By Kyle Reiner Pineda

The Western Conference Cinderella story continues all the way to Conference Finals against the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers. They showed signs of pulling off another upset before *that* Anthony Davis game-winner, but they will have to make some adjustments. This is the story of the series so far. 

The third-seeded Denver Nuggets are currently turning heads around the league with their play in these NBA Playoffs thus far. Jamal Murray has found his hot stroke in Orlando with multiple 50+ point games, Nikola Jokic has been making a strong case for the title of best center in the league, and the whole team having the poise and grit to come back from a 3-1 deficit twice in the same Playoffs. Their matchup in the third round with the Lakers is proving to be a different puzzle to solve for Mike Malone and company, but evidence from the previous rounds and Game 2 show that they are capable of defeating yet another favorite if they have enough left in the tank to pull it off.

The Renaissance of Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic has been a matchup nightmare for all teams they’ve faced thus far given his point-center abilities. The Joker is averaging 25.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 5.9 assists essentially being the focal point of the offense for the Nuggets. Whether it be last season’s DPOY, Rudy Gobert, or the 6MOY, Montrezl Harrell, the Serbian was having his way inside the paint and from deep. His ability to pick-and-pop and be an offense maestro in the paint allows the other Nuggets players on the floor to score as well.

In the previous series’, the Joker would have no trouble with traditional centers or undersized big-men unlike in this series where he is against Anthony *freaking* Davis. The Lakers know that AD has the size and strength to bother Jokic so their main defensive plan is to play him straight-up to limit his greatest strength—playmaking. They would send either Javale McGee or Dwight Howard to defend Jokic too and play physical on the Joker. The Lakers learned from the Clippers’ double-team mistakes to only trap once it is hard for the big man to pass late into the possession. A similar strategy they did to James Harden in the previous round.

The Nuggets countered this strategy in game two to having only Jokic on the strong side while the rest of the team was on the opposite side looking to flare out or cut into the pain if the greatest-passing-big decides to dish it off. Look at this example of the Nuggets spacing versus the Lakers and the Clippers. 

Coach Malone’s Defensive Adjustments are Key

We have seen over the course these Playoffs how effective Mike Malone’s defensive adjustments are particularly in-game. The Nuggets are definitely rolling on offense with Jokic, Murray, and sprinkles of Michael Porter Jr., Paul Milsap, and Jerami Grant, but they would not have come back from double-digit deficits without their defense. Will Barton may be out for the season, but their defense saw a stark difference when Gary Harris returned to the lineup. 

The Nuggets were allowing 125.5 points-per-game during Games 1-4 of the Jazz series where Gary Harris did not play. Once he was inserted into the lineup though, the number plummeted to 97.3 points-per-game and capped off by only allowing Donovan Mitchell to go 9/22 in field-goals during Game 7. In the series after, Harris and Grant were tasked to defend Kawhi Leonard and Paul George who only allowed the pair to shoot 43% for the entire series. In a noticeable trend, they would field a Jokic-Murray-Grant-Harris lineup to close games and will determine the last player depending on the circumstance. Miles Plumlee, Michael Porter, Paul Milsap, and PJ Dozier have all had an impact on the times they were placed in the fourth quarter. They were there to defend the paint, to stop a Mitchell drive, make key shots to seal the comeback over the Clippers, and keep the Nuggets close in Game 2 versus the Clippers.

Unlike many teams in the bubble, Mike Malone does his adjustments on defense through lineups or small-tweaks in coverage. We have seen teams switch from zone, box-and-1, 3-2 zone, etc from the East and West bracket, but not Denver. We have seen Jamal Murray take a leap in his perimeter defense in these Playoffs through his steals and coverage on picks. We have seen skinny Jokic put more effort into defense as well given his effort to defend the paint to compensate for his lack of athleticism and speed. These individual improvements have helped shape the overall impact of their defense as their effort becomes contagious to better switch picks and defend mismatches better than last year.

The Denver Nuggets may be down in this series against the Lakers, but they have shown that they have the system and personnel to make this matchup competitive again. As they have one of the deepest benches in the NBA, they will need to dig extra deep if the Nuggets are to reach their first Finals in franchise history.