Did the Denver Nuggets find a solution down the end of Game 2?

Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors is guarded by Aaron Gordon #50 of the Denver Nuggets in the second half during Game Two of the Western Conference First Round NBA Playoffs at Chase Center on 18 Apr. 2022 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors is guarded by Aaron Gordon #50 of the Denver Nuggets in the second half during Game Two of the Western Conference First Round NBA Playoffs at Chase Center on 18 Apr. 2022 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Game 2 against the Golden State Warriors entered garbage time well before the Denver Nuggets wanted it to and Nikola Jokic‘s ejection forced Michael Malone to play an interesting lineup. Could this glimmer be something the Nuggets can build on?

Let me preface this by saying that no Denver Nuggets lineup will ever be as good without Jokic on the court, but with how hot the Warriors shooters are right now, there might be merit in running some Aaron Gordon-at-the-five lineups out there.

In the fourth quarter, right after Jokic was ejected, AG was the nominal center and he was surrounded by four of Denver’s best shooters in Monte Morris, Bryn Forbes, Will Barton, and Austin Rivers.

The lineup didn’t play too well because it struggled to find offense all by itself and the team morale was at an all-time low with Jokic’s ejection and Golden State’s shooters hitting everything.

This lineup was able to switch absolutely everything on defense and since Draymond Green isn’t a threat with a smaller man on him, Malone wasn’t worried about a big-small matchup.

Jokic has grown considerably on the defensive end and part of that growth is due to his effort. In the past, he has always wanted to play a drop coverage on opposing pick-and-rolls but that’s suicidal against the Warriors with their off-the-dribble shooters.

Related Story. Why it's time to take Nikola Jokic serious on defense. light

This effort has helped Denver stay respectable on the defensive end in the regular season, ranking as the 15th-best defense this season and 11th last season per Cleaning the Glass. When an elite shooter is running off an on-ball screen, he’s able to hedge hard, contain the ball handler, before running back to the paint/his man.

Against 28 teams, it works well. In fact, I think it works very well and as long as the other team doesn’t have the greatest shooter in NBA history.

Unfortunately for the Nuggets, Steph Curry is the greatest shooter in NBA history and Jordan Poole is doing his best impression of that.

In the play above, Poole runs off two screens with the second being Jokic’s man, Kevon Looney. Monte gets caught on the first screen so Barton switched onto Poole before being taken out by Looney.

Jokic is actually in an alright position given he was late to react and if it’s any other shooter coming off the screen, they’re probably not as confident off the dribble. Nikola compounds his late reaction by following through and accidentally fouling Poole for a four-point play.

On a later possession, Jokic is up early enough on the Looney screen but a spaced-out floor is essentially a playground for Poole as he crosses back past the screen, escaping his man:

The idea behind a lineup with Aaron Gordon and smaller defenders is that the Denver Nuggets can be much more aggressive on screens with the athletic AG.

In the limited minutes that Malone played the smaller lineup, it was refreshing to see Gordon confident enough on screens to even step over the 3-point line.

Curry received a screen on Campazzo’s man but it wasn’t to exploit a matchup with a big man because AG’s fast enough to hang out there. If the Warriors actually saw him as a weakness, they would’ve been confident putting him on an island.

Aaron got beat on this play but it took a huge step back for Steph to get the space needed. It’s not like he walked into an open shot off one screen.

What can the Denver Nuggets do differently in Game 3?

While AG playing the center position is interesting in spurts, it’s not a long-term option since his shot isn’t there through two games and the offense doesn’t exist without Nikola Jokic.

If it’s worth Malone putting Gordon on the screener wherever possible, he could do something the Warriors actually did in the Finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. In those series, LeBron kept calling for screens with Curry’s man and the Warriors did their best to switch off ball as the man came to screen.

It worked about half the time but even when it worked, it took multiple screens before the Cavs got the matchup they liked. By the time James was ready to score on the smaller defender, he was working with half a shot clock.

The Denver Nuggets could try switching Gordon onto Jokic’s man when he (Looney or Green) tries to set a screen. The only problem here is that if the Warriors see what’s going on, they could just keep calling for screens elsewhere or pass to an open shooter when the two Denver bigs try and switch players.

Another downside here is that Jokic would likely be dragged out to the perimeter if Golden State goes with a four or five-out system. This would drag him, and his rim protection, away from the basket.

It’s such a hard call for Malone to make and compounding on the defensive issues, the Nuggets are struggling to score with Green’s defense on Jokic. Yes, the Serbian is getting his numbers but he’s not drawing double-teams and in turn, finding open shooters like he’s used to.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if there were two elite scorers flanking him on the wings like Michael Porter Jr. or Jamal Murray, but that doesn’t look likely.

If neither of them returns and if the Nuggets can’t find offense elsewhere, this could be a very short series.

Next. Aaron Gordon needs to step up on offense. dark