DENVER, CO - JANUARY 22: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets reacts to a play during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on January 22, 2018 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
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Malone Lauds Improved Spacing in Jokić-Plumlee Pairing

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider
@chrisadempsey

No two-man pairing in the Nuggets starting lineup has been more dissected – and in many cases in the media, disrespected – more than the bigs, Mason Plumlee and Nikola Jokić. Yet, what Nuggets coach Michael Malone is starting to see from the duo is chemistry forming, similar to what the Jokić-Paul Millsap pairing went through early in the season.

Malone liked what he saw out of the pair, in the starting lineup together for a second straight game in the Nuggets’ win over the Knicks on Thursday night. The pair combined for 32 points, 13 rebounds and 14 assists, making 11 of 14 shots. Jokic assisted on five of Plumlee’s six made shots. Plumlee returned the favor on one of Jokic’s made field goals.

“I thought that was probably the best game in terms of offensive spacing that Nikola and Mason (have) had,” Malone said.

Why?

Malone attributed it to a talk he and Plumlee had recently about how to improve how the Nuggets operate offensively with the two on the court.

“It’s tough because when Mason was in Portland, he was that playmaking big with (Damian Lillard) and CJ (McCollum),” Malone said. “Now, here, obviously, we have Nikola. So, my message to Mase was simply: You’re a great runner. When you run the floor, rim run, get to the rim, stay low. He has a tendency to come up the floor all the time. So now you have Nikola up the floor, Mason up the floor, clogging up the driving lanes. And just being disciplined with staying on that baseline, working behind the defense.”

The scheme helped. Yes, in the last two games, the Nuggets are playing faster basketball with fewer play calls. But there is clearly practiced structure to how they are operating from possession to possession.

In that light, the Nuggets artificially created tons of space between Jokić and Plumlee by running a series of angle pick-and-roll plays on the right side of the court to start the game against the Knicks. Jokić was setting the screen while Plumlee was perched at the short corner on the left side. This allowed Jokić to effectively work the screen-roll game. Meanwhile, Plumlee could be a backside cutter, which he was on a couple of occasions and got dunks both times.

If Jokić posted up, Plumlee cleared near the opposite corner. If they were occupying similar space it was never for longer than a few seconds before one moved to put considerable real estate between he and the other. Their activity helped as well. They sprinted the court hard, beat the defense down on several occasions and one time ended up in their own two-on-one fast break with Enes Kanter unable to guard them both. Plumlee dished to Jokić for a layup on that play.

Don’t be fooled. This is not the end of double high post sets with Plumlee and Jokić on the elbows. They ran a few of those against the Knicks as well, including the first play of the game. And there was double drag action featuring back-to-back screens from Jokić and Plumlee as well. What happened after the initial action in both circumstances was different, however. Plumlee dove to the rim out of the drag screens, leaving Jokić up top. In double high post sets, when the ball was passed to one big, the other cleared below the defense.

“Mason up top is not bad, either,” Malone said. “Again, there were times last night where Nikola was the first big down the floor, and he stayed low. And now Mason is that trail big and Mason is pretty good in that position as well, and he’s had some great passes himself playing out of the high post.

“But as we try to play just more open, free basketball, how they play off of each other is so important. Paul (Millsap) and Nikola went through the same thing. Early on, Paul, that was an issue. And now, obviously, before that injury that Paul sustained to his wrist, we had figured it out with those two and we were playing at a high level offensively. So, I think Mason and Nikola have that same potential.”

In the last two games, the Jokić-Plumlee pairing has the best offensive rating (130.5) of any duo that has played an average of at least 10 minutes together. It has the best defensive rating as well (103.2), which results in the best net rating for Nuggets two-man pairing (27.3).

It’s a nice start to what Malone hopes continues to grow.

“I give Mason credit because he made a concerted effort to do that,” Malone said. “It’s not going to be easy for him because he’s been playing a certain way for so long. But, hopefully (Thursday) night was a step in the right direction in terms of understanding how can I best play alongside Nikola on the offensive end.”

Christopher Dempsey: christopher.dempsey@altitude.tv and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.

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