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Assessing a Pacers v. Nuggets Playoff Series

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Some of the ins and outs of the potential matchup

Indiana Pacers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

With the NBA season largely up in the air, but trending towards an eventual July restart, every possible playoff format and restructure has been flung at the wall.

While we are unlikely to have a general idea of the NBA’s plans moving forward until next week (The Board of Governor’s spoke today and are deliberating throughout the weekend), Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported yesterday on the recent GM survey and included that a potential 1-16 playoff seeding has been discussed.

The idea has been tossed around in the past few weeks and this report adds some more steam to the kettle.

Three months ago I would’ve laughed out loud at the idea of an 11 v 6 match up between the Pacers and the Denver Nuggets; yet here we are! So, I dug back into the two games in which Indy and Denver met this season in order to gauge what a playoff series might look like.

Both teams were missing significant rotation players when they met and split the series 1-1; Indy missing Malcolm Brogdon for one and Victor Oladipo for both games. Paul Millsap, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris all missing the second game. However, you can glean quite a bit of information from the pair of games. Let’s dive in.

The Joker

Nikola Jokic is unequivocally the best player in this hypothetical series. In the two meetings this season, Jokic was a handful for Myles Turner, although Myles showed some real flashes on defense and gave Jokic something to think about with his length. Can Myles completely shutdown one of the most dynamic offensive players in basketball? No, but nobody can! If any player is suited to play against Jokic in a 7 game series (We’re going with that until I get told otherwise by Woj). So what does Myles do well against Jokic and how can he fare best against him in a series?

Jokic’s individual scoring is predicated on getting his defender to bite at the first sign of movement, utilizing shot fakes, head fakes, fake fakes, every fake imaginable. It’s maddening to watch sometimes. He seems to move so slowly but every motion is so precise and quick.

Biting on the pump is an almost guaranteed bucket, foul, or both when defending Jokic. He is incredibly quick with his decision-making and if there’s even a slight blip in his defender’s stance or a minimal overplay, he’s going to the hoop.

Once Jokic gets his defender on the backfoot, unable to regain position, it’s signed, sealed, and delivered.

This is not at all meant to tear apart Myles, rather to show how lethal of an offensive threat Jokic is when the defense breaks down.

Here are some prime examples of how Myles’ length and positioning can/have really caused issues for Jokic.

On this play, Myles does an exceptional job of tagging Jokic on the roll and then flashing help to prevent an easy layup after Harris gets a step on Warren. The quickness and awareness to recover to Jokic and contest the attempt by Myles is incredible.

This defensive possession isn’t as gorgeous as the last, but instrumental in forcing Jokic into tougher shots. While Jokic is able to generate seperation, Myles is able to keep himself in front without getting pretzeled on the way to the basket, forcing Jokic into a tough jumper.

Jokic can score efficiently from just about anywhere, but forcing him into 20-footers is a win for the Pacers.

It has to be noted that Jokic is likely the greatest passing big of all-time, certainly of my lifetime. He’s excellent at passing out of the short-roll, from the elbows, and especially from the top of the key, where he whips crosscourt passes to open shooters and cutters in dazzling fashion.

While Jokic will never be mistaken as a defensive stopper, he is a much better defender than he is routinely credited for. He’s not incredibly vertical and lacks lateral quickness, but when locked in his hands are incredibly active and he’s strong on the interior. He’s more than capable of knocking his man out of position in the high or low post. He’s more of a mosquito than a murder hornet on defense, but mosquitoes always find a way to irritate.

So how can he be attacked? Well, due to Jokic not being a true rim-protector, Mike Malone has employed a system that often puts Jokic out on the perimeter rather than a drop-scheme. The Nuggets regularly hard hedge pick n’ roll ballhandlers with Jokic and the on-ball defender. This creates some interesting cracks that the Pacers can exploit.

Here, Myles sets a quick screen and flares out for the shot immediately off the catch. Jokic’s defensive intensity is pretty null and void on this possession, but it shows the significant amount of space Jokic needs to cross to recover to Myles (Jokic when playing hard will hedge and then try to recover to Myles more than likely).

