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Breakdown: Nuggets d. Raptors, Dec 3.

Tough one against a great team.

Nuggets 106, Raptors 103

Recap

  • The Raptors battled back to take the lead in the final minute but couldn’t hold on against Denver.
  • Denver executed better on both ends tonight and deserved the win in this game, although the Raptors created many very good looks on the offensive end that could have swung the outcome.
  • The Raptors have been the aggressors defensively in the majority of their games so far this year, but the Nuggets dictated pace and dictated they’re looks on the offensive end in this game and had the Raptors playing catch up on the defensive end.
  • Defensively, the Raptors had issues in the following areas which I will breakdown below:
    1. Defending the DHO (Dribble Hand Off)
    2. Covering Down Screens
    3. Getting Backdoor Cut / Losing Sight
    4. Defensive Rebounding
  • Offensively, what stood out the most was the 11-41 effort from 3. The Raptors had some issues offensively, but they were still able to create very good looks.
  • In this breakdown I am going to focus solely on the defensive end of the floor as the Nuggets exposed areas that the Raptors are going to need to improve on if they want to win a Championship.

Defense

  • The Nuggets have a unique combination of players and they use their skill sets well within their offense. Their offense is focused around actions that involve pace (movement into actions) within the half court which consists of many DHO’s, down screens, cross screens to down screens, and ball screens. Nikola Jokic is the centerpeice of their offense and uses his skill set and high basketball IQ well in all of the aforementioned actions.

Defending the DHO

  • The Raptors struggled with this action all night. The Nuggets make it very difficult because of the threats that are involved in the DHO – Jokic is always a threat to keep the ball and turn the corner, their guards are all threats to stop and shoot if the defender goes under, and both Jokic and their guards are very adept at reading the situation and they know their counters.
  • The Raptors plan with the DHO was to chase the guard over top (similarly to how they handle ball screens), drop the big, and bring help at the nail with the highest offside guard.
  • As you’ll see in the compilation of DHO’s in the video below, the Nuggets hit the DHO with such pace that the Raptors were rarely able to defend the DHO fundamentally. As a result, the Nuggets scored from it in many different ways.

These clips follow the order in which they happened during the game, which gives you the chance to recognize how Denver took whatever the Raptors gave them on each possession. You’ll notice the following:

  • 2 clips of guards shooting behind the DHO when the Raptors guards go under
  • 3 clips of the guard turning the corner and scoring in the lane (2 floaters, 1 at the rim)
  • 2 clips of the kick out to the nail defender’s man for open 3’s
  • 1 clip of hitting the roller

What you’ll notice the Raptors not doing in any of these clips (except for 1) is pressuring Jokic in the DHO and forcing him above his comfortable spot on the floor. Similarly, the Raptors guards seem to always be allowing separation from their checks. If you allow a team to comfortably sprint into DHO’s, especially a team as elite in this action as Denver, they are always going to have the upper hand.

Covering Down Screens 

  • I have broken down in great detail the way the Raptors have been handling down screens all season, and they continued defending them in the same manner in this game. The Raptors chase down screens every time and force the curl. The dropping big is forced to protect the rim on the curl with the intent of baiting the guard into a floater/pull up while never giving up a free lane to the rim for the roller.

In the 3 examples above, you’ll notice how the Nuggets consistently put pressure on the rim in these actions. The chasing guard is never able to influence the pass and the offensive guard is too often able to get into the paint and make decisions (again, also notice that their is not sufficient enough ball pressure to deter the pass to the curling guard).

The Raptors seem to be OK with handling the down screens this way, but I’m not sure it’s a viable long term solution as every top-tier team they have faced have really hurt them with this action. I would suspect that the Raptors will eventually switch more of the actions, or give their guards the option to gap the screen instead of always chasing it.

For context, look at how the Denver guards navigate these stagger actions below and blow the play up:

They are not pre-determining their chase – they read the situation and try to avoid the screens. In both of these clips, they handle double-down screens better than the Raptors handle single down screens because of the freedom they have to handle the actions.

Backdoor Cuts / Losing Sight 

  • The amount of times these situations happened in this game are likely a result of the above actions, and how the Nuggets had the Raptors guessing defensively instead of imposing their will. Further to that, the Nuggets clearly scouted that the Raptors like to deny the wings with their guards, and made an emphasis of cutting back door:

Defensive Rebounding

  • The Raptors gave up 23 second chance points to the Nuggets in this game, which is a staggeringly high number. I’ve highlighted a handful of clips in the video below.

With the exception of the Plumlee put-back, you’ll notice that the Raptors have more players around the ball when the shot goes up than the Nuggets do in all of these clips. The Raptors did a very poor job of gang rebounding in this game and too often the guards stood around and expected the bigs to come up with the ball. Gang rebounding is an incredibly effective approach to rebounding, but it requires the relentless pursuit of the ball from every defensive player.

Notes

  • I focused on defense in this report because the offensive end was not as concerning to me from breaking down this game .Yes, the Raptors were 11-41 from 3pt range, but they were also 29-46 inside the arc, which means they shot a staggering 63% on 2 point attempts. It took them time to figure out how Denver was playing the offside of the ball screen, but they were able to eventually figure it out and they created great opportunities for themselves – unfortunately they were just not able to knock down 3’s at the necessary clip to win this game.
  • However, one observation from the offensive end was that Serge Ibaka is trending towards the 3pt line more than he was earlier in the year. There were many examples in this game of opportunities for him to step into the midrange, dive from the 3pt line, or attack a closeout from the 3, but he a tendency to stay on the perimeter more than he likely should. Based on his progression this year to play much more inside the arc, and how perimeter oriented he was last year, this is a trend that the Raptors will likely try to put an end to. Also of note is that he is shooting 28% from the 3, the Raptors are 3-2 when Ibaka shoots 4 or more 3’s in a game, and 17-3 when he shoots 3 or less 3’s.
  • One interesting thing I noticed from Denver was how they don’t run a lot of different sets, but they have a very good understanding of the actions they run. A great example of that is how Jokic and Murray handled the late switch against the ball screen. Watch these clips:

When the dropping big switches on to Murray, he passes to the popping Jokic and sprints back to the 3. Jokic passes right back to Murray to attack the big on switch from the perimeter. This switch didn’t happen often, but every time it did, they countered with this simple yet highly effective counter.

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