Nuggets Friday Film Study: Denver’s new defensive identity

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@Eric_Spyros

Grit and Grind may be back after all.

At 10-3, the Denver Nuggets are off to one of the best starts in the entire NBA. Yet this impressive start (which includes wins over the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets) has been fueled by Denver’s defense. Yes, you read that right. The Denver Nuggets’ identity through the first month of the 2019-20 season is a grind-it-out team that gets stops on the defensive end.

Despite the Memphis Grizzlies trading away franchise stalwarts in recent seasons as they transition into a new era for the team, their grit and grind style of basketball appears to be alive and well in the Mile High City, to an extent.

Yes, these 2019-20 Denver Nuggets are not as one-sided when it comes to their performance on each end of the floor as most of those Memphis teams were. The Grizzlies’ 13th-ranked offense during the 2014-15 season was the highest they managed during their extended run as a playoff team from 2010-11 to the 2016-17 season.

Currently, Denver ranks sixth in defensive rating and 17th in offensive rating (per Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time). However, the two teams share a similarity in the slow-paced nature of the games they played. The Nuggets currently rank last in the league in pace, while those Memphis teams were consistently in the bottom five in that regard, especially in the final years of that iteration of the team.

A lockdown of Houston’s offense

Denver’s impressive 105-95 victory over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday really showcased the team’s potential on the defensive end of the floor. The Nuggets were the first team to hold Houston under 100 points in a game this season (and snapped the Rockets’ 21-game run of scoring over 100 points) and forced eight turnovers from James Harden, mainly as a result of their unpredictable strategy to double-team and trap the 2017-18 MVP.

“We gave him different looks, we got the ball out of his hands, the guys believed, they executed, and that’s what you have to do against great players and obviously, the game plan worked this time,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said.

The below video highlights how the Nuggets were able to generate a season-high 32 points off of Houston’s 23 turnovers. From well-timed rotations to active hands in the passing lanes, Denver’s defense swarmed Houston’s dynamic star duo of Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap and Torrey Craig were the main culprits in Houston’s offensive struggles on Wednesday. Murray had six steals on the night, while Millsap and Craig contributed in a variety of ways on the defensive end. Millsap finished with four Stocks (steals and blocks combined), while Craig had five stocks in his 19 minutes of action off the bench.

Millsap’s ability to use his active hands and court awareness to disrupt Houston’s offense was crucial in Wednesday’s win. In the video below, he gets his hand in as Harden and Westbrook were navigating the court, which ultimately forced turnovers. The final play was just Millsap being incredibly locked in, as he helps over as Houston initiates a pick-and-roll, which allows Denver’s savvy veteran to be in perfect position to strip Tyson Chandler of the ball.

Of course, Craig’s steal and dunk in transition highlighted Denver’s defensive performance on Wednesday. However, not all of Craig’s contributions showed up in the box score. According to the NBA matchup data, Craig held Westbrook and Harden to a combined 1-of-10 from the field on Wednesday. When Malone needs additional defensive reinforcements, he knows that he can count on Craig and Jerami Grant off the bench.

Defense is the new calling card

Wednesday’s performance was no aberration. Denver’s defense has consistently executed at a high level this season. Wednesday marked the seventh occasion in which the Nuggets held their opponent under 100 points this season and they are 7-0 in those games. After decades of being known as an offensive juggernaut that used the Denver altitude to run teams off the floor, these Nuggets appear to be made of a different mold.

“I think our guys most importantly understand for us to win, the defense has to be the constant,” Malone said. “The offense will come and go…but defense is your anchor, it’s your calling card. You’re going to be able to win some games when your offense is not with you. In our losses this year, we haven’t defended anybody, and I think our guys understand that.”

Denver is at least average in all of the defensive four factors (third in opponent effective field-goal percentage, 14th in opponent turnover percentage, 14th in opponent offensive rebound percentage and 15th in opponent free throw rate). This could be cause for concern, as opponents are more likely to shoot better against Denver moving forward this season, especially from beyond the arc and in the mid-range (opponents have connected on just 32.1 percent of their 3-pointers and 33.1 percent of their mid-range jumpers).

Veteran forwards at the forefront

The Nuggets’ starting lineup has certainly received that message loud and clear. Denver’s starters own a 97.8 defensive rating in the 226 minutes they have shared the court together, which is by far the best mark on the team (and fourth in the league among lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together this season).

The two veteran forwards have been leading the charge on that end of the floor this season. When Millsap and Will Barton III have been on the court together this season, Denver has posted a 97.0 defensive rating, which ranks in the 97th percentile (per Cleaning the Glass).

Barton III’s one-on-one defense has been key to Denver’s starting lineup and the team’s defensive success overall. As Adam Mares of DNVR showcases in the clip below, Barton III was able to guard a wide variety of Houston’s players on Wednesday, including a shutdown possession against Westbrook.

If Denver’s starting forwards are able to stay healthy throughout the regular season, there is good reason to believe that the starting lineup will continue to thrive on the defensive end and be supported on the bench unit by players such as Craig and Grant.

Sure, Grit and Grind may never truly come back in today’s modern NBA that is predicated on pushing the pace and high-scoring contests. However, the Nuggets are the closest thing to those prime Grizzlies teams, using an elite defense to win slow, grind-it-out contests against some of the NBA’s best.

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