For decades, the Denver Nuggets identity has been a fast-paced and offensively-minded franchise, but as this current iteration of the Nuggets continues to grow, it is becoming more and more apparent that their offensive output is no longer their defining trait.
At this point, this Nuggets team is a defensive unit first and foremost.
“I think our guys understand that for us to win, defense has to be the constant,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone explained. “The offense will come and go — we will make shots and some nights we might miss shots — but if defense is your anchor and your calling card, you are going to be able to win some games when your offense is not with you. In our losses this year, we have not defended anybody. I think our guys understand that. You have to understand why you win and why you lose in this league and our guys understand that defense is our common denominator.”
When the Nuggets defeated the Houston Rockets 105-95 on Wednesday night in the Mile High City, it was another example of the defensive identity that Denver has developed as they put together arguably their best defensive performance of the last five years against the most potent offense in the league and arguably the greatest individual scorer the world has ever seen in James Harden.
The Rockets came into the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver sporting an eight-game winning streak, a 21-game streak of scoring 100 points-or-more, and with James Harden on a war path averaging nearly 40 points per game. Additionally, the Nuggets had lost 10 of their last 11 games to the Rockets, who represented the Nuggets toughest matchup on their schedule so far.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, the Rockets winning streak was snapped as was their streak of 21-straight games with 100 points-or-more. Denver also held Harden to his second-lowest single-game point total of the season to add a cherry on top of their biggest win of the year.
There were a lot of variables that led to the Nuggets victory, but the most obvious reason was Denver’s dominant defense on Harden, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the Rockets roster.
The Nuggets were able to limit Westbrook’s effectiveness in a massive way as he shot 8-22 from the field on his way to an inefficient 25 points. His primary defender for most of the game was Will Barton III, who is continuing the best stretch of defense of his career.
“Just match his intensity,” Barton III explained when asked how he was able to slow Westbrook down. “Westbrook is a guy who comes at you with a lot of energy, he is very athletic, and he competes at a high level so I told myself that I have to be at that same level with him, try to make it hard for him, and keep him out of that paint because once he gets in there, he is a beast.”
Barton III did a fantastic job on denies, but he was not the only defender who thrived when checking Westbrook.
Torrey Craig — who has a history of defending Westbrook as well as anyone in the NBA, but has not logged 10 minutes-or-more of action in the prior five games — was a defensive demon all night as he collected three blocks and two steals in 16 minutes of action.
Despite Craig’s removal from the regular rotation, Malone knew that he was going to need Craig’s services to beat the Rockets. That is why Malone pulled Craig aside before the game to make sure he knew that his name was going to be called.
“I told Torrey after the last game and I said, ‘stay with me; it is a long year and you started 11 playoff games for us so I believe in you and just because you are not playing right now does not mean that you are not going to get your opportunity soon’,” Malone explained after Denver’s win over the Rockets. “Obviously with this game, I grabbed him this afternoon and said, ‘I need you to be locked in because you’re going to be playing tonight; with this matchup I am going to need you out there and I am going to need you to do what you do best’.”
Craig did exactly what his coach had hoped he would do.
“Torrey Craig was great,” Malone stated. “I knew going into this game that this is a tailor-made Torrey Craig type of game with a Russell Westbrook and with a James Harden.
“I think Torrey’s defense on James Harden, on Russell Westbrook, some of the hustle plays he made, and finishing in transition; those were key plays for us to keep them at bey in the fourth quarter.”
Harden managed to score 27 points, but that is more than 12 points less than his season average. Additionally, the Nuggets limited Harden to 10 free throw attempts, which is more than four less than his average this season. Harden also had eight turnovers and was more of a non-factor than his numbers convey.
When Craig was asked what allowed him to defend both Harden and Westbrook so well, he chalked it up to effort.
“I just tried to not give them space to get to their spots, always crowd them, make sure that you are in front of them at all times and contest every shot or lay in or anything else going to the rim,” Craig explained.”
Still, there was more to Denver’s performance than just limiting Harden and Westbrook. Denver sold out and doubled Harden regularly to get the ball out of his hands, but that also means the Nuggets were short-handed once they got Harden to swing the ball to a teammate.
In that situation, the rest of the Nuggets defenders have to scramble and rotate to keep the Rockets from getting wide open three-point attempts. Denver’s effort while scrambling on defense was just as important as limiting Harden and Westbrook.
“Just our activity; flying around and guys trusting one another,” Craig said when asked about the Nuggets scrambling mentality on defense. “If guys do make mistake, someone is there to cover for them and just figure it out on the back end. That comes with being heads up and everybody being locked in and engaged.”
The Rockets roster, not including Harden, shot 24-60 (40%) from the field, 8-30 (26.7%) from three-point range, and were not able to provide enough of a punch to make up for the lack of production from Harden.
When Malone was asked about Denver’s defensive performance, he also noted that his team followed the game plan to perfection.
“I think our guys were really bought into the game plan,” Malone explained in his postgame press conference. “Knowing that with James Harden, if you let him play one-on-one, he will beat you single handedly. In their eight-game win streak, he was accounting for 60 of their 118 points. We knew that we could not allow him to do that. We gave him different looks, we got the ball out of his hands, guys believed and executed, and that is what you have to do against great players. Obviously the game plan worked this time.”
Two years ago, the Nuggets would have likely turned their battle with the Rockets into a shootout, but as this team matures, their realization of how important defense is has taken a Nuggets team that was fun and young into a team that has an actual shot at winning their first NBA title.
“We know that to win at the level that we want to win at, we have to be one of those top defensive teams,” Barton III explained. “You cannot win at a high level if you don’t go out there and defend. We preach that in training camp, in our practices, and film pretty much every day.”
“They understand that when we defend like this, we can beat anyone in the NBA,” Malone explained. “Just imagine when we continue to defend at this level and then our offense picks up.”