Denver Nuggets: Previewing Potential Matchup with The Rockets

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /

The Rockets may prove to be a unique and challenging series for the Denver Nuggets should they face off in the playoffs. Can Denver exploit small ball?

As it stands now, the Denver Nuggets would be poised to play the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. Of all potential playoff matchups, this one makes the least sense for the Nuggets and creates the most questions. The Rockets have committed to small ball like no team before them and the Nuggets’ strength lies in their star big man. Something has to give in this matchup and it’s not clear what that will be.

When the Houston Rockets committed to small ball there were doubts about the ultimate success of a team built this way. Teams like the Denver Nuggets were brought up when questioning the logic of this move. Star center, Nikola Jokic, poses a problem for a Rockets team that plays PJ Tucker and Robert Covington as their centers, (6’5″ and 6’7″ respectively).

Guarding Nikola Jokic:

While there are few if any teams in the league that really have an answer for Jokic defensively, most at least have the size necessary to bother him a bit and get rebounds. The Rockets just don’t have that anymore. PJ Tucker has had occasional success bodying Jokic because of his low center of gravity, but Jokic has solved that puzzle in the past.

In previous matchups, the player who’s defended Jokic the best in the post was actually James Harden, but I can’t imagine he’ll want to bang with Jokic for an entire series. This leaves them with only one solution: bringing the double. Jokic will still find ways to score through the double at times, but it will force him to pass more.

This is likely to be the strategy of any team that faces the Nuggets in the playoffs. No one player can successfully shut Jokic down, but they can bring a double and force other players to beat them. So the real question about whether the Nuggets can dominate inside with Jokic will come down to whether or not the rest of the team can make the Rockets pay for the double team by hitting open shots.

Barton, Harris, Murray, and Millsap are all capable three-point shooters despite up and down seasons and should be to hit open looks that Jokic gets for them. Off the bench, Morris, MPJ, and Grant should be able to do the same and Torrey Craig is a wildcard that usually shoots better in the second half of the season. So the Denver Nuggets do have the personnel to make the Rockets pay for the double, it really just comes down to whether or not their shots are falling.

The Harden Problem

James Harden has always been a problem for the Nuggets, but fortunately, his pick and roll lob threat, Clint Capela, is no longer in Houston. While this limits the threat of the Nuggets losing Harden on picks at the top, it increases the threat of him driving right past their perimeter defenders.

Nuggets guards have to keep Harden in front of them, if he gets by their one-on-one coverage into the lane then it’s over: he’s either getting a bucket or passing out to the open man for a three when the help comes. This is the advantage of the five out game that the Rockets have committed too. Without a big man in the lane, any help has to come off of a shooter.

I think any team that faces off with the Rockets have to find creative ways to defend this team. I can imagine some teams going to a zone or perhaps a box and one to try and keep Harden out of the lane. I’m not sure the Denver Nuggets have the personnel to make that work, but there are other options.

When the Nuggets have found some success against Harden it’s when they’ve managed to double him on the perimeter and thus contain his drives to the rim. Normally this double has come off the pick and roll, but as they aren’t going to that play as much. I think you just have to consider doubling him whenever he’s handling the ball on the perimeter. The Nuggets defense will have more success scrambling around the perimeter to help and closeout, then they will sending help to stop a drive and then recovering to the perimeter.

Harden is the type of player you know you can’t stop, your only hope is to simply find ways to slow him down. I believe the Nuggets have a system that can do that, but it’s going to take some creative game planning from Malone and staff.

Denver’s Secret Weapon

Houston this year has been a real problem for a lot of teams because they have two very dangerous guards in Harden and Westbrook. Harden, I’ve already covered, but Westbrook is just a player I’m not all that concerned about it.

The reason for that lack of concern is Torrey Craig. Not only has Torrey Craig consistently been a Westbrook stopper in his career, but he’s also in Russ’s head. While I don’t have stats in front of me to back this up, I have to imagine that Craig averages roughly 2 blocks against Westbrook a game.

While his shutdown defense on Westbrook is great in and of itself, Westbrook knows he has his number. Westbrook has too much pride to let that go. It seems with every game Craig proves his ability to stop Westbrook, Russ just goes at him that much harder the next time.

The best thing that could happen for the Nuggets in a series with Houston is to have Westbrook out there trying to prove a point against a guy that just knows how to stop him.  He’s largely gotten away from being Westbrook the chucker this year which has been a revival for his career, but it seems like playing Craig is likely to bring that back out of him.

Ultimately, this is an unusual matchup and I really don’t know who’s going to pull out the win. Going small is usually used as a ploy to take opposing big men off the court and is usually not particularly successful against big men good enough to make small lineups pay.

Next. Denver Nuggets: Evaluating Michael Malone. dark

The Denver Nuggets certainly won’t take Jokic off the court just because the Rockets go small, and the Rockets really don’t have big men to go to if Jokic dominates the glass and scores at will in the post. I think this series is a coin toss and likely comes down to who happens to be shooting better on any given night.