Welcome to Film Friday, our series where we digitally open our notebook and share the things we've noticed this week... with, of course, the help of some trusty film.
It's been a great week of hoops for the Denver Nuggets. They're currently riding a three-game winning streak.
For the third edition of Film Friday, we'll be looking at Justin Holiday's team defense, Peyton Watson's recent resurgence, Reggie Jackson and DeAndre Jordan's pick-and-roll chemistry, Julian Strawther's intriguing on-ball skills, and Jamal Murray's return to the hardwood.
Justin Holiday's magnificent team defense
There's been a swift and sudden uptick in Justin Holiday's playing time. Head coach Michael Malone handed him 27, 34, and then 27 minutes in his last three showings, and the 34-year-old responded well.
Denver's young bench has had a lot of nice moments this season. Christian Braun eclipsed 10 points for five consecutive games in mid-November. Julian Strawther had a couple of big outings, including a 21-point showcase against the New Orleans Pelicans. Peyton Watson is in the midst of a really solid stretch (we'll get to that momentarily).
But at the end of the day, the young bench is still, well, young. And young players are prone to bouts of inconsistency. That isn't necessarily surprising to the franchise; prioritizing development while contending in the present was always going to be a tough balance to strike.
That's where Holiday's value is felt the most. He's just rock-solid. He brings a level of stability. You know what you're getting from him every night.
"Justin is just trustworthy. He's a solid player. He's a veteran," said Malone. "Does all the right things. You never have to worry about if he's going to be in the right place offensively or defensively, and I think you can put him in with the starting lineup (or) the bench unit. You just trust him out there. He's like a seamless fit with whatever group he's in."
Holiday makes his threes from the corners. He's a heady and smart passer. He's instinctive as a cutter.
However, what stands out the most is the stuff that takes the longest to pick up. The finer details you might not catch while watching a game live. Skills that don't typically translate to what's on the box score.
Holiday's off-ball defense is the stuff of beauty. Seriously, next time you watch a Nuggets game, stay glued to Justin. The whole time. Watch where he is on the floor. How he rotates. When he rotates. Keep an eye on how often he communicates. He is the ideal team defender.
Holiday is already one of Denver's best "nail" defenders. For those unaware, the "nail" refers to the middle of the free-throw line.
Here, Holiday cheated off his man, James Harden, to help down at the "nail" and give Michael Porter Jr. some assistance with Kawhi Leonard. Rotating down to the middle of the free-throw line made it impossible for Leonard to drive middle, so much so that Kawhi stumbled a bit on his crossover dribble. Still, Holiday didn't lose track of his man, Harden, throughout the entire process and finished the play with a nice rebound.
He's just as effective when "tagging" pick-and-rolls.
San Antonio went to an angled pick-and-roll in transition. Initially, their backup center, Charles Bassey, appeared as if he might have a free lane to the basket after setting the screen. But then Holiday rotated over as the "low man" and "tagged" Bassey.
The right play, no doubt, but what really stands out about this clip is the timing of Holiday's tag and where it occurs.
Holiday rotated over pretty early and met Bassey at about the free-throw line. That completely extinguished Bassey's momentum while hurling toward the rim. In fact, he doesn't even touch the ball the entire possession.
Now, had Holiday been a little tardier with his rotation, things might've gone differently. Tagging Bassey later, likely underneath the rim, would've given the Spurs center a head start to rev up his motor, catch the pass, and finish over the top of Denver's help defense. But that doesn't happen. Holiday shuts off Bassey's water before he's even able to put his hand near the faucet.
Justin Holiday is a coach's dream for a reason. He's always in the right place on defense. He rarely makes mistakes. Oh, and did we mention he's shooting 50 percent from deep?
A great week of basketball from Peyton Watson
We mentioned it earlier, but boy has it been nice to see Peyton Watson play some great basketball as of late. Watson was one of Denver's early-season surprises. He dropped 17 points off the bench against the Oklahoma City Thunder in his third game of the season and averaged 8.5 points on 63.6 percent shooting in October.
What followed was a pretty quiet stretch, and subsequently, a steady decrease in playing time. Watson played just six total minutes in Denver's final In-Season Tournament game and missed all three shots he took. Collectively, the Nuggets' bench scored just 10 total points in the 105-86 loss to the Houston Rockets.
