The Sixth Man: Five requirements for Denver to steal Game 5
With a win on Sunday, the Denver Nuggets won their first playoff game since the 2020 bubble run. That year included two separate playoff victories down 3-1, and the Nuggets are looking to rekindle the same success this year. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked higher because this year is a different beast. Unlike 2020, the Nuggets will walk into arguably the best home-court advantage in Golden State. They will also face four All-Stars, three future Hall of Fame players, and another budding star in Jordan Poole.
When you look at this series as a whole, it looks extremely unlikely that the Nuggets overcome this deficit or even win Game 5. Both of their losses in Golden State have been by 16 or more points, and they found a way to prevent Jokic from completely dominating the game in their own arena. Yet when you view this contest individually, there is a lot more hope for Denver fans.
Jokic is coming off his second 37-point outing, and the pairing of Gordon and Morris combined for 45 points in Game 4. Not only can that success foster confidence, but they might be the most confident team when down 3-1. They have been in this type of deficit before, and they understand you can’t win three games at once. It starts with each individual play and making sure every player leaves everything they have on the court that night. That is how they played in Game 4, and if they can maintain that same energy, they will be in a position to win Game 5.
With that being said, energy cannot be the only factor in a win against the dynasty that is the Golden State Warriors. There has to be constant execution paired with intense energy. The energy will offer opportunity, but the opportunity cannot be seized without execution.
Here are five details that need to be accomplished for Denver to steal Game 5:
A spectacular Nikola Jokic
Not good, not great—spectacular. Those are the expectations one puts on themself when they become a legend in the game. Jokic is entering legendary status by being on the verge of back-to-back MVPs, but as he knows and believes, the MVPs can be empty without victories. In all likelihood, the Nuggets are going to need a gigantic effort from Jokic tonight. Do we expect Morris, Barton, Gordon, and Bones to all have 20+ points or close to it? Some of you positive people may, who I envy, but I certainly do not.
It is understood that role players often play better at home, which is a two-sided quandary for Denver tonight. If that notion were to remain true, Jokic needs to offset possible struggles from the role players with efficient, volume scoring. Furthermore, Golden State’s role players are expected to perform better in Game 5. Jordan Poole is coming off an 11-point outing in which he shot 3-10, but he is averaging about 30 PPG at home this series.
These last two games have shown the Warriors do not have a blueprint to stop Nikola Jokic. They may have actions that can hinder him for a certain period, but if Nikola stays aggressive, he cannot be stopped. Kevon Looney is lunch to Jokic, and although Draymond Green is a perennial DPOY candidate, Jokic is beginning to figure him out.
Jokic is the second-leading scorer in the playoffs so far with 31.3 PPG, which is only 0.2 PPG behind Luka Doncic. No player in that top ten has a higher field goal percentage, but the Nuggets will need him to mirror or augment those statistics tonight. If we see another 35+ point performance with efficient shooting, there should be zero Jokic slander, but make no mistake, the reigning MVP shoulders some pressure ahead of Game 5.
Intense perimeter defense
Austin Rivers was the defensive player of the game for Denver in Game 4, and his services will be needed again tonight. His length and quickness from him on the perimeter helped prevent a massive explosion from their guards. Yes, Curry still scored 33 in Game 4, but Denver held him to 3-10 shooting from three. We expect Curry to shoot better at home in another elimination game, so Denver’s guards need to do everything possible to prevent comfortable looks.
Golden State’s three-point shooting is the X-factor tonight. Not necessarily because Denver can’t overcome three points at their end, but because of the eruption it gives the crowd when they are knocking down threes. If the Warriors drill three or four threes in five possessions, it will not only put the Nuggets at a severe deficit, but the crowd will be relentless.
Denver cannot let the Warriors dictate their offensive tempo and rhythm. If a big switches onto Curry or Poole, Denver needs to send help to get it out of their hands. If they dictate where Golden State goes with the basketball, that will disrupt their rhythm, and they might not be as comfortable with their looks.
Denver played about as well as they could in Game 4, and they still barely escaped with a victory. So their effort and execution in Game 4 were enough, but that same effort and execution might not be enough in Game 5. The Nuggets need to go into this contest with the mindset that there can be no mental lapses or miscommunications. Rotations have to be crisp, help defense needs to be timely, and the defense overall must have a controlled, physical mentality.
