Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Gary Harris and Mason Plumlee defending Klay Thompson
Betting odds: Sacramento Kings at Denver Nuggets
- Spread: Nuggets -11
- Over/Under: 227.5
- Time: 9 p.m. ET
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The Denver Nuggets are 3-0 in the most unexpected way possible: their defense.
Through the first week of play, the Nuggets, a bottom-five team in defense each of the past three seasons, are No. 1.
Now, let me assure you, some of this is noise. The Nuggets will not finish No. 1 on defense. It will not happen.
However, it’s notable how much different their defensive effort has been this season relative to what it was in 2017-18.
Effort is a painful word in NBA conversations. Fans don’t understand how at this level, with this much money, it can be an issue. Coaches don’t understand how, with this level of competition, it can be lacking. And players, honestly, are often at a loss for words as to why it’s absent at times.
But on defense, effort honestly does make all the difference.
Much of it is about the mental effort to stay aware and be in a position where you can actually close out on a shooter.
If a player can’t get there, he won’t run the guy off. But once you start working together and anticipating, it opens up the kind of effort that makes a difference.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone singled out this sequence from Denver’s win over Phoenix on Saturday as a perfect example, despite it ending in a made 3-pointer from a great shooter:
The Nuggets are hedging in the pick and roll, bringing the big up to tag the man with the ball before recovering to give the guard time to get past the screen.
That requires a help defender to step up to the roll man. Which means you have to either help the helper or run off the corner pass here hard.
But when the ball gets swung again, after the first run-off, a second run-off comes.
Gary Harris and Paul Millsap have been particularly good, especially when playing together. The two sport an 80.3 defensive rating.
Harris has always had the capacity to be an impact defender, but as his offensive game grew, the defensive side slid. He’s been locked in so far this season.
Check out this sequence below against Klay Thompson. Now, Thompson just missed shots Sunday — shots he’ll usually make and shots he’ll often make vs. Harris who gives up between 3 and 3.5 inches in this matchup.
But watch him track Thompson around the screens and slide his body in between to force him back and into a contested fadeaway.
Nikola Jokic’s effort has also been much better this season, with him showing more awareness on rotations and stronger inside play. And the Basketball Gods have rewarded him, as opponents are missing good looks on switches.
Via NBA.com, opponents have shot 3-of-16 from beyond 15 feet against Jokic this season, and Synergy Sports reports opponents shooting 4-of-14 overall on jump shots with him defending.
Cumulatively, Denver is crushing it in key metrics. The Nuggets rank second in opponent effective field goal percentage, sixth in opponent turnover percentage and first in preventing extra possessions by offensive rebound. Denver is also currently second in transition defense after being one of the worst teams last season.
All of this could be early smoke and mirrors.
Again, Defense is about effort, and effort is easy to bring in October when you’re fresh. It’s harder in December, in the dog days of January, in March when you’re exhausted.
But Denver is at least getting a sense for how this can work. And maybe most exciting for the Nuggets and terrifying for the league: Denver’s hellacious offense is 25th in effective field goal percentage, despite creating good looks off high-quality ball movement.
Even if the defense slips some, if the Nuggets can hold it together while their offense gets cooking?
Things could get really interesting in Denver in a hurry.
More key numbers to know:
- Denver is 3-0 against the spread, and unders are 3-0 in the Nuggets’ games this season. On Tuesday, Denver faces a red-hot Kings team that has seen all three of its games go over the total and just knocked off the Thunder. Denver’s been one of the best home teams in the league dating back to last season, when it went 31-10 ATS.
- Nikola Jokic +4000 to win MVP at Bet365: There were real, loud MVP chants for Jokic at Saturday’s night game vs. the Suns, the first time I’ve ever heard MVP chants for a Nuggets player at Pepsi Center in six years of coverage. Jokic finished that night with a 35-point triple double in which he did not miss a shot and had no turnovers.
- He’s an interesting option for MVP, but the numerous things that would need to happen remain unrealistic. He’s facing such a huge attention gap from everyone else, and his personality will never demand it, nor will he stat pad to boost his case. This number has great return for how good he is, but I still can’t believe Jokic will really be in the MVP conversation come the New Year.