How The Nuggets Picked Apart The Lakers Once-Elite Defense

Late in the Denver Nuggets’ Game 1 win over the Los Angeles Lakers last week, a contest in which they tallied 132 points and prolific 136.1 offensive rating, one of their rare empty possessions became a harbinger for the rest of the 4-0 sweep.

As Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic tangoed into a pick-and-roll, Aaron Gordon jogged from the weakside corner to the elbow. There, he set a flare screen on Dennis Schröder, who had flashed into the lane to crowd Jokic on the catch. When Schröder tried retreating to his man, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, he was greeted by the brick wall of Gordon.

Although Caldwell-Pope’s open three clanked off the rim, it was apparent Denver holstered counters for the Lakers’ schematic tweak of putting Anthony Davis on Gordon to roam as a helper, primarily against Jokic, but really everywhere its elite offense ventured. The Nuggets’ attack stalled for portions of Game 1 as they adapted to Los Angeles’ decision to swap Davis and Rui Hachimura’s defensive assignments. It even stalled for lengthy stretches of Game 2 (playoff-low 104.9 offensive rating that night), with Gordon unsure of where to position himself and how to exploit Davis’ unwillingness to guard him off the ball.

Every game, however, the Nuggets exhibited various understandings of how to mitigate Davis’ looming presence and avoid letting him lord over their offense like he had in previous rounds against the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors. During their two road wins in Los Angeles, the second of which propelled them to the franchise’s first NBA Finals berth, that understanding coalesced to keep the offense humming. Denver’s brigade would not see the same fate as the Lakers’ prior opponents.

Much of that stems from Murray and Jokic’s artistry. They were superb all series and dissected the array of coverages Los Angeles confronted them with. Murray averaged 32.5 points on 65.1 percent true shooting. Jokic averaged 27.8 points on 59.8 percent true shooting and slung 47 dimes to only 15 turnovers.

But part of that collective potency is a reflection of the manner in which Gordon, the rest of the Nuggets, and their coaching staff adjusted to the Lakers considering him a non-shooter. For much of Game 1’s crunch time, Gordon resided in the opposite dunker spot of wherever Jokic posted or faced up. That made Davis’ responsibilities straightforward. He knew how and when to help. His timing was routine. Denver botched a couple plays, but Davis’ impact absolutely muddied the waters.

So, the response to that was to amend Gordon’s positioning. Complicate the reads and decisions for Davis. Force him into different situations. Move him around the floor and pull him out of the paint. Diagram plays in which a double-team wouldn’t sink the ship and might even be the preferred outcome. The results were less crisp, attentive rotations from Davis and more space for the Nuggets that led to bountiful possessions.

During Games 3 and 4, part of amending Gordon’s positioning meant letting him initiate possessions. The bouncy, explosive forward notched nine assists in Los Angeles, compared to five in the Mile High City. He’s a skillful static passer and showcased as much. Denver lured Davis away from the rim and dialed up actions to manipulate his absence there. The Lakers lacked another menacing interior defender in their playoff rotation. Instances where Gordon commandeered possessions above the break illuminated that. The ripple effects of collaborative paint protection burned them.

Another tactic the Nuggets embraced to generate quality looks was utilizing Gordon as a weakside screener or dribble handoff facilitator. That’s nothing distinct to them. Plenty of non-shooters are featured on flare or pin-in screens and as a DHO operator. If a defense is ignoring a player, leveraging that space into beneficial opportunities for someone else is a logical and popular strategy. Denver sparked far more good looks than it capitalized upon with this gambit, but I suspect it could be a grander storyline in the Finals if/when the Miami Heat emerge from the East.

The Heat love to bring aggressive help and adhere to a no-middle scheme. They tend to help at the nail one pass away and are tremendous at playing the gaps to dissuade or interrupt driving lanes. That prowess is a significant reason they’ve stymied the Boston Celtics’ offense. The difference, though, is Jokic’s virtuoso passing vision can break that scheme. Boston doesn’t have a playmaker who approximates him in that realm and is struggling to flip the court to get Miami in rotation. Jokic won’t have that trouble. Sequences like the ones below, which were only a fraction of Denver’s Western Conference Finals success, could be commonplace next month.

In Game 4, the Lakers replaced D’Angelo Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt with Schröder and Hachimura as starters. Hachimura guarded Jokic and Davis took Gordon. The Nuggets didn’t solely manipulate those assignments with Gordon’s initiating. They also attacked Hachimura in pick-and-rolls, where his limited length, mobility, and vertical pop were exposed. Throughout Games 3 and 4, involving Hachimura in screening actions yielded such good shots for Murray and the Nuggets that the Lakers eventually put Davis back on Jokic in Game 3 to coax the offense somewhere other than Murray-Jokic pick-and-rolls (instead, they spammed Jokic-Murray inverted pick-and-rolls to cap off that victory).

Similar to shifting Gordon’s positioning and straining Davis’ duties, Denver refused to keep Hachimura’s job simplistic as a post stopper. That’s the windfall of Jokic’s multiplicity. There are so many avenues through which he can punish a scheme and dictate another adjustment. The Lakers tried a ton of stuff. None of it consistently proved effective because Jokic, Murray, and the Nuggets’ playbook punched back with a superior counter.

In addition to being the NBA’s best player, scorer and passer, Jokic is also an elite rebounder. He gobbled up 58 rebounds in four Western Conference Finals games. When he pinballed the rock to himself on the defensive end, he consistently aimed to push the tempo, likely both in a hope to burn the Lakers’ steadfast, disorganized fast break defense and create cross-matches if things settled into a half-court possession.

According to Cleaning The Glass, Denver averaged 133.3 points per 100 possessions in transition following a live board. Jokic’s intersection of rebounding, ball-handling, and playmaking expertise were a nightmare for the Lakers to contain. If he didn’t immediately create something positive, his sheer ability to pressure the defense often thrust Davis onto a credible shooter who he couldn’t lurk away from.

Other times, the Nuggets were meticulous about forcing him to switch in the halfcourt and exile him from the action. It didn’t transpire every trip or anything like that, just enough to loosen up the offense and rely a little less on Jokic and Murray’s brilliance. Granted, their playoff brilliance has long warranted the credence to bank on it.

Los Angeles entered the Western Conference Finals touting the top-ranked defense of the playoffs with a 106.5 defensive rating. Across these four games, the Nuggets tallied a 122.5 offensive rating, including 124.7 inside Arena (what a wretched name, for the record). Toss out transition, where the Lakers have long struggled this year, and Denver’s offensive rating remains elite at 109.1.

That’s 11.4 points higher than the postseason average and 3.5 points higher than Denver’s own playoff-leading 105.6 half-court offensive rating. It’s also 19 points higher than the Lakers’ 90.1 half-court defensive rating they sported entering this matchup. Ignore the first game, when they hardly employed Davis as a roamer, and Denver’s halfcourt offensive rating is still 103.2. Any way you slice it, the Nuggets stampeded through this battle of vaunted offense vs. stingy defense and rendered one of these labels entirely obsolete.