The Denver Nuggets match up favorably with the Houston Rockets. If the NBA season were to continue, this is the strategy for Nuggets victory.
With the NBA season being suspended due to COVID-19, its fate along with the fate of every NBA team, including the Denver Nuggets, is up in the air. It’s possible that the league will be able to resume play with a rearranged schedule accommodating enough time to complete all regular-season games and to hold full-length or abbreviated playoffs.
It’s also possible that the league may do an abbreviated version of the remaining regular-season games before beginning the playoffs. Yet another possibility is for the league to jump straight into the playoffs. In this case, we will say the NBA is jumping directly into the playoffs when and if play resumes this season, meaning that all seedings are final as of right now.
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In addition, there will be no upsets in the bracket except for the Nuggets, in order to simplify this guide to how the Nuggets can win the championship this season. For now, I will be evaluating how the Nuggets can surpass their potential first-round opponent.
With the Nuggets current record of 43-22 losses, they would enter the playoffs as the third seed, matching up against the sixth-seeded Houston Rockets. In my opinion, the Rockets have glaring weaknesses and are a pretty good matchup for the Nuggets team as constructed. It became clear at the trade deadline that the Rockets were going all-in on their small-ball lineup, essentially trading defense for more offense.
Offensively, this is a favorable matchup for the Nuggets, as their offense mostly flows through their seven-foot center, Nikola Jokic. The Rockets’ tallest starters are Robert Covington listed at 6’7″ and P.J. Tucker listed at 6’5″. It really doesn’t matter how long Covington is or how strong Tucker is, Jokic scores over players stronger than himself with ease, plus he has a major height advantage against either defender.
Even if the Rockets double team Jokic in the post, which will inevitably happen, he’s a tremendous passer and is always looking for shooters and cutters, which the Nuggets have a plethora of. I don’t think the Rockets stand a chance if the Denver Nuggets initiate their offense through Jokic in the post.
Defense is going to be harder for Denver. The small-ball lineup of the Rockets flows through the tandem of James Harden and Russell Westbrook, both of whom are explosive scorers. To start the game, I would likely have Jokic covering Tucker, since he is only a threat to hit wide-open corner 3-pointers and won’t be looking to create off the dribble often.
Then with the starting power forward, I’d consider starting Jerami Grant over Paul Millsap, as he would cover Russell Westbrook. Alternatively, Grant could be slotted in at the small forward position to fulfill the same role. Grant would be preferred over Millsap for this role because of his length, quickness and tremendous shot-blocking ability. He can give Westbrook a few feet of a cushion and dare him to shoot unless he catches fire.
The rest of the starters can match up based on size or position as they would normally. The most important component of this Nuggets defense is that there can be absolutely no help defense off shooters.
Jokic hugs Tucker and doesn’t let him get open. Whoever is guarding Robert Covington and Eric Gordon does the same, no 3s allowed. If nobody plays help defense, Westbrook and Harden will obviously get their points in one-on-one matchups. But with the exception of Eric Gordon on occasion, none of the supporting cast is a threat to create their own shot, thus Westbrook and Harden will essentially have to score enough points to beat the Nuggets on their own.
Even if Harden averaged 40 points per game and Westbrook averaged 30 points per game, for example, I’m still confident that the Nuggets can overcome the Rockets if they contain the other shooters.
The one caveat to this defensive scheme is that in addition to no open 3s, the Nuggets must also switch absolutely every ball screen. NBA teams tend to switch all ball screens to preserve energy, but in order to stick to the defensive strategy effectively and to limit bad matchups, ball defenders need to stay disciplined and fight through screens. If Jokic got switched onto James Harden, for example, he would likely get blown by too easily for this defensive scheme to be sustainable.
If the Denver Nuggets play disciplined defense and free-flowing offense centered around Jokic, they shouldn’t have many problems with Houston, which will lead to a matchup with the LA Clippers in the Western Conference Semifinals.