The Sixth Man: It’s not perfect, but the Nuggets are finally having fun once again

NBA: Washington Wizards at Denver Nuggets
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot of pressure on this Nuggets group as they have the talent to make a deep playoff run but continue to collide into roadblocks. That pressure will persist but for at least the last two games, the Nuggets are having a blast

Despite a disappointing beginning to their 7-game road trip, the Denver Nuggets managed to obtain a 4-3 record during that span and seemed to have turned a corner. I would not consider it a successful trip because I think the Nuggets are better than 4-3, but wins on the road against the Heat, Knicks, and Spurs are nothing to scoff at. Jokic of course, continues to provide unrivaled performances nearly every night, but the role players are executing at a high level as well. Monte might be playing some of his best offensive basketball as a Nugget, Aaron Gordon has been invaluable on both ends, and Jeff Green has been a steady, constant producer since entering the starting lineup.

During this 4 game stretch in which they are 3-1, the Nuggets are playing some of the best offensive basketball in the NBA. They are 3rd in the league in PPG at 117.8, 5th in FG% at 48.3, 3rd in free throws made at 18.8/game, 3rd in assists at 29/game, and 2nd in avoiding turnovers at 11.5/game. Defensively, they still are not playing great but they are forcing turnovers. Over their last 4 games, they are pressuring their opponent into 16.5 turnovers a game, compiling 9 steals per game, and scoring about 21 points a game off their opponent’s turnovers.

Throughout the road trip, I did not sense a clear recovery from their prevalent issues and although I still do not, I maintain optimism for the rest of this month due to one factor. It seems like they are having fun once again.

This is a possession I think really catapulted Denver’s confidence. In the previous game, the Spurs obliterated them all night so this game was a crucial one, and so was this possession to help close out the half. Jokic does a great job of sprinting and pushing the ball up the floor which forces three defenders to concentrate on him. This creates a decision for Keldon Johnson to pick Bones or Gordon once Jokic dishes it off. He picks Bones, creating an easy decision for him to pass it to an open Gordon in the corner. Gordon has the open three but he wisely drives past White and throws down the thunder.

I love this play because Gordon displays his talent and aggression with that drive but that dunk also ignites the whole bench. Throughout the season, I have not seen Denver’s bench erupt like that often so when it does, it disseminates energy across the entire team. Since that dunk, the Nuggets have only lost 2 quarters which were the two 4th quarters in the midst of blowouts.

Although those two 4th quarters were concerning, the Nuggets still closed out those wins but it appears they are having as much fun as they have had this season. A large part of that joy was facilitated by the magician Facu Campazzo. Say whatever you want about Facu’s production through the lens of advanced statistics, but there are not many bench players that can create this amount of excitement considering his limitations.

This second quarter was a wild one thanks to Facu Campazzo. At the beginning of the second quarter, he dishes two miraculous passes in consecutive possessions that detonated Ball Arena and the team. Not only did it foster consistent offensive play as they scored 30 in the quarter, but they also held the Wizards to just 19 points. One of the reasons I think his energy is infectious is because he sprints and attacks the paint. Most of the Nugget guards like the probe with the ball out on the perimeter, but Facu forces defenses to collapse the paint. He loves to play downhill and I think that mentality helps Denver return to the paint when they are struggling.

We all know Jokic is the primary reason behind Denver’s recent success but some pieces of this roster have been producing at a higher clip than expected. Monte Morris has always been a steady force at the point guard spot, but he is shooting the ball extraordinarily well. Aaron Gordon seemed to find his role in the offense and is flourishing as possibly the Nugget’s second most important piece right now. Although collectively the bench is sill struggling, they appeared to have found their niche in how they want to impact the game. With that being said, I would like to further outline two more pieces I feel have been massive contributors to Denver’s recovery.

Aaron Gordon

As I’ve stated in previous articles, Aaron Gordon seems to be playing the best basketball of his career. For most of the season, he has been posting career highs in most scoring and shooting categories, but I think he has brought a more important aspect to this team. Physicality. In some games last year, he appeared to either choose a finesse game or physical game with each contest. In some games he played more perimeter, spotting up for threes, and when he did get in the post it resulted in fadeaways. In other games, he would choose to dominate the paint with his size and forego perimeter opportunities.

