Five improvements made in Game 4 that could help the Nuggets extend the series

Apr 24, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Austin Rivers (25) celebrates in the second half against the Denver Nuggets of the first round for the 2022 NBA playoffs at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

After a strong showing in Game 4, the Denver Nuggets feel they have found ways to defeat a dominant Golden State Warriors team, but that does not minimize the Nuggets being in a 3-1 hole once again in a playoff series.

Did Denver find a recipe for success in Game 4? Can those improvements carry over into Game 5 despite it being in Golden State? What can Denver do to extend the series?

Let’s dive in.

Nikola Jokic’s brilliance so far has been wildly understated

Believe it or not, despite all of the largely worthless and incredibly toxic discourse surrounding the high likelihood of Nikola Jokic winning his second-consecutive Most Valuable Player award, Jokic has been superb in the playoffs.

Yes, the Nuggets are down 3-1 and are barely holding on for dear life as they head to San Fransisco for Game 5 in Chase Center, that is why they are +2200 to win the series according to FanDuel Sportsbook, but hang tight for a second. While most people have looked to use the Nuggets series deficit against the Warriors as a way to discredit Jokic, it is easy to forget his 31.3 points per game lead all players in the postseasons thus far. Oh, and he is doing so despite being guarded by arguably the greatest defender of all time in Draymond Green and with the Warriors building their defensive game plan to specifically stop specifically Jokic from beating them.

It has not mattered. When Jokic has been on the court, he has had his way as a scorer. Of players taking 15 or more shots per game in the playoffs so far, Jokic leads them all with 55.7% shooting from the field. Yes, Jokic is not only scoring the most points of anyone still playing, but he is also scoring more efficiently than anyone else as well. He has simply been the most dominant scorer of the first round of the playoffs so far.

Of course, as Jokic has done since arriving in the NBA from Serbia, he has also stuffed the stat sheet beyond just scoring. He is grabbing 11.8 rebounds per game and dishing out 5.3 assists per game — a number that should be much higher if his teammates could convert the open looks he is creating for them. That being said, Jokic is averaging 4.5 turnovers per game which is a number that has to come down.

Aaron Gordon and Austin Rivers’ suffocating defense changed Game 4

Outside of Jokic, there was no bigger difference maker in Game 4 than the defense played by both Aaron Gordon and Austin Rivers.

Yes, Stephen Curry still had 33 points on 23 shots, but Rivers limited the former MVP to just 3 of 11 shooting from 3-point range and 43.5% shooting from the field. If not for the 14 free throw attempts Curry got, his night would have looked much different. Overall, Rivers was able to limit Curry enough which allowed the Nuggets to stay out of a scramble on defense; a vastly underrated storyline from Game 4.

Denver is most vulnerable when they have to commit two players to a Warriors perimeter threat; on or off the ball. That forces the other three Nuggets defenders to check four members of the Warriors roster. With a team as dangerous and cohesive as Golden State, allowing them to essentially play four-on-three is a death sentence. Rivers being able to stick with Curry allowed the Nuggets to defend the Warriors without committing two defenders that far from the rim. Because of that simple repercussion of Rivers’ tenacity on Curry, Denver’s defense was improved across the board.

The same can also be said for Gordon, who limited to Poole to just 11 points in nearly 39 minutes of action. After the first three games of the series, Poole was the Warriors leading scorer and his presence alongside Curry and Klay Thompson game the Warriors so much spacing it broke the Nuggets defense. In Game 4, Malone elected to put Gordon on Poole from the very start and he virtually eliminated Poole from the game.

Once Denver no longer had two commit two defenders to either Curry or Poole, their communication and execution dramatically improved which connected all five Nuggets players on the floor on defense in a way not seen all postseason. Suddenly, Denver was switching seamlessly, helping each other, communicating with one another loudly and often, and it elevated their defensive production.

Denver will need more of the same in Game 5.

Bones Hyland as the Denver Nuggets X-factor gives the Denver Nuggets reserves the lift they need

Forget the playoffs; all season long, Denver has fallen off a cliff as soon as Jokic went to the bench for a reprieve. Yes, there were some good moments sprinkled in here and there, but ultimately, Denver drowned as soon as Jokic left the court.

As everyone has seen, that trend continued into the first round of the playoffs against the Warriors. Denver just does not have the talent or offensive creation when Jokic is on the bench; well, unless Bones Hyland is cooking like hot grease.

Let’s get this out of the way first; it is entirely unfair to put so much responsibility on the shoulders of a rookie lead guard who is as thin as his first name suggests while playing on the road in an elimination game against the previously dynastic Golden State Warriors. How could any rookie expect to perform in such an adverse circumstance? Well, Hyland is no normal rookie.

Hyland is fearless and no better evidence of that fact is him having 15 points on 5-10 shooting in Game 4 as the Nuggets stared down elimination and being swept out of the playoffs. At no point did it look like the moment was too big for Hyland, who also chipped in  seven assists as well. He had three-straight 3-pointers in the second quarter to help the Nuggets carry a lead into halftime and never let off the gas. He, alongside DeMarcus Cousins who had ten points of his own, helped the Nuggets stay afloat with Jokic on the bench.

Denver will need exactly that type of production in Game 5 as well.

An aggressive Monte Morris is the best Monte Morris for the Denver Nuggets

For years, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone has preached that statement.

“An aggressive Monte Morris is the best Monte Morris,” Malone has regularly said.

There is no time that is more true than right now. With Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. still out with their respective injuries, Denver has desperately needed a starting guard to pick up the responsibility of being Denver’s second go-to scorer. At points Will Barton III has been that player and at other times, it has been Aaron Gordon, but for the Nuggets to be the best version of themselves, Morris has to accept that role and run with it.

In Game 4, that is exactly what he did as he finished with 24 points on 11 shots and five-made 3-pointers; all of which came in the third quarter to keep a surging Warriors team at bay.

Morris is one of the only players, other than Barton, who can be threatening in the two-man game with Jokic. Morris is also one of the few players who can light it up from beyond the 3-point line. His combination of on-and-off ball scoring is hyper-important and Denver needs him to tap into those two points of emphasis and thrive. Without him impacting the game as he did in Game 4, the Nuggets have little chance to extend the series. It is not an easy ask, but it is a task Morris can complete.

If the Denver Nuggets are not the more physical team, they have no shot of extending the series

This is a much less tangible request of the Nuggets, but that should not dilute its importance. The Nuggets much punch the Warriors first and punch often. Without Denver asserting themselves on the Warriors – even in Chase Center – it will be tough for the Nuggets to keep up with Golden State.

Once the Warriors control the pace of the game, it is usually over for their opponents. Golden State is lethal when they attack unset defenses off turnovers, missed shots, or even off made shots if their opponent is slow to get back. Once they start pushing the pace, they begin creating easier shots for themselves because they find mismatches and advantages abasing unsettled defenses. As those easier shots become made shots, Golden State also is able to set their stout defense on the other end of the floor making it even harder for their opponent to score.

Denver cannot let that script come true.

Denver needs to get Jokic scoring inside early and often to collapse the Warriors defense, but from there they also need to get role players to convert open looks from 3-point range. To do that, Denver has to set strong screens and play physical basketball in the paint which will hopefully get the Warriors in foul trouble once again.

On defense, Denver has to stay in the airspace of the Warriors 3-point threats of Curry, Poole, and Thompson. If they allow any of the three of those snipers to get comfortable and shoot without strong contest, Denver’s season will come to a quick end.

Physicality does not require talent or skill; it is simply a desire and determination. Will the Nuggets find it within themselves to play that way on the road facing elimination? Only time will tell.

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