Denver Nuggets Friday Film Study: Jokić’s scoring, Grant’s defense and more

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Despite being on the last leg of a season-long five-game road trip and facing the best offense in the league in the Dallas Mavericks, the Denver Nuggets prevailed thanks to late game heroics from Nikola Jokić and the team’s defense.

Given that the two teams could certainly matchup in the playoffs in the spring, the game provided ample evidence of key matchups and personnel decisions on both sides of the ball. With Will Barton III and Paul Millsap both out for the game, Denver had to rely on second-unit players to step up and for the most part, they did in a big way.

Jerami Grant’s defense was key in limiting Luka Doncic’s impact, while the post-up fueled a lot of Denver’s offense as Jokić got going in the third quarter. The result was a 107-106 victory, perhaps Denver’s most impressive of the season.

Let’s take a closer look at some film from Wednesday’s victory and how it can translate over the course of the season.

Grant’s defense fueled an impressive performance

Jerami Grant made his fourth start of the season and quickly got to work on both ends of the floor. The 25-year-old forward dropped 11 points in the first quarter, mostly off cuts or drives to the basket and getting to the free-throw line.

As the season has progressed Grant has continued to develop chemistry with Jokić, which has helped him get easy buckets around the rim off passes from the Serbian big man. In the clip below, Grant keeps his eyes focused on Jokić as he moves toward the rim and Denver’s All-Star big man only needs a small opening to deliver an accurate pass, which he does here with a little bit of heat on it:

Although his shot attempts around the rim have decreased this season, Grant has thrived around the basket when he gets there (career-high 73 percent within three feet of the rim), which is what he is able to do with ease at times given his length and ability to take long strides from the 3-point line, thus throwing defenders off their rhythm.

Now, let’s turn to the real highlight plays that Grant made Wednesday because there were several of them. In the first quarter, the former second-round pick had perhaps his most impressive defensive sequence of the season.

After picking up Doncic on his drive to the basket, Grant properly reacted to the euro-step before using his 7’3” wingspan to block his shot. However, because the ball falls right back to Doncic, Grant is now in a one-on-one situation against one of the best scorers in the NBA. Grant is able to stick with the 20-year-old star on his drive to the rim before he makes a quick recovery and blocks him again as a result of that length and wingspan.

Grant finished with three blocks on the night, with his final one coming during a key stretch of the fourth quarter. Delon Wright gets past the initial defense and goes for a floater inside the paint, where Grant once again surprises with his length to get the block.

If Millsap has to miss more time in the coming games, the Nuggets should feel good knowing that Grant continues to develop more cohesion with the starters and has begun to showcase how his size and athleticism can impact the team’s defense.

Jokić continues to dominate

Perhaps no trend has been more important to the Nuggets over the past month than Jokić raising his play to MVP-levels. Over the past 10 games, the 2019 All-NBA First Team center has averaged 24.8 points per game on 56.1 percent shooting from the field. A lot of this scoring has come from the post, as Jokić continues to overwhelm just about anyone with his unique blend of size and skill.

Against Dallas, Jokić got off to a slow scoring start, but turned up the heat in the third quarter, where he dropped 21 points through a mix of post-ups and 3-pointers.

After he knocked down a 3-pointer and floater early in the third, Jokić got to work in the post, using a blend of physicality and soft touch to go right through Dallas’ Maxi Kleber on multiple possessions:

Jokić has boosted his shooting percentage on two-pointers to nearly 58 percent this season, while he has connected on a career-high 72 percent of shots within three feet of the rim this year. On the year, Jokić ranks in the 76th percentile when it comes to post scoring, as plays that involve a direct post-up have yielded 1.01 points per possession, which ranks fourth in the league among players that have at least 75 post-ups this season.

Of course, Jokić doesn’t always back down towards the basket during his post-ups, as he often likes to catch defenders off guard with jumpers in the mid-range area, whether as a standing shot or while fading away. Against Dallas, Jokić was able to effectively shoot over both Kleber and Dwight Powell on separate occasions as a result of his high release and unsuspecting shooting motion.

Another key in the Serbian big man’s impressive scoring stretch has been 3-point shooting. Over the past 10 games, Jokić has connected on 46.2 percent from beyond the arc, a much-needed improvement from earlier in the season.

Against Dallas, Jokić went 4 of 6 from deep, with all four coming in the third quarter. As defenders continue to make delayed closeouts on Jokić, he has started punishing teams with his soft touch from beyond the arc.

If Jokić can continue to effectively mix post-ups with above-average 3-point shooting, Denver’s offense will thrive as a result of the attention that the Serbian center commands on a nightly basis.

Team defense secured the victory

Yes, Jokić was the hero on offense with his 33-point performance that included the go-ahead basket with just under eight seconds remaining. But that’s just it, there was still plenty of time for Dallas to get a good shot off in the final possession, but as a result of near-perfect execution from the Nuggets, Dallas didn’t even attempt a shot.

The possession started with the Mavericks getting the ball to Doncic (of course). Hardaway Jr. looks to set a screen but slips it to the wing to make himself open for a pass. At that time, Grant and Torrey Craig double-team Doncic, which forced him to give up the ball. As head coach Michael Malone said postgame, that was the team’s strategy all along.

“That last play, me and Wes (Unseld, Denver’s lead defensive assistant) talked,” Malone said. “He said, ‘You know, do you want to hit him (Doncic), get the ball out of his hands?’ I said, ‘You tell me.’ And he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We committed to it, and our guys flew around behind him and we wound up forcing a turnover to seal the win.”

During this time, Mason Plumlee does an excellent job in staying between Hardaway Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith in the corner, thus delaying Doncic’s pass and forcing him to make the longer, more difficult pass to the opposite corner.

As a result of Plumlee’s delay, Malik Beasley is able to sprint out at Finney-Smith while staying under control to not allow a shot attempt. As Finney-Smith drives by Beasley, Plumlee once again gets in his space to force the errant pass that sealed the win for Denver.

You simply don’t see defensive strategies executed at this high of a level on a regular basis, and it secured one of the most impressive wins of the season for the Nuggets.

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