This prompted Malone to challenge Watson and the rest of Denver's young bench.
"I just told them I'm gonna start playing different people," Malone said after the loss. "You just can't go out there because you think you're gonna play and go out there and do nothing. I mean, you've got to bring something to the party."
Watson took his coach's words to heart. He won his first Defensive Player of the Game award this season against the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday.
"He was our Defensive Player of the Game. I told him in front of the team, 'You deserve this tonight. My challenge to you is can you bring the same energy and effort every night? I'm not asking about you making threes. Can you just play with that same energy and effort every night?' Because when he does that, he's a difference maker," Malone said.
At his best, Watson is a gravity-defying secondary shot-blocker who can wipe away surefire points with thunderous blocks. He's also incredibly quick and has a 7'0.5-foot wingspan, allowing him to catch opponents by surprise on steals.
He's recorded 6 total "stocks" (steals and blocks) in his last two games because of his frenetic energy. It's rare to find this level of event-creation in a wing player, and it's why the franchise is so high on Watson long-term. I mean, for goodness sake. He blocked a three-pointer! That's outrageous!
The pick-and-roll defense has been sound. Denver ran quite a bit of "ICE" pick-and-roll defense against the Spurs, and Watson was excellent at pushing ball-handlers away from screens and down the sidelines toward help.
Watson's on-ball defense has been exceptional, as well. He bottled up Kawhi Leonard and Paul George numerous times on Monday, and holistically, scoring on the former UCLA Bruin has been about as fun as taking out the trash in 10-degree weather.
Juggling multiple things has not impeded Watson's success as an on-ball defender. Take a look at this play from the second quarter of Sunday's game.
The Spurs went to the pick-and-roll between Tre Jones and Victor Wembanyama. Meanwhile, on the weak side of the floor, San Antonio had Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell exchange spots on the perimeter. This was done to confuse Denver's help defense. At the beginning of the play, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope—guarding Vassell—was the lowest man on the floor, making him responsible for all helper duties according to the rules of Denver's defense.
But because Vassell and Johnson changed spots, those "low man" duties suddenly fell on Watson's shoulders. He was now the closest player to the basket, thereby making him responsible for helping against dangerous drives and rolls to the rim. A potential alley-oop to Wembanyana certainly falls in that category.
San Antonio reorienting their spacing didn't phase Watson in the slightest. Petyon correctly slid over to the middle of the painted area to "tag" and stop Wembanyana's roll to the rim.
Naturally, with Watson shifted over, Jones whizzed a pass to his man, Johnson, in the corner. And this is where Watson's unreal athletic gifts are such a boon. Run the clip.
Watson flew back to Johnson to erase the three-point look, and the San Antonio scorer was forced to put the ball on the floor. Watson closed out under control, planting his feet and changing directions on a dime, all while pushing Johnson toward the baseline. He finished the play by sticking with Johnson stride-for-stride and contesting the shot at the rim with his hands raised high. All without fouling.
It was a magnificent defensive possession from the 21-year-old. From beginning to end.
An optimized Watson is such a special defender.
Did Denver stumble on something with Reggie Jackson and DeAndre Jordan's pick-and-roll game?
Denver pulled off their most improbable win of the season on Monday against the LA Clippers. Not only were they on the road for the second half of a back-to-back, but the Nuggets were also without Nikola Jokić, Aaron Gordon, and Jamal Murray.
Two unlikely heroes stepped up on an unlikely night. Reggie Jackson finished with 35 points, 13 assists and 5 rebounds. DeAndre Jordan tallied 21 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block.
The Nuggets outscored the Clippers by 17 points in the 33 minutes Jackson and Jordan shared their floor, and in large part, that was due to their lethal pick-and-roll game.
It makes sense, too, when you think about it. Their skills fit together like peanut butter and jelly in the halfcourt.
Jackson is a cunning change-of-pace guard whose handle allows him to find pockets of space for pull-up jumpers. The 33-year-old is shooting just shy of 45 percent on his off-the-dribble shots (he's also making his three-pointers at a 38.1 percent rate). Overplay his jumper, however, and Jackson will gladly zoom to the rim.
Jordan, meanwhile, is Denver's only true above-the-rim center. He's also an excellent screener who consistently makes firm contact. Altogether, you're looking at an outrageously effective pick-and-roll big man, even at this stage of his career.
