Gary Harris’ ‘first-team’ defense has helped Nuggets neutralize star players

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) controls the ball as Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) guards in the second quarter at the Pepsi Center.
Nov 26, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) controls the ball as Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) guards in the second quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

As the media entered the Denver Nuggets locker room after the Nuggets last two wins, there has been a common phrase being used by Gary Harris’ teammates.

“First team,” Will Barton III screamed when Harris was being interviewed by media after the Nuggets win against the Suns.

“First team,” Monte Morris repeated after Barton III.

“First team,” Torrey Craig yelled during Harris’ interview as well which prompted a smirk and a chuckle from Harris.

Yes, these moments were full of smiles and laughs, but this Nuggets locker room is not kidding. Harris’ teammates fully believe that Harris has been nothing short of a first-team all-defense type of player this season and they have a good point.

“That man right there,” Jamal Murray said as he pointed across the locker room at Harris’ locker. “He has done a great job — an amazing job. Every good player that comes in here or every star player that comes in here, he does a great job of just taking away what they do best.

“We are not joking around with the ‘first team’. He has been showing it; not just in one game and not just two games, but all season long.”

When Mason Plumlee was asked how much credit Harris deserves for the Nuggets dominant defense this year, he answered with the same two words that had been echoing through the Nuggets locker room for the past week.

“First team,” Plumlee answered.

The biggest boost that Harris provides on the defensive end of the floor is his ability to defend the opposing teams best player which is like, as Plumlee put it, “cutting off the head”.

This season — and in years past — Harris has been matched up with the toughest guard or forward on the opposing team and he has done a fantastic job with those tough match-ups.

This year, in 16 games, Harris has already defended the likes of C.J. McCollum, Devin Booker twice, Luka Doncic, Jrue Holiday, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Bradley Beal and none of those players have been able to get the best of Harris.

McCollum only could muster 12 points on 5-18 shooting when the Portland Trail Blazers lost to the Nuggets in their first game of the year. So far, that is McCollum’s second-worst scoring night of the season.

Booker has played the Nuggets twice and is shooting 11-34 from the field and 2-17 from three-point range combined in those two games while committing 10 total turnovers. Booker’s two lowest-scoring games of the season both came in the two games against Harris and the Nuggets.

When Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks took on the Nuggets, Harris was the primary defender on Doncic for most of the night. In that game, Doncic had just 12 points, which is a season-low in scoring, and eight turnovers, which is a season high.

When the Nuggets hosted the Brooklyn Nets, Harris ended up defending Irving more often than not and helped limit him to 8-20 shooting from the field and 1-5 on 3-pointers for just 17 points, which is still the second-least points Irving has scored in a game this season.

Against the Houston Rockets’ star-studded backcourt, Harris continued making life difficult as Harden and Westbrook combined to shoot 16-38 from the field and 6-17 from three-point range. Harden had his second-lowest scoring total of the season as Harris contiually made life difficult for the perinnial MVP candidate.

Now, most recently, Harris was tasked with slowing Bradley Beal of the Wizards and Harris came through once again as Beal scored a season-low 14 points.

“You always want to make it difficult for the other teams best player so you game plan for that,” Malone explained. “I just gave Gary a lot of love in there because that is back to back games guarding two of the better shooting guards in the NBA and — not that he did it all by himself — but he did the lions share of work. When you hold Bradley Beal to 6-15, 2-10 from three and he only got to the foul line twice, those are great numbers.”

Simply stated, the Nuggets league-leading defensive rating would not be where it is without having Harris leading the charge at the point of attack. Yes, the Nuggets have other strong defenders in Paul Millsap, Barton III, Jerami Grant, Plumlee and others, but everything starts on the perimeter with Harris taking on the challenge of slowing the opponents best backcourt player.

Without Harris’ ability to take on the toughest perimeter threat, the rest of the defense would suffer.

“That speaks for itself,” Murray explained when asked how much Harris’ defense helps the team. “He can lock down the best player and make other guys make plays that they are not used to making which is going to be a better night for us. Night in and night out, I think he is doing a great job. He is in a groove right now getting stops.”

So what is it that is allowing Harris to thrive when guarding incredibly talented offensive players? Barton III essentially gave a full scouting report on his close friend when asked by Mile High Sports after the Nuggets 117-104 win over the Wizards.

“He has great size for his position, he is strong, he is athletic, he has great hands, he has the instincts, his ability to stay low, chase over screens, fight through screens, blow screens up, and then he takes pride in it,” Barton III explained to Mile High Sports when asked about how Harris is able to limit star players. “He knows we count on him to be our lock down defender and every night he does it.”

Harris’ defensive ability is so incredible that even Jamal Murray, his backcourt partner, has nightmares about being defended by him.

“He guarded me once in the scrimmage and I couldn’t even get open,” Murray explained while laughing. “I couldn’t even get the ball.”

Additionally, Murray revealed that he watched Harris’ defense to learn how to be a better defender himself.

“It is funny becuase I actually watch his highlights on defense and watch how he moves his feet and little stuff; passing angles he takes, trying to mix up my unders and overs in pick and rolls and stuff to find the right path to get there,” Murray explained. “He is definitley someone I can learn from.”

Still, after all of the “first team” chants from his teammates, all of the defensive stops against the best offensive contributors in the NBA, all of the compliments from his head coach, Harris is still not satisfied.

He knows this Nuggets team is still far from their best and has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.

“We are getting there,” Harris stated. “We are getting better each game. We are still trying to put it all together, but I like the progress we have right now.”

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