2023 Playoffs: West First Round | Nuggets (1) vs. Timberwolves (8)

Playoffs Film Study: Nuggets cut off Wolves' path to the basket

Not known for its defense, Denver limits Minnesota to its least efficient offensive performance of the season in Game 1.

Denver dominates on both ends of the court to rout Minnesota in Game 1.

The Denver Nuggets ranked 15th defensively in the regular season and rim protection was often an issue. In *road games, they allowed their opponents to take 32.7% of their shots (the league’s fifth-highest opponent rate) in the restricted area. And they were also worse than average in regard to opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area.

* Using just road games for this number to account for shot-charting inconsistencies from arena to arena.

But rim protection was not an issue in Game 1 of the Nuggets’ first-round series against the Minnesota Timberwolves, a 109-80 Denver victory that was the Wolves’ least-efficient offensive game of the season (80 on 93 possessions). Minnesota shot 12-for-43 (28%) from outside the paint, but also had just nine buckets (on only 14 attempts) in the restricted area. That’s tied for the fewest for an opponent in Denver this season and half as many as the Wolves had in their two regular-season games at Ball Arena this season (19 and 18).

After trailing 8-0, the Wolves came back and took a brief, 23-22 lead late in the first quarter. They had a couple of nice possessions using Kyle Anderson as a screener and Karl-Anthony Towns spacing on the weak side.

But they then went scoreless on six straight possessions spanning the first and second quarters, and really lost touch with the Nuggets after that. The key to those six stops for the Nuggets was, simply, not getting beat off the dribble and keeping the Wolves from getting all the way to the basket.

Here’s some film from that scoreless stretch from Minnesota…

1. Cut off and contest

After the Nuggets took back the lead, the Wolves swung the ball to Taurean Prince, who was alone on the weak side with Bruce Brown. Prince tried to attack baseline, but Brown cut him off. And when Prince spun back for a fadeaway (not a great shot with 16 seconds left on the shot clock) Brown contested without fouling:

Bruce Brown defense

2. Timely switch

On the next possession, Jamal Murray blocked a Jordan McLaughlin drive because he didn’t give up on the play after getting turned around trying to stay with the Wolves guard after a handoff. That was effort.

The following possession, Murray got a stop with awareness. Rookie Christian Braun bit on an Anderson pump fake for some reason and got beat off the dribble. But Murray was there with help, cutting off Anderson’s drive and forcing another tough turnaround jumper:

Jamal Murray defense

Minnesota ranked fourth in the percentage of their road shots (32.5%) that came in the restricted area. And their 14 restricted-area attempts on Sunday were their second lowest of the season (all locations), with the only lower total (five) coming at Golden State, where restricted-area shots are dramatically undercounted.

3. Get back and stay in front

On the Wolves’ first possession of the second quarter, Aaron Gordon was able to deny a Rudy Gobert duck-in, and it was Jeff Green staying in front of a Towns drive, forcing a contested runner. The following possession, Braun went beyond the nail to cut off Mike Conley on an empty-corner handoff from Gobert.

Then the rookie stayed in front of Conley in transition and stuffed him in the paint:

Christian Braun defense

League-wide, teams shot 66.6% (1.33 points per shot) in the restricted area and 44.4% (0.89 points per shot) elsewhere in the paint. That’s a huge difference, and while the Nuggets probably aren’t going to hold their opponent to less than 90 points per 100 possessions again, if they can continue to limit the Wolves’ restricted-area attempts (which starts with individual defense), they’ll be in good shape. The Wolves, meanwhile, will have to look for better ways to get to the basket in Game 2 on Wednesday (10 p.m. ET, TNT).

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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