Strong Play in the Clutch A Staple for Nuggets This Season

by Eric Spyropoulos

Down the stretch of close games this season, few teams have been more reliable than the Denver Nuggets.

While Denver has been a great fourth-quarter team throughout the season, posting the league’s third-highest net rating during the final frame, the Nuggets have been even better during crunch time. Denver owns a +7.6-net rating during fourth quarters this season, which jumps up to +14.9 during clutch minutes (defined by NBA.com as the last five minutes of a game when the point differential is five points or less).

During clutch moments this season, the Nuggets have a 94.6 defensive rating, good for first in the league. It was Denver’s excellent fourth-quarter defense that propelled them to victories over the Dallas Mavericks and Pacers last week.

"That's important when you know you can trust your defense late in games and in big moments,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said.

With Gary Harris and Paul Millsap on the floor, Denver has two strong defenders at key points of attack, with Harris disrupting on the perimeter while Millsap locks down the paint. The Harris-Millsap duo owns a 92.9 defensive rating during the fourth quarter this season. Having both players healthy is a key reason Denver has been so good defensively in recent weeks, with Harris’ steal against Luka Dončić on Thursday a key example of the value he can provide.

When the Nuggets’ defense consistently gets stops, it provides opportunities for center Nikola Jokić and the offense to seal the win. So far this season, Jokić has shot an even 50 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from beyond the arc during clutch minutes. Overall, the 24-year-old is +68 during clutch minutes, which ranks fourth in the league.

Paul Millsap isn’t far behind in his clutch production as he has shot 62.5 percent from the field during such moments. While Millsap has a smaller sample size of offensive production, he is the anchor of the Nuggets’ excellent defense during crunch time.

Overall, Denver is 12-3 in games decided by three points or less, which is the best record in such games across the league. Furthermore, the Nuggets are undefeated in overtime this season, another indication that when the going gets tough, Denver is up to the task.

“I think our players are poised and I think they are confident because we have been in so many of those games and we have come out on the winning end,” Malone said. “I give our players all the credit because they are the ones out there making the plays and getting the stops and rebounds.”

Against the Mavericks last week, Denver’s defense held Dallas to just 10 points in the fourth quarter, spurring a comeback that ultimately ended with Jokić hitting a game-winning shot at the buzzer.

Denver followed up that victory with a comeback win over the Pacers, which included the Nuggets holding Indiana to just 40 second-half points. With Jokić ejected from the game late in the fourth quarter, Millsap went to work and hit a go-ahead layup to give the Nuggets their third consecutive win.

As the veteran leader on the team, Millsap has been instrumental on both ends of the floor during clutch minutes. As Denver heads into the stretch run of the regular season, they will continue to face tough moments during crunch time. Given the team’s performance in such moments this season, it’s safe to say the Nuggets are more than up for the challenge.

“It’s great because those are the moments that make a team,” Millsap said. “It shows the type of character we have. It shows the type of team we are. Those situations can make or break a team, and we’ve been able to thrive off of it and hopefully we continue to do the right things and continue to get wins.”

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