On the first possession of Game 2 of the fourth quarter of the NBA Finals, the Denver Nuggets played good defense for about 19 seconds. But Jamaal Murray was a little too eager on a close-out and Duncan Robinson stepped up on an open 3-pointer.
With less than four minutes left in the fourth quarter of Game 4, Murray was in the same position after diving deep into the paint to tag Bam Adebayo’s roll at the rim. But instead of flying by Caleb Martin, he was able to stay close to the floor and rebound against Martin’s side-step 3-point attempt…
The Nuggets’ defense wasn’t great in Game 2, and their plethora of turnovers led to the Miami Heat’s second-best offensive performance in 24 play-in or playoff games.
But Denver’s three wins in the series are the Heat’s three at least Effective offensive performances of the postseason. And the finals are for the second time All The season saw the Nuggets allow fewer than 105 points per 100 possessions in three of four games. The previous one was a four-game homestand (and the start of the Nuggets’ longest winning streak of the season), while this one included two games on the road.
Murray’s controlled close-out was an example of how the Nuggets were defensively in Game 4. Here’s some more footage from the defensive performance that gave Denver another win in its first NBA championship.
1. The best offensive player in the world also plays defense
Nikola Jokic is a two-time Kia MVP because he does it all offensively. But to get to this point, he needs to play well on the other end of the floor as well. In Game 4, he and Murray combined to shoot 13-for-36 from the field, a great time for him to play his best defensive game.
As noted after the game, Jokic had seven deflections on Friday (three more than any other player). But his defensive success was as much about his legs as his arms.
It is about his intelligence. Late in the first quarter, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gambled on a cross-court pass, giving Gabe Vincent a lane to the basket. Jokic was there to help, but there was no one to help him with Bam Adebayo in front of Vincent’s shot.
Luckily, he’s a big guy with long arms and great instincts. He was able to block a drop-off pass with his right hand before taking down Vincent with his left hand, which went into the box score.
Jokic is obviously not a speedy defender, but he is asked to defend pick-and-rolls in two different ways. While his man sets a screen for Jimmy Butler, Jokic stays in „drop” coverage, focusing on stopping the drive. Jokic is level with the screen as his man sets a screen for a shooter. A comfortable, prevents pulling 3.
Midway through the first quarter, Jokic played two coverages on the same possession, stopped a Butler drive in drop coverage, turned to Adebayo, blocked a Max Struss 3 in at-the-level coverage, then forced a recovery back to Adebayo. A tough, breakthrough jumper Four seconds left on the shot clock.
Game 4 was the fourth time in his career (663 total games) that Jokic had (at least) three blocks and three steals. But he also had other big defensive plays. Late in the third quarter, Bruce Brown was backdoored by Cody Martin. But Jokic, who was waiting for another pick-and-roll at the time, saw the cut in his peripheral vision, slid, and Forced Martin into a turnover.
Jokic isn’t Hakeem Olajuwon, but he executes the game plan and doesn’t make mistakes.
2. Be more cautious
Jokic wasn’t the only one alert when a teammate needed help in Game 4. Caldwell-Pope A theft In the first quarter, he retreated
The screen and then the stress helped Brown to be sealed on the high side of the screen.
Perhaps the Nuggets’ biggest stop of the night came with just over seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. Jokic was benched with five fouls and Denver’s lead was just 6 as the Heat scored on their last three possessions. The Nuggets had some transition confusion as Brown and Jeff Green both cut Butler off Martin’s back door.
Aaron Gordon was on the other side of the lane with Adebayo, but he saw both his man and the ball, and Martin caught Kyle Lowry’s pass and was able to get to the rim. Martin threw the ball to Adebayo, who missed the floater on the green.
It’s not a terrible shot for the Heat, and it’s probably one that Adebayo wishes he had on top. But for the Nuggets, it was a much better shot than Martin’s layup, which Gordon was able to alertly (and hugely) block.
No defense has a perfect game, but the best ones clean up any mistakes quickly. When one nugget was scored in Game 4, there was often another to put out the fire.
3. Seamless transition
Switch confusion (and/or miscommunication) was one of the Nuggets’ biggest problems in that Game 2 loss. While Green and Brown were guarding the same guy on the play above, Denver’s transition has generally been better the past two games. There was a prime example of that early in the second quarter on Friday.
From a „Horns” formation, Duncan Robinson curled around Butler, then set a ball screen for Lowry and flipped the screen at the last second. But Christian Brown (who guarded Robinson) wasn’t fooled, and he was there to transition to Lowry, stopping his drive to the basket.
When Lowry threw a skip pass to Cody Zeller on the right side of the floor, Murray pushed Robinson back. But Gordon was there to switch to the shooter, and Murray was able to stay with Zeller’s roll, forcing the Heat to reset their offense with less than 10 seconds left on the shot clock.
That possession eventually changed Missed Butler 3 At the shot-clock buzzer. Brown’s quick feet and reactions were on display again early in the fourth quarter when Robinson couldn’t shake him. He deflected an Adebayo pass (Before Adebayo smothered a Murray fast-break).
4. Screen navigation
There are a lot of players in this league who would rather let themselves be taken out by a screen or give up a switch than work to keep up with their defensive work. Bruce Brown is not one of those players…
Sometimes, you have to follow a screen with a sniper. But you can still try to influence the shot from behind. Green has had some tough moments defensively in this series, but early in the fourth quarter, he switched to Robinson, trailed him around a hand-off, and forced him into an unbalanced 3 with a nice matchup from behind…
5. One on one
Sometimes, it’s about staying in front of the guy with the ball. Late in the third quarter, Brown closed in on Martin, stayed with him as he drove across the floor, and hounded him until he missed a tough shot from behind the backboard.
The Nuggets haven’t been a great defensive team this season, but they don’t have to be, as their offense is nearly unstoppable.
However, there is a difference between the level of defense you need to play to win in the regular season and the level you need to play in the Finals. The Nuggets have hit that level by playing hard, playing together, and being alert. If they make it to one more game, they’ll be NBA champions.
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John Schuhman is a senior statistical analyst for NBA.com. You can email him here, find his archive here and Follow him on Twitter.
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