As I write this the Denver Nuggets are 16-7 after beating the best team in the NBA in the Toronto Raptors and good for top dog in a very crowded Western Conference. Denver has won a lot of games in this young season in a variety of ways with a variety of stars on any given night. However, there’s one constant with the Nuggets: Defense. They are tied with Indiana for first in points allowed, giving up just over 101 points per game. When Mike Malone took over as head coach he promised to bring a defensive mentality to Denver. Now in his fourth season, it appears his team of young stars is finally buying in. Paul Millsap, after finally recovering from a broken wrist, is looking like the big time free agent Denver signed up for while Mason Plumlee’s toughness and energy pays the perfect compliment to a well disciplined unit. Defensively for the Nuggets it’s all about the team first decision making; They know when to switch, when to help, when to trust a teammate and so on. Playing solid defense is not just knowing your assignment it’s knowing what the other four guys are doing on the floor. Malone has Denver working as a well oiled machine and it’s beautiful to watch. And how could you talk defense without discussing Gary Harris? To me, he’s one of the most sound overall players on the roster, perhaps in the league. Do they have things to work on yet? Certainly. A great team will never be good enough in their mind. But so far, they are brining a style of hoops to the mile high city that was sorely missed and desperately needed.
Yes, that defense is good. But what about the offense? In particularly, the late game, clutch offense? So far, they’ve won tight games in just about every way imaginable. Sometimes it’s a last second block like the one Juan Hernangomez had early against Golden State. Sometimes it’s a last second put back from Paul Millsap or a big 3 by Garry Harris. It’s entertaining to see a guy on any given night be the stud. Form time to time Malik Beasley or Tre Lyles might have just as good a shot at leading the team in scoring than a Jamal Murray or Nikola Jokic. What’s not to love?
It reminds me of the 57 win team George Karl constructed about 7 years ago in Denver. They were fun. Not a defensive team like Malone’s team but they played team basketball in a similar style. Gallo, Chandler, Lawson, Faried and Andre Iguodala could put on quite the show. But when it came down to the wire, or crunch time who was the guy to take the shot? Sure, like the 2018 Nuggets, it could be 1 of 3 maybe 4 guys. But in the playoffs, when all the pressure is screaming in your face and a hungry defense is on the attack, who has the mental and physical skill set to take over a game? We wanted it to be Gallo. He just never became THE guy. A very good player, maybe even a Nuggets great, but other than getting to the foul line late, he wasn’t a consistent closer.
Should that be a concern now? As much as I believe in Jokic and Murray I am not sure they are ready for that role. Again, I firmly believe Murray has the tools to be BETTER than Steph Curry and Jokic is a star but when it’s all on the line, who takes you to the mountain? Paul Millsap? He can win games and is playing his best basketball since signing with Denver last year but I don’t think any Nuggets fan thinks he is your go to. Honestly, at this point, it’s Garry Harris. The best defensive player and now, he’s your best shot at winning the big one late. Not only is he the smartest player on the team, but more importantly, the most confident. He’s unselfish yet knows when he needs to score the ball. Murray and Jokic often make one too many passes when they should be the one to attempt a shot. Harris looks for an opening to score which often results in points or an open pass off the penetration. He’s decisive. What hurts Murray and Jokic’s game the most is the uncertainty. Earlier in the season, Malone said he had to tell his guys that they were good. Not hard to believe. I truly think Joker and Murray have the ability to be two of the best players in the NBA but do they believe that? Harris knows he can beat anyone, anytime. The others think they can win but do they trust themselves personally to win in crunch time? Trust me, having Garry Harris be THE guy for Denver is great. He’s my favorite player on this roster. But if the Nuggets are serious about this whole contender thing, The Blue Arrow or the Joker will need to transition into a closer.