DENVER — When the Nuggets saw the film of their Game 1 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, they saw something they had seen before.
If the Lakers think they may have found a line of defense by using Rui Hachimura against Nikola Jokic like they did in the fourth quarter of Game 1, the Nuggets say they know exactly how to counter the tactic , since you only saw them in the first round against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“Much [is being] “I made of it that they used Rui Hachimura against Nikola Jokic,” Denver head coach Michael Malone said after the team’s film session Wednesday. “Like we’ve never seen this before.”
The Nuggets lead 1-0 in this best-of-seven Western Conference finals after Jokic hit his third straight postseason triple-double with 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists remaining and 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 the 6-foot-11 Jokic, allowing Anthony Davis to roam the area, Jokic was limited to three points on 0-of-2 shots in the fourth quarter with two rebounds and two assists and at the same time two turnovers.
As a result, and with 72 points in the second half, the Lakers were able to reduce their deficit from 21 points to three several times towards the end of the fourth half. While the Nuggets threw winning plays over time and won Game 1, there was a sense that the Lakers emerged from the game with momentum and potentially an effective defensive strategy against Jokic.
“There’s that kind of discussion [on that] “Even though the Lakers lost, they go out here, they think they’ve got something,” Malone said. “I’ll bet every red cent I have that Darvin Ham would rather be 1-0 up than 0 down.” -1.
“So for us it’s a great situation to be able to watch a movie after a win and show all the things that we did badly.”
The Nuggets say they will be ready to face the Lakers if they decide to use Hachimura against Jokic again.
They said they saw similar tactics with the Golden State Warriors, who used Draymond Green as a sort of free safety from Jokic in the first round last year; by the Philadelphia 76ers, who at times put PJ Tucker on Jokic to trade off Joel Embiid; and from Minnesota, who tried to float Rudy Gobert in the paint in the first round last month.
“As a team we’ve seen everything about how teams are going to try and protect Nikola,” said Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. “It might have surprised us a bit late in the second half, but when I look at the movie I don’t think that will be a problem for us. Next we know how to counter that when they procrastinate AD.” Ball and AD wander a bit, it opens up some things in the back so we just have to execute it.”
A potential counter for the Nuggets could be spreading things around with shooters and moving Aaron Gordon around. According to a study by ESPN Stats & Information, the Nuggets have performed on-ball screen actions that have Gordon in the dunker spot 86 times this postseason. The Nuggets have averaged 1.30 points per direct pick, which is above the postseason league average of 1.01. They scored eight points from four on-ball screens as Jokic teamed up with Davis and Gordon in the dunker position.
However, the Nuggets didn’t score a single point in Game 1 in the five plays that Gordon was in the dunker position and Jokic was defended by a smaller player with Davis.
Davis said he must be prepared for the challenge of either guarding Jokic or walking around the defense but holding on to Gordon.
“That’s why they pay me big money,” Davis said. “I have to find out. And I have to help everyone. It’s my job on this team to help everyone defensively and protect the boys.”
The Lakers must 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 Russell tough” on defense and “just go at him” on offense.
“We attacked them, we took D-Lo out of the game,” Brown said of Denver’s early transition game. “That was our goal, to include him in everything.”
Brown added: “He’s not the best defender but he’s definitely trying. So just try to attack his feet.”
The Nuggets are mostly hoping the Lakers get off to a better start in Game 2 after falling 30-14 in the first eight minutes on Tuesday night.
“We gave them confidence and let them back into the game,” Brown said. “So we have to get out there somehow and punch them in the mouth first.”
ESPN’s Dave McMenamin contributed to this report.