3 Adjustments Nuggets must make to take stranglehold of series

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets /
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Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets /

2) Get Jamal Murray out of the defensive action

Let’s acknowledge two things before we criticize Murray. One, he’s been fighting a nasty bug that has gone through the Nuggets like a hot knife through butter; he’s not 100%. And two, he played an incredible offensive game, repeatedly hitting difficult shots and putting immense pressure on the Lakers’ defense.

But Murray’s own defense was a real problem.

The Nuggets have rarely been a switching defense this season; while they have decent-to-great defenders at most positions, they don’t always have particularly versatile ones. Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr., and Murray aren’t at their best on an island against different-sized opponents. Instead, they prefer to show against the screen and then recover back to their man.

And yet, in an attempt to slow Los Angeles’ flamethrowers Monday night, coach Malone pressed the “switch” button on the controller. The result was LeBron James repeatedly and effectively backing down a helpless, flailing Jamal Murray in isolation. James scored or drew the foul on numerous occasions. It got so bad that Malone was forced to use a coach’s challenge not to overturn a play but to convince the officials that a certain foul had occurred on Jokic and not Murray (the challenge was both successful and vital!).

Eventually, the Nuggets tried returning to their normal defense against LeBron, but the Lakers took advantage of that system to repeatedly attack Murray anyway. Murray did more than show; he aggressively hedged and soft-trapped LeBron, so LeBron repeatedly went to a simple pick-and-pop with Austin Reaves, waited until he had both defenders out of position, and then made the easy pass to Reaves for open threes. (At one point, Murray literally ran into Aaron Gordon when trying to recover back to Reaves — not great!)

LeBron James has not been a reliable three-point shooter this postseason — he’s canning just one in every four tries. So instead of ceding soft switches or aggressively trapping like he’s Steph Curry, the Nuggets should trust their base defense. They don’t need to overreact to every LeBron pick-and-roll.

Murray eventually started guarding Dennis Schroder, a significantly worse shooter than Reaves. That should be a permanent fix. (I’d even try Murray on Jarred Vanderbilt if that option is available). But the help defense needs to be a little quicker to help on Murray’s man if he’s drawn too far away.

The best option, albeit one that will be difficult to implement, is to try to pre-switch when Denver sees the pick-and-roll coming. Although LeBron will only be momentarily delayed, there is danger in having tunnel vision on Murray. The shot clock becomes LA’s enemy.

Finally, perhaps the Nuggets should try some zone for a bit. Per Synergy, Denver ran zone 3.3% of the time during the regular season (a little more than average) and had mild success. It’s not a long-term solution, but for a couple of possessions here or there, it at least makes the Lakers think and slows the pick-and-roll onslaught.