With Joker in hand, Nugs aces in scoring
Offense leads NBA since mid-Dec.
As its wheels lifted off the runway in Dallas, the plane carrying the Nuggets back to Denver was also charting a new course for a season in peril.
The Mavericks had just finished hammering the Nuggets 112-92 on Dec. 12, dropping Denver to 9-16. It had been another woeful night for an offense languishing in the bottom half of the NBA. Something had to change.
“We weren’t where we wanted to be,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “I said, ‘You know what? Nikola Jokic had an unbelievable rookie season as a center, not as a power forward. I’m going to put him back at his natural position.’ Our season changed from that point on.”
The Nuggets enter Sunday’s game against New Orleans with a 26-21 record since Jokic was named the starting center, and are hanging onto a slim lead in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The intention of the lineup change was to jump-start a sputtering offense. Even the Nuggets at that point would have been hard-pressed to believe just how dramatically they would improve.
The Nuggets are, since Dec. 15, the best offensive team in basketball. Their offensive rating entering the weekend of 114.2 — a measure of points scored per 100 possessions — was the best mark in the league since Dec. 12, by a wide margin. James Harden and the
Rockets, Steph Curry and the Warriors, LeBron James and the Cavaliers — they all are slotted below the Jokic-led Nuggets in the past three-plus months.
It’s an offense that dropped 140 points on the Pacers and 132 points on the Warriors — the league’s second-best defensive team — while hitting a then-NBA record 24 3-pointers. And it’s an offense that scored 126 points Wednesday night while dismantling the defending champion Cavaliers.
“It’s amazing what happens when nobody cares who gets the credit,” Malone said after the Nuggets routed Cleveland. “You pass, you cut and everybody is sharing it. It’s a fun way to play and it’s contagious.”
So just how exactly have the Nuggets become so hard to guard?
Cutting a new plan
Gary Harris was about as far away from the ball as a player can be in a half-court set. During the second half of a recent Nuggets victory at Milwaukee, Harris was stationed at the apex of the right wing as Jokic caught a pass on the left low block.
Still, Harris knew the ball had a good chance to come his way. As Jokic turned his shoulder, Harris could sense that his center was lining up to fire a one-handed fastball across the court. Harris leaned forward, caught the ball in stride and breezed to the basket unimpeded. The easy basket came at the end of a possession in which the Nuggets had passed the ball nine times, with all five players touching it.
The Bucks ran in circles during the possession, lost in a blur of cutters, quick passes and fakes.
“It all starts with The Joker,” said Harris, who has enjoyed a career season. “Once he gets the ball in the high post or once he’s doing those dribble handoffs, you know the kid can pass. You want to do anything you can just to get open.”
Cutting often is designed to remove defenders from an area as much as it is to create a passing lane. With Jokic’s combination of pinpoint passes and one-stepahead vision, though, his teammates know there’s always a good chance that the effort of sprinting through a cut will be rewarded.
“He’s going to put it in a spot where only you can get it,” Harris said. “You know when you cut you better be looking and be ready for it. Then we do a good job finding players off those cuts or, if we’re not at the rim, being able to find other players. We do a good job just passing the ball in general.”
The cuts force defenses to make choices. The Nuggets entered Friday night’s game at Indiana third in the NBA since the lineup change with an assist percentage of 64.3, a measure of the number of field goals made by a team that are assisted. Many of those assists result from all the cutting, which can lead to open shots even when the cutter isn’t receiving the pass.
Take a third-quarter play in Wednesday’s victory over the Cavaliers. In a play the Nuggets use to create mismatches, Jokic dribbled the ball at the top of the key. He turned his body toward Wilson Chandler, who was at the top of the left wing and guarded by LeBron James. As Jokic stepped toward Chandler, the forward cut sharply toward the basket. James stayed with Chandler, but J.R. Smith, who was guarding Gary Harris in the corner, dropped down to provide help if Jokic passed to the cutting Chandler.
That left Jokic with an easy chest pass to a wide-open Harris for a 3-pointer. It was a breakdown by Smith, but it came because of the danger the Nuggets pose with their constant movement.
“When you play with Jokic and Mason (Plumlee), these guys who can pass, it’s really easy,” rookie forward Juancho Hernangomez said. “All the players can move and shoot and that’s really good for us. Every player enjoys this offense when we go like that.”
Dangerous at long range
With mostly the same roster, the Nuggets were 26th in the NBA last season in 3-point efficiency at 33.8 percent. This season, Denver entered the weekend tied for fifth at 37.4 percent.
Harris has been a big part of the improvement. The third-year guard from Michigan State is shooting 43.2 percent from 3point range, which ranks fifth in the NBA. Harris shot just 35.4 percent last season. Jameer Nelson (37.9 percent) is having his best 3point shooting season since 2011. Danilo Gallinari (38.3 percent) has never shot better in a full season. Will Barton (37.5 percent) is shooting more than two percentage points better from 3-point range than at any other point in his career. The list goes on. More movement, more cutting and Jokic’s presence are all contributing to better looks. One play that often springs open 3-point shooters is the dribble handoff. It starts as Jokic dribbles the ball toward a teammate stationed in the corner or on the wing. As that player runs toward the ball, his defender has a choice to make. If he overplays the ball, the Nuggets player could run past Jokic and have an easy cut to the basket. When the player’s defender stays under the handoff — which doubles as a screen — that player can simply take the ball from Jokic and fire the 3-pointer.
Once again, it’s the threat of all the moving, cutting and passing that has put defenses, well, on the defensive.
“A few years ago there was a (film) called the ‘Beautiful Game,’ and it was about San Antonio,” Malone said. “It really was beautiful to watch. The ball movement, the unselfishness. The ball was never held. Those are the things we preach all the time, and the thing that has become apparent since the lineup change is that it’s contagious. It’s fun to play and we’re all involved. That is beautiful to watch.”
The Nuggets enter Sunday’s game with a 26-21 record since Nikola Jokic was named the starting center.