Jackson zipped past Clipper defenders on numerous occasions. Jordan's sturdy screens only gave him extra room to fire away off the dribble against LA's pick-and-roll defense.
Throughout the night, Jordan's strong rolls to the rim opened space for the rest of Denver's offense. Here, diving to the basket pulls in James Harden, and Michael Porter Jr. is left open behind the arc.
And then, of course, he and Jackson connected on five alley-oop plays. It was a fitting homecoming for Jordan, who looked like the Lob City high-flyer of old. Jackson, meanwhile, placed these passes perfectly.
Jordan also flaunted his uber-underrated passing skills in the short roll. Jackson was so hot that the Clippers began to blitz him in the second half of Monday's game. With both defenders on Jackson, this left Jordan wide-open rolling to the rim.
Jordan would then stop his roll short, catch the pass, and turn toward the basket right as the help defender rotated over. He was patient in these situations and allowed the play to develop, twice finding Justin Holiday and Peyton Watson cutting along the baseline behind LA's help defense.
The idealized version of Denver's bench is an athletic and rangy group that forces turnovers and gets out in transition. What they're lacking, however, is a consistent and reliable game plan in the halfcourt. Something they can lean on over and over in tight situations.
Asking Jordan to be an every-game player is, well, a big ask. More than likely, the 35-year-old is a situational big man. But it's nice to know that his bone-crunching screens pair so well with Jackson's twitchiness.
Who knows? This might not be the last time we see these two experienced veterans wreak havoc together.
Julian Strawther's intruiging on-ball skills
We wrote about rookie Julian Strawther in the very first edition of this series. His quick-twitch shooting stroke and deep range already appear to be NBA-ready skills.
Keep an eye on the development of his on-ball capabilities.
Julian's shown signs of being able to do more. Strawther unveiled lead-guard chops at the tail-end of Summer League. He continued to excel as a creator during the preseason and got to the line 2.5 times per game.
There have been flashes since then, but over the last week, we've seen an undeniable crescendo of ball-handling responsibilities.
Against the Spurs, Strawther came off a handoff from DeAndre Jordan. His defender, Cedi Osman, did a nice job sticking with him, so Strawther dragged Osman back into a re-screen from Jordan. Now with an advantage, Strawther surged downhill, and right when it looked like Osman was about to catch up, he slammed the breaks and elevated for a floater.
Later, Strawther went to the two-man game with Nikola Jokić and slipped in a pocket pass to the two-time MVP. The placement of this dime was perfect, an almost Jamal Murray-esque read. He had a similarly nice pick-and-roll pass to Zeke Nnaji over the top of the Clippers' defense.
Strawther projects to be a lethal and versatile shooter. His floater sure looks like a real-deal weapon. The on-ball stuff is a nice surprise, and he's looked quite capable of finding screen-and-roll bigs with passes. Up next for Strawther will be rounding out his scoring portfolio and increasing his passing acumen. Dotting skip passes to open shooters in the corners, for example, could be a nice next step for Julian.
The breadth of his on-ball skillset could represent the true height of Strawther's ceiling.
Jamal Murray's return
It was nice to see Jamal Murray back on the floor.
Murray played NBA basketball for the first time in almost a month and had a solid outing against the Houston Rockets. He finished with 16 points, 6 assists, and 6 rebounds but unfortunately tweaked his ankle in the first two minutes of the game.
Despite that, Murray's pocket passing looked like it hadn't missed a beat.
Murray is so unbelievably good at placing bounce passes right in Nikola Jokić's shooting pocket. He'll angle these passes so that Jokić can catch them at shoulder level, making it easy for the two-time MVP to loft his buttery floater.
Eight years of chemistry shines brilliantly when these two pair up in the pick-and-roll. Murray knows exactly where Jokić likes to be set up.
Murray and Zeke Nnaji linked up in the fourth quarter. This pulled Jabari Smith Jr. over as the helper to stop Nnaji's roll. So, Jabari's man, Michael Porter Jr., lifted up the perimeter. Murray finished the play by hitting Porter Jr. with the pass for a wide-open catch-and-shoot three-pointer. Exactly the type of shot MPJ destroys teams with.
Murray's evolution into becoming a true-blue floor general has been, in a word, awesome.
All statistics courtesy of NBA Stats, PBP Stats, or Cleaning the Glass unless stated otherwise.