unheralded but no less potent, being just outside the top ten in the NBA and specifically being adept at defending the perimeter and dribble penetration. You only got into the lane when the Nuggets wanted you to and when you did it was very difficult finishing off the possession, as Denver ranked second in the league in opponents field goal percentage within five feet. But because Denver’s bigs are not exactly a who’s who of defensive stalwarts, the overcompensation of Denver’s defense in the paint became costly from behind the arc, an area they struggled to protect.
This is where the Nuggets proverbial chickens came home to roost as Golden State is a team ready and willing to take as many three pointers as the opposing team will give them. Combine this with a shocking amount of fundamental ineptitude on part of Denver’s defensive schemes and execution and Golden State collectively catching holy fire for three straight games and you get a playoff upset brewing very quickly.
The Nuggets are not prepared to go quietly into the night and after some much needed defensive adjustments, won game 5 in a blowout-like fashion (at least for the majority of the game). The change defensively came in some parts subtly and others a little more noticeably but, luckily for the Nuggets, all these adjustments not only worked but are very easily repeated as the series moves forward.
Closing Out on Shooters:
This one is simple enough as all that is really required is awareness of a shooter in the corner, where the ball is, and a little bit of extra effort. The Nuggets failed all three of these simple criteria in spectacular fashion in games 2, 3, and 4 as the Warriors repeatedly burned Denver with a simple extra pass to the weak side.
Now there is a debate to be had about the effectiveness of actually closing out on a shooter as good as, say, Stephen Curry (especially when he probably doesn’t even register poor Ty Lawson’s hand when it only reaches up to about the collar bone of a jumping Curry). But when dealing with someone like Draymond Green, who has shot 21 percent from three this season (and is inexplicably shooting 50 percent in this series), a running defender with an outstretched arm must have some sort of effect. Andre Miller seems to disagree with this sentiment vehemently as he is often seen giving up on the shot the second he sees the ball heading toward an open shooter.
As you can see, Denver did a much better job at at least making the shooter think about a charging defender, and as a whole were much more aware of where the ball was going as shooters spotted up in the corner.
Defending the Pick and Roll:
The good news was that, seeing as Denver didn’t bother to defend the pick and roll (like at all) in game 3, their defense could really go nowhere but up from that point. Denver’s most competent pick and roll big man defender is Anthony Randolph, and when Anthony Randolph is your best anything (other than “best sad face on the team”) you’ve got a problem. Despite this, the Nuggets placed 4th best in the league (per SynergySports) in pick and roll defense, mostly because the Nuggets’ good perimeter players (Iggy, Chandler, Gallo, and Brewer) did such a good job of avoiding the switch. Additionally, in smaller lineups, the “big” (likely Chandler or Faried) usually puts themselves in a good fail-safe position if the ball handler were to get by his screened defender.
This strategy has completely fallen apart for Denver and their pick and roll defense has suffered immensely because of it. Here Andrew Bogut (as you can see from his freakishly long outstretched leg) is about to set a bone jarring screen on Andre Iguodala and Kosta Koufos, the supposed help, is busy getting caught up in a mini Carl Landry screen.
By the time Kosta disentangles himself and arrives at the scene of the flagrant crime Bogut is committing on Iguodala right now, Steph Curry has a Pacific Ocean worth of space to get his shot off. Being a shot he hits regularly with a hand in his face, having no one in his vicinity ups the chances of it going in to the exact scientific estimate of about 2 million percent.
The Nuggets did much better dealing with this problem in Game 5, and while Golden State ball handlers’ still shot an absurd 70+ percent off the pick and roll, they came from much more difficult looks. Generally Denver avoided switching so much through a concerted effort on the part of both the ball handler’s defender and the big of fighting through screens.
Here Lawson does a good job of sticking with Curry and not getting completely engulfed in the impending screen attempt by Barnes. Faried, meanwhile, does a much better job than Koufos did of fighting through the screen (this time set by Jack) and is in decent position to help off the pick.
Lawson still gets tripped up by Barnes screen but impedes Curry just enough to prevent his patented lightening quick release off the pick. If Curry manages to get by Lawson, Faried is in position to contest the pull up jumper, making the now posthumous ocean of space more of a small lake. Curry elects to take a three on a still reeling Lawson and ends up missing.
Sending Hit Men After Curry Playing Curry Physically:
Stephen Curry has reached the star threshold where he cannot really be stopped, merely hoped to be contained and to do so takes some dirty work. Mostly what you have to do is hinder his running lanes throughout the court by setting hard screens off the ball, usually with your bigs. This is the only form of ball denial you can take with a shooter and passer of Curry’s caliber, remove him from the play by getting him off his spot.
This strategy is all the more effective because the Warriors like to play Curry off the ball when Jarrett Jack is on the court. While his shooting makes Curry such a scary threat off ball, Jack has a tendency to break away from the offense and run isolation sets for himself (a man after Andre Miller’s own heart). Up until this game this strategy has seemed to work as Jack was shooting an insanely high 62 percent from the field, but his efficiency finally tailed off in game 5.
I don’t have to show you highlights of the Nuggets being unable to properly execute off ball screens on Curry and how badly it burned them, just watch any of Curry’s highlights from the past four games. But with Jack finally falling to earth a bit and Faried especially sending a few early messages, the Nuggets disrupted Curry just enough to milk a rare off night for the usual deadly shooter.
Regression to the Mean:
Despite all of Denver’s many defensive adjustments, the biggest one in Game 5 was the one that was completely out of their hands. For all the Warriors beautifully run offensive sets and Denver’s poor defense in the first four games, Golden State has just hit a ton of inexplicable shots.
In Game 4, nearly 24 percent of the Warriors’ offensive possessions were isolation sets and the majority of which produced poor looks off solid defense by Denver. And yet they shot 59 percent and posted a 1.28 points per possession mark off those sets. In Game 5, off a similar number of isolations, producing similar shots, and on the same good Denver defense, Golden State shot 26 percent for an abysmal mark of .6 points per possession. Seeing as the Warriors averaged .8 PPP off isolations in the regular season, the true number is most likely somewhere between those two major outliers.
And that has really been the story of the series. Denver deserves much of the blame and Golden State deserves even more of the credit but no team plays the type of apotheosized offense that the Warriors have been playing without a little bit of luck. Denver is in the unfortunate position of having their success be so intimately intwined with a loss of luck for their opposition. The Nuggets cannot afford one game to go the Warriors Way again and based off of three previous games doing just that, the odds are not in their favor.
The Nuggets can only focus on what they can control and in that they may have a chance. Game 5 finally gave a glimpse at the type of defense we saw all season from them and it came at their most desperate time of need. If they can maintain the defensive adjustments they made for the rest of the series, they will have put themselves in a good position to at the very least get a Game 7 in Denver. Then they just need to pray that the basketball gods have had their fun and take away whatever divine power they’ve granted to Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Jarrett Jack and Andrew Bogut. Because, barring that, hope may be lost for these Denver Nuggets.