The Nuggets hate Chase Center. It brings back memories of season-ending injuries, Jordan Poole heaters, and playoff losses. Denver has won its share of regular season games in the Warriors’ new home, but the battle scars still run deep. Michael Malone once said he thought the arena was cursed.
The Nuggets got contributions from pretty much everyone up and down the roster in their 128-123 win over the Warriors Friday in Golden State. Of course, Nikola Jokic did his part. Bruce Brown, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr. and Denver’s bench also turned in strong performances. But an unlikely hero made this a trip to Chase Center one that the Nuggets will look back fondly on for the rest of this season.
Malone called Christian Braun’s number less than five minutes into Friday’s first quarter and the rookie delivered. He went on to log 23 minutes — the most of any Nuggets bench player — in Denver’s first win of the season and spent time checking Poole, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Jonathan Kuminga. Braun was regarded as a strong defender coming out of Kansas, and his defensive upside was a central reason why Calvin Booth made him the selection at No. 21. Still, even Braun’s strongest backers didn’t see him making this type of impact in his first real minutes of the season.
Braun turned in a defensive performance that will make Malone again ponder the makeup of his second unit. That’s how good Braun was in Golden State. He probably deserves more minutes beginning tonight in the Nuggets’ home opener, but we’ll see how Denver plays it. He’s that impactful of a defender right now. Braun made a hell of a statement against the Warriors
Going back and watching the film, his defense was even better than I thought. Braun’s feet are lighting quick. He navigates around screens better than most of the Nuggets’ roster. He seemed to know the exact tendencies of every single player he guarded. He attempted to deny his man the ball every time when he was defending one pass away. As a help defender, he was quick to rotate as the low man in pick-and-roll coverage. He was aggressive but posied for a rookie going against top-tier offensive talent on a national stage.
These five defensive possessions stuck out to me.
1. Braun picks Poole’s pocket
Just watch how quickly Braun moves his feet when Poole tries to take him baseline. When Poole leaves the ball unprotected for just a split-second, Braun’s quick hands poke it free for one of his three steals on the night.
2. He’s always in the right spot
Two things to watch here from Braun, who’s guarding Wiggins in the corner. He stays with Wiggins and blows up an attempted dribble hand-off with Kevon Looney, then keeps track of where the play is and sinks into perfect help-side position to cause another turnover. Few Nuggets players over the last few seasons have been capable of completing this sequence.
3. Knowing the scheme
Braun starts the possession guarding Kuminga in the corner but recognizes it’s Wiseman that he has to worry about on the roll. He then plants himself in ideal position to meet Wiseman if the pass goes there. Golden State might have been going Poole’s direction all along here, but Braun is in the right spot in Denver’s help-side pick-and-roll coverage. He eventually recovers to his original assignment and cuts off Kuminga’s drive to the rim.
4. Defensive awareness
Here’s an example of how natural of a defender Braun is. He executes a clean switch with Michael Porter Jr. and sinks down into the paint to be enough of a presence so Golden State doesn’t throw the ball to Wiseman on the roll. He recovers to Wiggins and steps up to guard Poole on another switch. Braun fights over the Wiseman screen to trap Poole in the corner.
5. Fighting over more screens
Wiggins is used to getting a clean pull-up jumper against Denver on this action. But Braun fights over the screen and stays connected enough to force Wiggins into a contested, fadeaway jumper.
The Nuggets are big believers in Braun. Booth was a huge fan of his throughout the draft process, and I think he liked Braun enough to take him even earlier in the first round if Denver was picking higher in the draft. Braun made a real impression on Malone at Summer League and throughout training camp with his defense, and it’s what’s going to get him on the floor for the Nuggets this season. After Malone reviews the film from Golden State he may even trust him with rotation minutes right now.
Braun gives the Nuggets another plus-defender to go with Brown, Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Gordon. The different defensive lineups Denver can put together with that amount of talent on that side of the ball is really exciting. The Nuggets view Braun as mainly a shooting guard but also someone who can slide down to small forward, and at 6-foot-6 he’s the exact type of defender that every championship contender needs to stock their roster with.
This feels like just the start.