Another way this can be attacked is with a quick slip screen

Even with Jokic trying to recover, it’s a lot of ground for a big to cross. Myles slips the screen extremely well and his quickness in getting to the rack results in the and-1.

Foul Trouble/Frontcourt Depth

This leads me to my next shorter, but equally important point: Myles and Domas cannot get into foul trouble.

Conversely, the best way to take Jokic out of the game is to get him into foul trouble. Myles collected 5 fouls in the first game, fouled out in the second, and Jokic nearly fouled out in the first game as well.

Indy lacks lineup versatility while the Nuggets can fluidly roll out a multitude of lineups. While the Nuggets can give different looks, it’s very difficult for the Pacers to play small while still handling the length that Denver can bring out on the wings and frontcourt.

All due respect to Goga Bitadze, but he’s not ready for playoff action as a rookie, and I’d personally be surprised if he sees much floor time. So, the Pacers lack a backup big (Maybe we get JaKarr minutes?), Justin Holiday soaks up a great deal of minutes at the four for the bench unit and while Doug McDermott has a little more size, he’s not equipped to play against most fours in the league.

The Nuggets have four rotation players who can see minutes behind their starting frontcourt which is tough for this Pacers team to counter strictly with the bench.

For instance, the Nuggets can often employ a lineup featuring Mason Plumlee, Jerami Grant, and Michael Porter Jr. off the bench. Bring out a lineup with Sabonis, McDermott, and Justin Holiday against that, and there are some tough cross-matches that caused problems for the second unit in the season series.

There are ways to rebuild the rotation to counter this by playing TJ Warren more with the bench unit to handle some of Denver’s frontcourt size, but by and large, you end up with Justin Holiday guarding guys 3-4 inches taller than him which is a lot to ask. Justin is a very good defender, but size is difficult to contend with.

Michael Porter Jr.

In case you missed out on the two Denver games this season or MPJ’s rookie year as a whole, he presents the biggest problem for the Pacers of the bench.

He was on fire in the first game against the Pacers scoring 25. Porter spent most of the year receiving inconsistent minutes, but in this playoff series (if it happens), he could almost certainly be a guy who swings a game or two from his scoring prowess alone.

As I mentioned earlier, Justin Holiday was matched up with Porter for much of the time they shared the court this season.

Justin plays textbook defense and even gets the contest. While I believe Justin would give him a hard series, I think it’s tough to ask him to cover someone that size for more than 1 or 2 games.

Ultimately I’m not sure who would get the cover of Porter, I surmise a defense by committee. Regardless, he is going to be an incredibly tough cover.

Backcourt

While Jamal Murray is a very good young player whose game is still blossoming, I think he is a solid matchup for Oladipo & Brogdon defensively. He operates mostly from 14 feet out (58% of his shots) and isn’t a quick twitch downhill point guard who’ll barrel to the rim. He can finish well there, but is in the bottom third among guards in at-rim attempts per Cleaning the Glass.

His partner in the back, Gary Harris, is a very good defender who will certainly be a hassle for whomever he is assigned to (Likely Oladipo), but his offense has fallen by the wayside in recent seasons. Well it has largely been due to injury, Harris, once a 42% 3 point shooter, has plummeted to 34% last year and 33% this year on similar volume. His overall efficiency has dipped along with his shot so offensively he leaves a decent amount on the table.

Overall, this matchup would likely favor the Pacers. Murray, although a great offensive player, has shortcomings on the defensive end that I think Victor and Malcolm could certainly exploit. Brogdon tends to struggle with smaller and quicker guards who have a good first step and Denver doesn’t that kind of player.

Closing Thoughts

This would be an incredibly hard fought and difficult series if it comes to fruition. While the Nuggets have the best player, so much of the playoffs comes down to matchups, and I think if schemed correctly, the Pacers can edge the Nuggets in a 7-game series. All in all it’s a toss up for me; 6 or 7 games either way.

It’s a very different series from Miami, I don’t think I would say it’s an easier one, but there’s a realm in which that may be true depending on how things shake out. Regardless, I’m excited to finally watch this team play again.

What’re your thoughts on the potential matchup with Denver? Or with the Heat? Let me know down below, I’d appreciate your feedback.

Stay safe out there Pacers fans.