Offensive efficiency from Morris, Barton, and Gordon
Morris and Gordon were the heroes alongside Jokic in Game 4. Monte scored 24 points on 7-11 shooting and 5-7 from three, while Gordon had 21 points on 5-11 and 1-3 from three. More importantly for Gordon, he knocked down 10 of 13 free-throw attempts, which indicates he was aggressive in the paint. That is the best version of Aaron Gordon, and if he wants to be a factor tonight, he has to dominate his time in the paint.
The impact Monte had in Game 4 cannot be understated. The Warriors actually outscored Denver in the 3rd and 4th quarters of Game 4, but Monte’s timely threes, and a clutch bucket in the 4th, helped the Nuggets sustain momentum. Monte might not hit five threes again tonight, but his impact needs to remain the same. When the Warriors focus on Jokic too much in the pick and roll, Monte needs to hit those open shots. If Jokic stays aggressive, those shots will be open, but there can’t be any hesitation on open looks. Trust your eyes and shoot with confidence.
Barton is the wild card for Denver, but he is Denver’s third-leading scorer in this series at 13.8 PPG. He only had 6 points on 2-7 shooting last game, but those two makes were threes, and he hit the most important shot of the game with that corner triple. Besides Jokic, Barton is the only Nugget to score 20+ points in Golden State this series. His successes may be scattered, but he has shown the ability to produce on the road and in clutch moments.
The most important parts of any basketball game are the end of quarters. Nuggets fans know this well because we have witnessed it repeatedly in this series. Denver will have a double-digit lead as the quarter begins to come to an end, but when the quarter closes, the Warriors end up with the lead. The Nuggets are getting the Warriors’ best effort at each end of a quarter. They execute at an extremely high level, so the Nuggets need to prepare their minds and bodies for a battle towards the end of quarters.
The majority of Playoff games are won on how you close each quarter
— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 22, 2022
Why are the Warriors up three games to one? Because they dominate this category. Sometimes when I look at the box score with about 5:00 left in a quarter, I say to myself, “Wow, the Nuggets are holding the Warriors to only 15 points so far in the quarter.” Right when I say that, they go on a run and end up with a 35-point quarter. I know—it’s my fault, and I do believe it because I’m superstitious, but Denver cannot afford to give up 35-point quarters.
The Warriors have the championship pedigree to be able to turn on a switch when it is needed. They can struggle for ten straight minutes, but come crunch time, they have that special ability that many teams do not. They smile in the face of adversity, and that is what the Nuggets need to mirror. There will be adversity tonight. There will be 10-0, 15-2 scoring runs, but Denver’s mentality must remain the same. Execute the game plan, and provide constant, relentless energy. If they do that, they will be able to absorb any end-of-the-quarter onslaughts from the Warriors.
Positive bench minutes
When you look at the box score of Denver’s Game 4 win, you may notice none of Denver’s starters had a positive plus/minus. Jeff Green had the best plus/minus of the bunch, but he only played 16 minutes. The positive plus/minus members came from the bench. Every bench member was in positive territory, which gave the Nuggets enough punch to support their momentum.
Hyland, Rivers, and Forbes all had double-digit plus/minus numbers, while Boogie and JaMychal also had significant numbers. Boogie and Bones provided the best scoring punch off the bench. Bones scored 15 points on 5-10 shooting and 3-6 from three, while Boogie had 10 points on 100% shooting and four free throws.
The Nuggets outscored the Warriors 37-31 in the 2nd quarter, and the three-point barrage from Bones aided it. Denver had a five-point advantage at the end of the first, and they needed scoring from the bench unit to prevent the Warriors from reclaiming the lead. Bones not only created separation on the scoreboard, but he forged the eruption from the Ball Arena crowd.
I talked about closing quarters well, and a lot of that responsibility is on the bench. They usually close the 1st and play through the initial minutes of the 2nd and usually share similar minutes in the 3rd and 4th quarters. Since Curry has started the game on the bench, he plays while the Nuggets bench unit is on the floor, so if Denver’s bench cannot score, that is when Curry and the Warriors will create separation. Bench production will be huge tonight.