Nuggets’ Michael Malone says Lakers’ Jokic strategy isn’t new

Ohm Young MisukESPN Writer18 May 2023, 09:234 minute read

DENVER — As the Nuggets watched the footage of their Game 1 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, they saw something they had seen before.

If the Lakers think they could have found a defensive wrinkle by putting Rui Hachimura on Nikola Jokic like they did in the fourth quarter of Game 1, the Nuggets say they know exactly how to counter the tactic, having seen it as recently as the first round against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“We’re doing a lot (of being) them putting Rui Hachimura over Nikola Jokic,” Denver head coach Michael Malone said after the team’s movie session on Wednesday. “Like we’ve never seen this before.”

The Nuggets have a 1-0 lead in this best-of-seven Western Conference Finals after Jokic posted his third straight playoff triple-double with 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists to go with two blocks. Jokic had 12 of his first 15 shots and had 31 points, 19 rebounds and 12 assists by the end of the third quarter.

But after the Lakers put the 6-foot-8 Hachimura on Jokic, allowing Anthony Davis to roam the paint, Jokic was limited in the fourth quarter to three points on 0-of-2 shooting to go with two rebounds and two passes while committing two turnovers.

That, along with scoring 72 points in the second half, helped the Lakers close a 21-point deficit three times late in the fourth. So, even though the Nuggets managed to win Game 1, there was a sense that the Lakers came out of the game with some momentum and perhaps an effective defensive strategy on Jokic.

“There’s this kind of discussion based (that) even though the Lakers lost, they get out of here, they think they’ve got something,” Malone said. “I bet you every red penny I have that Darvin Ham would rather be up 1-0 than down 0-1.

“So for us to be able to watch a movie after a win and show all the things we did wrong is a great situation.”

The Nuggets say they’ll be ready to counter the Lakers if they decide to put Hachimura back on Jokic to let Davis roam.

They said they saw similar tactics from Golden State, which used Draymond Green as a kind of free safety against Jokic in the first round last year; of Philadelphia, which sometimes put PJ Tucker on Jokic to free Joel Embiid; and Minnesota, which tried to let Rudy Gobert float in the paint in the first round last month.

“As a team, we’ve seen all there is to see in how teams will try to protect Nikola,” said Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. “It may have surprised us. a bit in this late second half but watching the movie I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for us then we know how to counter that when they carry AD ball and AD roams a bit it opens stuff at the back, so we just have to execute.”

A potential counter for the Nuggets could be to spread things out with shooters and move Aaron Gordon. The Nuggets have executed ball-screen actions where Gordon is in the dunker spot 86 times this postseason, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. The Nuggets are averaging 1.30 points per direct pick, above the postseason league average of 1.01. They scored eight runs on four ball screens when Jokic was paired with Davis with Gordon in the dunker position.

However, of the five games where Gordon was at dunk point and Jokic was defended by a smaller player with Davis roaming, the Nuggets did not generate a single point in Game 1.

Davis said he’ll have to be up for the challenge of guarding Jokic or wandering in defense while still sticking with Gordon.

“That’s why they pay me a lot of money,” Davis said. “I have to understand. And I have to help everyone. That’s my job in this team, to help everyone defensively, to protect the guys.”

For the Lakers, they will have to try to unlock D’Angelo Russell, who scored just eight points and did not play in the fourth quarter.

Nuggets guard Bruce Brown said one of the team’s goals is to “make it hard” for Russell on the defensive end and “just hit him” on the offensive end.

“We attacked them, we knocked D-Lo out of the game,” Brown said of Denver’s early transition game. “That was our goal, to involve him in everything.”

Brown added: “He’s not the best defender, but he’s definitely trying. So just try to attack his feet.”

More than anything, the Nuggets are preparing for the Lakers to have a better start to Game 2 after falling behind 30-14 in the first eight minutes and more on Tuesday night.

“We gave them confidence, we let them back into the game,” Brown said. “So we’re going to have to go out and hit them in the mouth first.”

ESPN’s Dave McMenamin contributed to this report.

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