Where are the areas of improvement Denver can focus on prior to the playoffs?
The Denver Nuggets are now entering the most important six-game stretch of the season. That will consist of four road games and two away from Ball Arena. They will go to Indiana to face the Pacers today, followed by matchups with the Timberwolves, Lakers (twice), Spurs, and Grizzlies. As of today, the Nuggets are tied for the 5th seed with the Jazz, and they are 2 games back of the 4th seeded Mavericks. It is important to remember both the Jazz and Mavericks hold tiebreakers over Denver, so they need to surpass those teams by at least a half a game to rise in the standings.
The Mavericks will have four of their final six games on the road, but only two of the opponents (Cleveland and Milwaukee) have a winning record. The Jazz will have four of their final six at home, yet they will have to face the Warriors, Grizzlies, Lakers, and the Suns to wrap up their season. That being said, if the Nuggets are to move up, it is more likely that they can obtain the 5th seed. Utah has been struggling and has lost five straight, so if the Nuggets can take care of their business with some added help, they could find themselves in the 5th seed.
That 5th seed could be essential for Denver to win a first-round series. As they stand now in the 6th seed, they would face the Warriors, but if they were to slide into the 5th seed they would battle the Mavs. The status of Steph Curry’s injury looms large in this scenario. If he returns for a first-round series, which is what he is expected to do, then I would think Denver would like to avoid Golden State. If he does not return, it is possible the Nuggets could have some confidence against this team because they have won three of four against them this season.
Even though the Nuggets are 1-2 against the Mavericks this year, they would most likely present the more favorable matchup for Denver. They do not have the championship pedigree Golden State does, but either way, the Nuggets are in for a hell of an opponent. Dallas is holding opponents to just 104 PPG, which is the best mark of any Western Conference team and the second-best in the league.
That being said, the Nuggets have their work cut out for them. After a stretch beginning in early February where they went 12-2, they have followed it by playing inconsistent basketball. Their great month of February evoked great hope for this team, but losses to Cleveland, Boston, Toronto, and Phoenix have raised questions about their legitimacy.
We know Denver’s limitations due to injuries, but this still remains a team that can defeat any opponent on any night. If they can just fix some prevailing issues prior to playoff time, they could be a surprise team in the West. Here are those issues:
Scoring the basketball has not been a problem, but preventing the other team from doing so has been. Yes, their defense shoulders the majority of the blame but their offense should too. The turnovers have been a problem all season. They are the 8th worst team in the league in giving away turnovers, and it has hurt them throughout this recent stretch.
The giveaways are either setting the tone for a sloppy night, or they are the dagger behind an opposing team’s comeback. In both the Cleveland and Phoenix games, the Nuggets held a fairly sizeable lead, until second-half turnovers decimated the momentum. Over the course of the season, Denver ranks 28th in second-half turnovers. Only the Pacers and the Rockets have a worse mark.
Over their last 10 games, Jokic is averaging nearly four turnovers per contest, while Barton, Cousins, Gordon, and Bones all have 1.5+. During that span, JaMychal Green has the best plus/minus on the team at 1.6. It is understandable for a guy like Jokic to have a considerable amount of turnovers because of his usage, but it is the timeliness of them that kills.
When you look back at the most recent Phoenix game, this was one of the more important plays of the game. Denver held a surprising lead, but this is where Phoenix began to make their comeback. This is a shocking turnover from Jokic but one he absolutely cannot make. Booker is not an elite defender, and he is right in Jokic’s line of vision, but the nonchalant ball-handling turns into two at the other end for Phoenix. One turnover does not make or break a game, but the Phoenix crowd erupted after this bucket, and they sustained that momentum throughout the rest of the game.
It does not matter how good of an offense you are, if your team consistently turns the ball over, the opponent will always have confidence because they know they can turn defense into easy offense. When the Nuggets enter the playoffs, they will not only face more elite defenses, but the intensity of each possession rises. Ball security is a must for Denver from here on out.