This year, he seems to blend both aspects to his game exceptionally. He is showing no fear in the paint by having the confidence to back down any defender. The opponent is taking notice, so that is opening up three-point and playmaking opportunities for him. When he is on the court, the Nuggets are their best in the paint. Denver scores about 33 points in the paint per game when is on the floor versus only 11 PPG when he is off. Furthermore, the Nuggets actually shoot their worst percentage from three-point land when he is on the bench. They average 37% on three balls when he is on the court and just 30.5% when he is off.

He also impacts the game in more intricate ways as well. The Nuggets repeatedly say they want the ball in Gordon’s hands in the fast break and there is a reason for it. He’s fast for his size, can handle the ball well, facilitate when needed, and is strong enough to ride someone all the way to the hoop. Denver is not a great fast-break team at all but they are much better with him on the court. They average 8.4 fast break points when he is on the court versus just 3 points when he is off the court. Gordon is also one of Denver’s best offensive rebounders as well. In the last 4 games, Denver averages about 13 second chance points with him on the court compared to just 1 when he is off the court.

I also think he is one of the largest factors to Denver having fun once again. We saw countless highlight plays from him in Orlando and we have not seen it as much in a Nugget uniform until this year. Facu and Jokic awe the crowd with their magical passing but Gordon has been igniting the team and the crowd with his ferocious dunks.

I love this play to begin with because he avoids taking the three on a bigger defender. Some players like to take those threes because they know they will either have to have great handles or physicality to get by them but Gordon shows no fear and displays both. He fakes the shot and contemplates his gameplan but he notices a void in the paint. He drives, gets the defender moving left with so much momentum he falls when Gordon hits the cross, and he finishes with the emphatic, Kenyon Martin style dunk. Was it a push-off? To be honest, most cross-overs sending the defender to the floor are these days, but it is the aggressive mentality towards the hoop worth highlighting here.

Monte Morris

I don’t think enough is being said to emphasize the great play of Monte Morris right now. He was struggling with his shot to begin the season, but now he looks as solid as ever from mid-range and his deep shooting is the best it has ever been. Right now, he is shooting 36% from three which is almost a career-high but his volume did increase this year. In his last 6 games, he’s shooting 45.7% from deep which is the best on the team for anybody over 4 attempts per game. In that same span, he’s averaging 15.5 PPG and 4.7 assists ranking 2nd best on the team considering Barton has only played 4 out of those 6 games.

Outside of Jokic, Morris has morphed into the conductor of the offense while also threatening the defense with his scoring. If you think about it, on the surface there are not too many flaws to his offensive game. He can drive when needed, shoots the mid-range well, can step out from three, and is an effective facilitator. When you review his FG% by distance, it really illuminates how efficient he is offensively. On FG’s between 0-3 feet he shoots 76.5%, 3-10 feet he shoots 45.7%, 10-16 feet he shoots 52%, 16-3P range he shoots 53%, and from three he shoots 36%. So for the most part, there is no distance on the court in which he does not shoot 36% or better. Besides Jokic, Morris has to be Denver’s most efficient player and he remains consistent through every season.

Moreover, his two-man game with Jokic has become a concern for opponents. Of course, they fear what Jokic can do out of these actions, but Monte is proving he needs to be accounted for as well. Last year, the majority of this two-man game consisted of Jokic screening for Monte as he probes until he realizes he can dish it to Jokic or has a mid-range shot. This year, these two have diversified this look. They will run it at the top of the key, elbow, or three-point line because Monte has shown efficiency from anywhere on the court. An underrated part of Monte’s game is his ability to cut. He’s played with Jokic for long enough, so he knows what Jokic is thinking and it is shown here.

This play comes after a timeout, and I think it’s important to notice there is no complacency in this possession for Denver. At this point, they are up by 29 with about 17 minutes left to play. When he drops the ball off to Jokic, there is a lot of room for apathy here. Jokic has it in the post with a smaller defender, there is nobody in the paint, so if Denver wanted, they could put the whole possession in the hands of Jokic. On the other hand, Monte wants to keep the foot on the gas. Once he gets it into Jokic’s hand, he immediately cuts to the rim for an easy two. It’s a smart play because the Nuggets need to capitalize in the paint, but he also knows Jokic will attract multiple bodies. If for one split second that defender takes his focus off Monte onto Jokic, he knows he will be wide open for that layup.

The Nuggets still have several problems to address but it is nice to finally witness some enjoyment with this basketball team this season. For a while, it seemed like they knew they should be playing better so they were forcing the issue and panicking. Now, it seems like they are analyzing the game, letting it come to them, and executing with flare which puts a smile on everybody’s face. After all, it’s just a game right? No. Keep winning games please.

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