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How the Nuggets are using back-to-back games against the Spurs to simulate a future playoff series

Harrison Wind Avatar
December 28, 2018

Michael Malone is pulling double duty this season as both a full-time NBA head coach and teacher to one of the youngest roster in the league.

Walk onto the Nuggets’ practice court and Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris — Denver’s young core that doesn’t boast an ounce of postseason experience — enters Malone’s office hours. The subject this week? Preparing for the playoffs, and how the Nuggets can use their home-and-home series against the San Antonio Spurs to simulate what film sessions and practices are like when the games count a little bit more.

“To me, this is a playoff series,” Malone said. “And for all of our young guys who have never been in the playoffs, they have no idea what I’m talking about.”

Malone has never been the head coach in a playoff game, but he’s fluent when it comes to postseason preparation. He did, after all, coach LeBron James in Cleveland for five seasons. The Cavaliers appeared in 71 playoff games while he was an assistant. Malone was also on staff in New Orleans when the Hornets made the playoffs in 2010-11 and in Golden State for the Warriors’ 2013 first-round upset of the Nuggets.

Facing the same opponent in back-to-back games, Malone is treating Denver’s practices, shootaround and film sessions this week like it’s a first-round playoff series.

“In the playoffs, you play a game, you come in, you watch film, you look at what you did well, what you didn’t do well and what adjustments you have to make,” said Malone. “So that’s a big part of our film sessions, going on the floor and walking through offense and defense and how they guarded, how we can exploit it and how we need to do a better job guarding them.”

The Nuggets’ Thursday morning film session following their 111-103 loss was a lengthy one that focused on a couple key tenets:

– Defense, and how the Spurs and more specifically Bryn Forbes, who had 10 fast break points in San Antonio’s win, managed to score so effortlessly in transition. The Nuggets also slipped to seventh in defense and outside of the top-5 for the first time this season after giving up 111 points or more in three consecutive games.

– How to get Jokic more shots. Jokic attempted just five field goals in San Antonio — the fewest since he shot the ball once in Memphis seven weeks ago — and scored only four points. Malone believes Popovich will deploy the same defensive game plan where San Antonio sent waves of double teams at Jokic all night again on Friday.

“When you win, you don’t change a whole lot. It’s usually the team that loses the game that’s got to make a little bit more of an adjustment,” Malone said. “I think they’ll mix it up. They’ll bring a double team whenever they can. They’ll switch his pick and rolls. Go back to last season. We beat this team twice at home and Nikola was really effective and efficient with the pick and pop, so now what a lot of teams are doing, they’re just switching that. They’re putting a small on Nikola to take away his airspace and then they’ll switch it or fix it whenever they can.”

“They said Nikola’s not going to beat us. Somebody else has to and you have to make shots when they do it.”

Denver made 10 of the 20 threes it attempted in the first half but went cold in the third. The Nuggets shot just 3-14 from distance from the beginning of the third quarter through the three-minute mark of the fourth, when Denver emptied its bench and began to mount a spirited comeback that eventually trimmed the Spurs’ margin to five points with under a minute to go before San Antonio clinched the win at the free throw line.

The Nuggets can take some solace in the fact that they missed one wide open look after another. Jokic was able to find Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles and Malik Beasley spacing the floor around the three-point arc regularly for the most part as two or sometimes three Spurs defenders closed in on him on the block. But Murray, Lyles and Beasley only shot a combined 2-11 on wide-open three-pointers, per NBA.com. Juancho Hernangomez, Monte Morris and Torrey Craig combined to hit 11 of 15 from distance but couldn’t make up for the fact that Denver hit more three-point field goals (18) than twos (17).

Denver got its open looks in part because its shooters knew what was coming.

It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, they caught us off guard,'” Malone said. “We knew that they were going to double team Nikola. We knew that in pick and rolls their bigs would be way down the floor and they’d go under as much as possible and force us to shoot jump shots and mid-range jump shots.”

The Nuggets’ most accomplished postseason performer is Paul Millsap, who has 87 career playoff games under his belt.”I think the way that we break down film, it’s a playoff atmosphere,” he said “… we’re pretty much scouting. In the playoffs, it’s going to be a little bit more detailed but that’s preparing us.” Mason Plumlee boasts 27 career playoff games while Isaiah Thomas, who’s still sidelined while rehabbing from hip surgery, and Nick Young, who’s signed to an injury hardship exception granted by the league, have played in 25 and 35 respective postseason games.

But seven of Denver’s top-11 rotation players — Harris, Jokic, Murray, Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, Monte Morris and Torrey Craig — don’t have a lick of playoff experience. Will Barton and Trey Lyles played sparingly in the postseason for the Trail Blazers and Jazz before they arrived in Denver but hardly enough to consider them playoff tested.

Preparation for April’s first round of final exams starts now.

“Hopefully our guys after this season will have a much better feel of what those playoff matchups mean,” Malone said. “How it’s a chess match and you have to make the necessary adjustments.”

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