Remember at the start of the season when Denver was holding several opponents to under 100? What a time that was. That blissful period is long gone and so has Denver’s defensive execution. They are giving up 117.3 PPG over their last 10 games, which grades as the 7th worst during that span. Their second-half defense has also been abysmal over their last 10 games, allowing opponents to score 58.2 points, which is 5th worst in the league.
During this stretch, they are also the worst team at forcing turnovers, and the 3rd worst at allowing assists. Of course, you would like to see them force more turnovers, but the opponent assists is a problem because that often means the opposition is finding an open man somewhere. At this point in the season, Denver should have enough chemistry to execute most defensive rotations, so now it becomes an issue of intensity and concentration.
Boogie has done some fantastic things for this team but this is not one of them. This issue is also not exclusive to Boogie because I have witnessed a lack of concentration several times in each game. This play could be a lack of communication, but it seems to be a lack of focus. Jokic follows Horford to the baseline, but at that point, it has to be a switch between Boogie and Jokic. Boogie has the position to follow him from that point on, but he seems to forget about Horford and it ends in a wide-open three. In the moment, Jokic could have relayed to Boogie that it was his man to follow, but there was no focus to communicate, thus no focus for team defense.
Teams are going to take advantage of physical weak spots in Denver’s defense which is okay, but these types of plays are not. The Nuggets do not roster the most elite defenders, so the physical mistakes will happen, but the mental mistakes will get you blown out. Denver’s defensive identity needs to consist of intensity and concentration if they want to make it out of the first round.
Not necessarily finishing at the rim, even though that is key, but finishing games and end of quarters. The Nuggets are the second-highest scoring team in the first half. They score about 59 points per game, they have the highest field goal percentage, and the highest assist averages. In the second half, they rank 23rd in scoring, 21st in field goal percentage and three-point percentage, along with the disappointing turnover figures we discussed.
Over their last 10 games, Jokic, Bones, and Gordon have a field-goal percentage over 50% in the second half, but nobody else eclipsed that mark. Barton and Morris are essential contributors to this team and are counted on during the second half, but their impact has been inconsistent of late. Monte has won games with his late three-point shooting, but he is only averaging 5.4 points on 45.7% shooting in the second half during his late ten. Will Barton is also averaging 6.3 points on 43.5% shooting from the field and 34.5% from three under the same circumstances.
When talking about the end of quarters, that responsibility often falls on the bench unit. With the exception of the 4th quarter, the bench unit will usually end a quarter. Although the bench has exceeded expectations post All-Star break, we have seen the bench lose a little confidence once the game gets close.
For the most part, Bones has been playing exceptional basketball of late. He might be Denver’s most reliable scoring threat over these last 10 games, but failing to execute in these moments matters. It is not always the quantity at which you execute, but the quality at which times you do so. This is a key moment because this is when Phoenix brought their late surge, and a lack of confidence and trust hurt Denver here. Bones has tremendous confidence so this is not as much of an indictment on him, rather on the whole team.
At this point, Phoenix has scored consecutive baskets so the Nuggets need a bucket to save some momentum going into the final quarter. Boogie is going to set a little slip screen, forcing McGee out of the paint. Bones uses his quickness to blow by Booker but he doesn’t trust it. He has the lane with only Shamet in the paint, but he pauses which gives Booker and McGee time to shade his direction. Bones may have thought he had the opening he once did, but he didn’t as Booker was offered enough time to recover and bother his shot. What happened following that possession you may ask? Booker got fouled on a three and sank all three attempts, and then he made a mid-range jumper to tie the score.
At the end of quarters, that is frequently when you get a team’s most valiant effort. At this point in the season, it appears Denver is fatigued when other teams are displaying their best effort. The Phoenix game is the best representation of that because Denver will see that type of execution from an opponent in the playoffs. The Nuggets held a lead for much of that contest, but they crumbled late because the Suns dominated them with energy and execution.
Energy is something they can control but not always the execution. The importance of the mental game during the playoffs is at an all-time high. The NBA is cluttered with athletes who are more talented than the next so physical errors will happen. The mental fortitude is what creates a champion. If the Nuggets can avoid mental mistakes, that will put them in the best position to execute.