If the Lakers believe they might 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.
“Much [is being] made of them putting Rui Hachimura on Nikola Jokic,” Denver head coach Michael Malone said after the team’s film session Wednesday. “Like we have never seen that before.”
The Nuggets have a 1-0 lead in this best-of-seven Western Conference finals after Jokic had his third consecutive postseason triple-double with 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists to go with two blocks. Jokic hit 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 with two rebounds and two assists while committing two turnovers.
That, along with scoring 72 second-half points, allowed the Lakers to cut a 21-point deficit to three multiple times late in the fourth. So even though the Nuggets made winning plays down the stretch to take Game 1, there was a feeling 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 being based [that] even though the Lakers lost, they’re walking out of here, they think they’ve got something,” Malone said. “I’ll 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 film after a win and show all the things that we did poorly is a great situation to be in.”
The Nuggets say they will be ready to counter the Lakers if they decide to put Hachimura on Jokic again to let Davis roam.
They said they have seen similar tactics from the Golden State Warriors, who used Draymond Green as a sort of free safety off Jokic in the first round last year; from the Philadelphia 76ers, who put P.J. Tucker on Jokic at times to free up Joel Embiid; and from Minnesota, which tried to let Rudy Gobert float in the paint in the first round last month.
“As a team, we’ve seen everything there is to see on how teams will try to guard Nikola,” Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. said. “It might have surprised us for a little bit in that late second half, but looking at the film, I don’t think that that’ll be an issue for us. Next thing we know how to counter that when they put AD off ball and AD is roaming a little bit, it opens up some stuff on the backside, so we just got to execute.”
One potential counter for the Nuggets could be to spread things out with shooters and move Aaron Gordon around. The Nuggets have run on-ball screen actions where Gordon is in the dunker spot 86 times this postseason, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. The Nuggets have averaged 1.30 points per direct pick, above the postseason league average of 1.01. They scored eight points off four on-ball screens when Jokic was matched up with Davis with Gordon in the dunker position.
However, on the five plays where Gordon was in the dunker spot 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 will have to be ready for the challenge of either guarding Jokic or roaming on defense but staying attached to Gordon.
“That’s why they pay me the big bucks,” Davis said. “I got to figure it out. And I got to help everybody. That’s my job on this team, to help everyone defensively, protect 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 was “making it tough” on Russell on the defensive end and “just going at him” on the offensive end.
“We attacked them, we took D-Lo out the game,” Brown said of Denver’s early transition game. “That was our goal, to get him involved in everything.”
Brown added: “He’s not the best defender, but he definitely tries. So just try to attack his feet.”
More than anything, the Nuggets are bracing for the Lakers to have a better start to Game 2 after they fell behind 30-14 in the first eight-plus minutes on Tuesday night.
“We gave them confidence, we let them back in the game,” Brown said. “So we’re going to kind of have to come out and punch them in the mouth first.”
ESPN’s Dave McMenamin contributed to this report.