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Inside the Nuggets' fourth-quarter rally: Jokic's free-throws, Murray's shooting, and Malone's clutch sub
Was the Phoenix Suns’ zone defense really going to end the Nuggets’ six-game winning streak? For most of Monday’s second half it seemed like it was.
After the Nuggets took a 56-49 lead into the halftime break, the Suns stormed out of the locker room to outscore Denver 32-26 in the third quarter. The Nuggets looked lost against the Suns’ 2-3 and 3-2 zone configurations, settling for one jumper after another, which was exactly what Phoenix was hoping for. The Nuggets didn’t attempt a free-throw throughout the entire third quarter and the Suns’ continued to put the clamps down defensively in the fourth.
Phoenix outscored Denver 18-10 over the first six minutes of the final period, and a Mikal Bridges jumper at the 5:54 mark of the quarter prompted Michael Malone to burn another timeout with his team trailing 101-92. Whatever he said during that short break in the action hit home.
The Nuggets went on to outscore the Suns 21-10 over the final six minutes of regulation for their seventh-straight win.
Here’s how they did it.
Nuggets trail 101-92 with 5:54 remaining
The Nuggets got Will Barton in a high pick-and-roll with Nikola Jokic out of their timeout and Barton was able to rub right off Jokic’s shoulder and get downhill. Bridges, who was defending Paul Millsap on this play, was forced to step up and help on Barton’s drive, which left Millsap alone on the block. He was able to finish through Aron Baynes and start the Nuggets’ rally.
Nuggets trail 103-94 with 5:08 remaining
After a Kelly Oubre Jr. dunk, Denver comes down on its next possession and gets into an all too familiar action: a Jokic-Gary Harris dribble hand-off. Harris is as skilled as any guard operating in DHO’s and on this specific one you can really see his expertise. First, watch how he rubs right off Jokic’s shoulder which leaves Oubre in the dust. Then, notice how Harris takes his first dribble after the DHO with his inside hand (his right hand) not his left. This helps him cover more ground and gain more separation from his defender coming out of the DHO. With Oubre out of the picture Harris can cleanly rise up for this jumper which cut the Suns’ lead to seven.
The Nuggets and Suns traded misses before Ricky Rubio committed a costly turnover (one of his six on the night). Then, Denver started to feed Jokic.
Nuggets trail 103-96 with 4:07 remaining
The Nuggets clearly wanted to get Jokic a post-up here and spent the first few seconds of their possession working to get Baynes switched out onto Jamal Murray and Rubio onto Jokic. The Suns obliged, and once Jokic gets the mismatch he walks Rubio down to the block. Devin Booker does a good job of coming over from the weak side to double but Rubio commits the foul with the Nuggets already in the bonus. Jokic sinks both free-throws.
Nuggets trail 106-101 with 3:22 remaining
After the Nuggets and Suns traded three-point plays (Phoenix got a Rubio layup plus a foul and Denver got a Barton 3), it was time to feed Jokic again. Jokic started this possession at the top of the three-point arc but was able to navigate towards the right block thanks to a perfectly timed Harris screen which halted his defender Frank Kaminsky for a few moments. It was already over for Kaminsky at that point. Jokic catches the ball too close to the paint for him to do much and then puts his right shoulder into Kaminsky’s chest, takes a couple hard dribbles with his left hand, and backs him into the paint. Nothing fancy from Jokic here. He’s one of the best at drawing fouls on the block and catches Kaminsky’s arm as he goes into his shot attempt. Jokic knocks in two more free-throws.
Nuggets trial 106-103 with 3:08 remaining
Devin Booker must have nightmares when he sees Harris and the Nuggets on the schedule. In three meetings this season including Monday’s matchup, the Nuggets have held Booker to 13.7 points per game on 30.4% shooting from the field and 14.3% from 3 (this season Booker is averaging 24 points on 49.7/38.2 shooting clips.)
