With two minutes left in the fourth quarter — in a game the Golden State Warriors led the Denver Nuggets by as much as 18 points — the Nuggets chipped away at the deficit using hard-nosed defense and efficient offense.
You can pinpoint several things in the film as to where the Nuggets capitalized on the Warriors’ shortcomings and preyed on their lack of urgency and control. But two readily stand out — both of which involve the same exact play.
There are plenty of reasons the Nuggets are the defending NBA Champions. Of course, the main reason is that they happen to have arguably the best basketball player in the world in Nikola Jokić — who is bolstered with a second star in Jamal Murray, burgeoning offensive firepower in Michael Porter Jr, and complementary role players in Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
But they are also champions because they are an extremely intelligent team — well drilled, disciplined, and have the ability to execute to near perfection when at their absolute best. They weren’t born yesterday, either; they know their opponents well and are experts at picking them apart at the seams.
The Nuggets happened to smell blood in the water when the clock reached the two-minute mark. They knew that the Warriors’ current lineup at the time — Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Dario Šarić, and Trayce Jackson-Davis — had chinks in the armor.
The obvious one: the undersized backcourt. At 6-foot-2 and 6-feet, Curry and Paul present problems for the Warriors in terms of matchups, and how they have to shuffle them around based on said matchups. But no matter how much shuffling and hiding around is done, there is always going to be a weakness present — and the Nuggets saw it right away.
Just like the Warriors, the Nuggets aren’t a team that relies heavily on the pick-and-roll. In terms of pick-and-roll possessions per game (27.5) and percentage of team possessions (25.1%), they are dead last in the league, per Synergy. It’s not a common sight for them to spam ballscreens endlessly in a bread-and-butter manner — it’s just not how they operate offensively.
But on two consecutive offensive possessions in crunch time, the Nuggets not only went to a ballscreen against the Warriors — they set two of them, in what is typically referred to as a “double drag” alignment.
There are plenty of reasons why they would go to two staggered ballscreens — but before that, here’s the first of the two scoring possessions that involved double drag:
Now, to point out where things went wrong for the Warriors — all of which involved a mix of botched execution, lineup choices, and matchup problems:
- The first notable thing is how Curry fails to match up onto Caldwell-Pope in transition — off of a made basket. This results in Curry being out of position in the double drag, unable to switch onto Murray around the first screen (which is how most teams defend the first screen in a double drag alignment) and allowing Murray to split his way into the paint.
- Šarić guarding Jokić, which means he’s involved in the ballscreen action instead of Jackson-Davis, who’s guarding Gordon. There’s logic behind this matchup situation, akin to what the Los Angeles Lakers tried to accomplish in the 2023 Western Conference Finals — Šarić on Jokić allows Jackson-Davis to be a roamer and help-side defender who can sag off of a non-shooting threat in Gordon. But the consequence: Šarić, an inferior ballscreen defender compared to Jackson-Davis, can be hunted down on pick-and-roll possessions, like the double drag above.
- Paul — hidden on Peyton Watson in the weak-side corner — is the low man who makes the next rotation against dribble penetration. Once Murray blows past the point of attack, Paul must rotate into the paint, which opens the kickout to Watson, a below-league-average three-point shooter. But Paul’s commitment to the help and his short stature — making any closeouts negligible due to the height difference — gives Watson all the breathing room in the world to drill the huge three.
- A less obvious quirk of the double drag, but important nonetheless: involving a third defender in the ballscreen action eliminates a second weak-side defender from the equation, which means there is no one to zone up and “X-out” toward Watson to help the helper (Paul).
The obvious adjustment to make at this point would have been to insert either Andrew Wiggins or Jonathan Kuminga in the lineup — replacing Paul — to defend Murray, which would slide Thompson onto Watson. At 6-foot-6, Thompson is better equipped to be the low man.
Which is exactly what Steve Kerr does the next defensive possession over: inserting Wiggins in Paul’s place and having him defend Murray. Curry is able to match up this time, which allows him to switch onto Murray around the first screen.
But watch what the Nuggets do in response:
The matchup on Murray changed. The low man changed. And Curry was able to match up. But one key aspect stayed the same: Šarić was still on Jokić, while Jackson-Davis was still on Gordon.
As a result, Šarić was still forced into the ballscreen action. He steps up to the level of the screen against Murray to help Curry, which opens the pass to the rolling Jokić. Jackson-Davis must then step up to cover the roll, which opens the lob to Gordon in the dunker spot. Wiggins is hesitant to sink in against Gordon to help-the-helper — due to Caldwell-Pope hovering nearby, ready to catch a potential kickout pass for the three.
This is where the questionable decision to bench Kuminga for the rest of the game comes in. In addition to being a team-best plus-6 and scoring 16 points on seven shots, him being on the floor for both of the possessions above would’ve allowed Jackson-Davis — an excellent pick-and-roll defender, especially in drop coverage — to be involved in the double drag instead of Šarić.
Kerr’s reasons for not playing Kuminga down the stretch failed to answer questions — and brought up even more of them.
“He was playing great,” Kerr said. “His normal time to go back in would have been around the five (or) six-minute mark. Wiggs was playing great, we were rolling, we were up 18, 19, whatever it was, and so we just stayed with him. Then at that point, it didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do. He had been sitting for a while, so I stayed with the group that was out there and obviously we couldn’t close it out.”
Here’s Steve Kerr on the decision not to go back to Jonathan Kuminga for the final 18 minutes tonight. pic.twitter.com/8ydWqtgS3X— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) January 5, 2024
The two possessions above of the Nuggets straying away from their play-type script — all in the name of winning — is what separates defending champions and championship contenders from pretenders.