The Nuggets’ recent 1-4 stretch from earlier this month is now in the rearview mirror. Denver has pieced together four-straight wins including a 129-106 statement victory over the weekend vs. Giannis and the Bucks. The DNVR Nuggets crew discusses what they learned from that win, the Nuggets’ takedown of the Joel Embiid-less 76ers on Monday, their thoughts on the current second unit, and more.
What’s your takeaway from the Nuggets’ two wins over the weekend (Bucks, 76ers)
Adam Mares: That the Denver Nuggets are as ready for the postseason as they can be. We worried that they might be slumping at the wrong time a few weeks ago but I think it is clear that they had only lost motivation and focus. The win over the Bucks required defensive energy, execution, and focus. They stepped up and showed that their defensive ceiling is higher than their season-long average. The 76ers game was a laugher but Denver still made it look effortless in the pockets that they decided to turn it on.
Harrison Wind: I feel comfortable saying the Nuggets are back, and that’s because of their win over the Bucks. It was the type of victory I needed to see in order to restore the high level of confidence I have in this team ahead of the playoffs. It was an all-around, two-way, full-team effort type of win. The second unit looked good in spots. The starters crushed. Nikola Jokic turned his aggression levels up several notches and went at Defensive Player of the Year candidate Brook Lopez. He turned out to be barbecue chicken. And Denver’s now-patented fourth-quarter lockdown defense showed up. It was the win that this Nuggets team needed to recalibrate themselves and remind the rest of the NBA that they’re real and ready for the playoffs.
Brendan Vogt: We concern ourselves with the human nature aspects of trap games, and that’s probably a double-edged sword. These Nuggets get up for big games, which might not be a conscious choice. Is it an aspect of the team’s collective personality at this stage in their journey to contending status? They know what they’re playing for, and certain matchups draw that out of them more than others. Philly provides the perfect example: Denver almost fumbled the bag once the Sixers pulled the plug. The best teams in history didn’t have this problem. The Nuggets do. Thankfully, it shouldn’t be a problem in the playoffs.
What’s been most encouraging about the bench?
Mares: That is hasn’t been needed. I don’t think that the bench has played particularly well lately. Zeke Nnaji was a -7, -8, +3, and -6 since his return. If those games happened in losses we’d probably feel significantly different about the bench minutes over that span. But Denver’s starters have been dominant and that has mattered much more than everything else. I do think that Nnaji is the right option. And Christian Braun being firmly in the rotation is a positive. But the non-Jokic minutes are still a major concern for me heading into the playoffs.
Wind: The Nuggets have found their backup center for the rest of the season. It’s Zeke Nnaji. He’s playing at a high enough level to where I can see him in the playoff rotation and at least starting games penciled in for minutes every night in the postseason. He gives Denver’s bench a defensive mindset and his ability to switch 1-5 helps that lineup on that end of the floor. He can run the court and plays hard every time that he’s out there. We’ll see if he can still shoot the 3. He’s 0-3 from beyond the arc in four games since returning from his shoulder injury and isn’t exactly looking to fire them up from distance with any regularity. The Nuggets’ best chance to stay afloat in their mostly bench units is with Nnaji on the floor. Tenacious Z, Z Dog, The Zeke Freak, whatever you want to call him, he’s been ready for the moment.
Vogt: That it includes Christian Braun and Zeke Nnaji. They’re essential pieces of a lineup built to get stops and run off the bench — the purported identity of the late-stage iteration. I don’t consider the situation fixed or anything close to it. It will likely take multiple starters playing alongside the second unit at all times.
Who are you watching the closest coming down the stretch?
Mares: At this point, I’m not sure that there is anything that would make me more confident in the Nuggets heading into the postseason. We know what their best punch looks like. And we know their strengths and weaknesses. There are some statistical milestones that will be interesting to follow.
- Will Jokic climb back up to become the 3rd player ever to average a triple-double?
- Will Michael Porter Jr. hit 18 more three-pointers to set a new franchise record for made 3s in a season?
- Will Jokic finish shooting 60-40-80? 60% from the field. 40% from 3. 80% from the foul line. No player has ever done that while scoring 20+ points per game.
- Will Jokic finish with a true-shooting percentage over 70%? No player in NBA history has scored more than 18.5 points per game with that efficiency.
- Will the Nuggets get to 57 wins?
Wind: Jamal Murray. His play during this four-game winning streak — Murray’s averaging 23.3 points (52.3 FG%, 63 3P%), 4.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in this stretch — gives you a lot of confidence. Murray looks calm and composed on the floor right now. He’s playing at a good pace and I like the flow that his game currently has. I just want him to stay at this level. He also needs to stay healthy. Murray needs to be the Nuggets’ second-best player (and that needs to be clear) in the playoffs for Denver to climb the mountain top. I think he can bring it up a level in the postseason from where he’s at right now too. Murray shows up in the big moments.
Vogt: It’s a boring answer, but it’s all about health for me. Porter’s looked much more athletic, yet he’s popping up on the occasional injury report with left heel management. KCP is taking a beating out there. Those drawn fouls while fighting through screens are coming at a cost. Gordon looks flat-out tired. These Nuggets are ready but must cross the regular season finish line intact.