LOS ANGELES – The Nuggets’ preseason-opening victory over the L.A. Lakers on Sunday had its obvious storylines – a fluid offense, guard Jamal Murray’s effectiveness, and forward Juancho Hernangomez’s standout performance. But after a deeper dive using film study, here’s five more things that were notable.
1. Bigs passing: The Nuggets are fortunate to have a team of players who are multiple threats on the court, but it was the bigs – Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, Trey Lyles, Mason Plumlee, Tyler Lydon who were the primary playmakers. They accounted for 16 of the Nuggets’ 25 assists. Plumlee led the team with six, and, overall, those 16 dimes came in a variety of ways. There were the “easy pass” assists – hitting players coming off screens for open jump shots. Bigs also hit cutters, like Millsap’s over the top assist to Murray, who was diving straight to the rim.
Lyles and Lydon had drive-and-dish assists, getting into the teeth of the Lakers’ defense, collapsing it, and then finding open teammates. It was a glimpse into the versatility the Nuggets’ offense has had in recent years, and it appears that offense will have it again this season.
2. Mason Plumlee: If there was a Nuggets Player of the Game on Sunday, Plumlee would have gotten it. From screening to passing to defense to making all five of his free throws, Plumlee graded out highly in nearly every area. His movement on the court was always with purpose. He had good vision in hitting open players with passes. He showed hustle in stealing an inbounds pass and taking it the length of the court for a left-handed layup. He hit the offensive glass hard to keep Nuggets possessions alive. There was a ton to like about what he put on the court in San Diego. His final line? A near triple-double of 11 points, eight rebounds (four offensive) and six assists. He’s healthy this season, and that has made a real difference in how he gets around the court.
3. Nuggets cutting action: Cutting action is a staple of the Nuggets’ offense, and they were good at it on Sunday. In 12 cuts, the Nuggets scored points on eight of those possessions. Three of the other four were blocked at the rim, just meaning the Nuggets were getting real attempts up nearly every time. This team is also very dangerous with cuts late in the shot clock. There was a lot of backdoor cutting action on Sunday, but, realistically, the Nuggets dive to the rim from all angles.
4. Trey Lyles: Sure, he didn’t make a high percentage of threes – just 1-of-7 on the night – but Lyles has shown that he contributes in a number of other areas when the shots aren’t falling, and he did so again against the Lakers. He ended up with 14 points anyway because he got aggressive, drew a ton of fouls on post-ups and strong drives, and made 7-of-8 free throws. He was second on the team with seven rebounds and was second only to Plumlee with four assists.
On top of that his ability to be a matchup problem was on full display. When the Lakers put smaller players on him to stick with him on the perimeter, he immediately took them to the block for a post-up. When bigger players were on him, he took them to the perimeter and drove right by them. And there was almost never a time when he wasn’t easily aware of his matchup and how to take advantage of it.
5. Defense: In many ways, it is great for the Nuggets that they are twice facing the Lakers, who do so many things offensively, as their first tests of improving on defense. The Lakers run so much perimeter screening and cutting action; they get JaVale McGee straight to the rim for lobs; they have a number of devastating pick-and-roll combinations; and they put a lineup on the court – Rajon Rondo/Kyle Kuzma/Jason Hart/Lance Stephenson/LeBron James – that appears to be their version of Golden State’s “Death Lineup.” It forced Nikola Jokic to have to guard Stephenson, and he held his own more often than not.
When the Nuggets broke down defensively, it was mainly due to not enough communication or just some confusion with some of the new defensive rotations. When the Lakers are coming at full speed, you must talk your way through all of the primary action and backside action. And then players have to get to defensive position with urgency. None of the miscues are unexpected – it is, after all, the first preseason game. The Nuggets did a nice job of limiting Lakers 3-point tries (25) and percentage (32 percent), and they forced 21 turnovers, converting them into 26 points.
There are things to clean up, but overall it was an encouraging first step in trying to improve on that end.
Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com and @chrisadempsey on Twitter