This was a vintage steal for Harris who has some of the best hands in the league. He initially denies Booker the ball in the post, and then as Booker runs up and into a dribble hand-off with Kaminsky he pokes the ball free with his left hand — again his closest hand to the ball — and retrieves it. I’m still not sure how he was able to tap this ball towards the Nuggets bench and around Booker.
Nuggets trial 106-103 with 2:58 remaining
For some reason Baynes, who was Phoenix’s best option to guard Jokic, wasn’t on the floor for this sequence. He wasn’t battling foul trouble and was by far a better matchup on Jokic than Kaminsky, who oddly enough picked up Millsap on this possession. Harris dribbles the ball into the front court following his steal and runs a pick-and-roll with Jokic that’s really only designed to get the ball back to Jokic near the block. With Bridges trying to battle him in the post, Jokic gets position and receives a perfect lob pass from Barton. This is a harder pass than it looks coming from the three-point line. Jokic gets fouled by Kaminsky and sinks two more free-throws.
The Nuggets have to love how Jokic demanded the ball in the post in these situations.
Nuggets trail 108-105 with 2:00 remaining
After a basket from Baynes, a missed jumper from Jokic, and another turnover from Rubio, Jokic steps into this 3 from the wing and buries it. Pay attention to the action that creates this look. It’s Murray setting a pin-down screen for Jokic. A point guard setting a screen for his center isn’t something you see every day but it’s an action Denver has found a ton of success running over the last two seasons. Opposing big men aren’t used to chasing their matchup around screens and Baynes finds himself in unfamiliar territory here.
Jokic was 4 of 7 from 3 against the Suns and is shooting 16 of 32 (50%) from 3 over the Nuggets’ current seven-game winning streak. He was ice cold to start the season from 3 but looks to be finding his range. Look out.
Jokic took over in the fourth, scoring nine of the Nuggets’ final 17 points in the last five minutes. He finished with 22 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists, good for his sixth triple-double of the season and the 34th of his career. Jokic has the 10th-most triple-doubles in NBA history at 24-years-old.
A quick note about Jokic in the clutch: no player in the league this season is shooting it better in clutch situations than Jokic. We’re not even talking solely about his multiple game-winners here. Jokic is shooting a blistering 66.7% in clutch situations — when the differential is five points or less with five minutes or less remaining — which is the highest mark in the league out of players with at least 20 shot attempts. For two seasons now Jokic has been one of, if not the, best closers in the league. Last season Jokic was third in the league in Clutch FG% at 49.3% (minimum 50 attempts).
Nuggets and Suns tied at 108 with 27.7 remaining in regulation
Following a Booker missed jumper, a Barton palming violation, and more missed shots from Oubre and Millsap, the Nuggets again feed Jokic in the post. This time Baynes contains him on the drive but Jokic is able to find Murray after Rubio and Oubre mix up the coverage and leave him wide open from 3.
Nuggets and Suns tied at 111 with 25.5 remaining
Booker drains a 3 out of Phoenix’s timeout which gives Denver the ball back with a chance to almost wind the clock down and win the game. The Nuggets go to their bread-and-butter in the clutch — a Jokic and Murray pick-and-roll — and once Murray sees Baynes switch out onto him (Murray probably could have gotten this ball back to Jokic if he wanted to) he gains separation on a crossover and fires from just inside the three-point line. Murray scored the last five points for Denver this game.
Not many players want the ball more in these situations with the game on the line than Murray. It’s one of the 22-year-old’s best qualities. Murray finished with 28 points (12-19 FGs, 4-8 3FGs), 3 rebounds, 8 assists, and two steals. It was his third game in the last six days scoring at least 28 or more.
Nuggets lead 113-111 with 1.4 seconds remaining
How about this clutch substitution from Malone, who inserts the long-armed Jerami Grant for Murray on the Suns’ final possession. Grant was able to block Booker’s potential game-winning shot to push the Nuggets’ winning streak to seven games.