Stylistic diversity is a rarity in today’s NBA game. With the never-ending trend toward tinkering one’s style to fit “the math,” we’re starting to wind up with a a tad too much homogeneity. One of the great pleasures of having a player so singular as Giannis Antetokounmpo, is that while he certainly fits into the trendy mold of tunneling towards the tin and funneling out for triples, he is unique enough to create a stylistic diversity all its own. The Denver Nuggets have a similarly singular talent in their midst with Nikola Jokic.
The doughy dishing savant from overseas has established himself as one of the league’s premier offensive players. His barrage of acrobatic passes rivals the Blue Angels in its majesty, and Brook Lopez will have his hands full keeping him off the block and coming out to the perimeter to disrupt Jokic’s rhythm. Jokic’s passing is something to behold, and to this point he’s ranked fifth in the league, per Cleaning The Glass, in terms of percentage of his teammates shots he’s assisted (33.4%). The closest player to him that’s characterized as a big is, fittingly, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who also obviously operates as Milwaukee’s offensive fulcrum in a far different fashion.
Beyond Jokic, it’s the fact this Nuggets team is one of the few Western Conference teams Milwaukee has yet to take down. Already, they have checked boxes on Houston, the LA duo and Utah once. Slowly but surely, the Bucks are marching toward regular season victories against every competent potential contender to their crown. Let’s take a look at three things that make this matchup stand out.
The Joker’s Tricks
The man is a wizard, darting his eyes elsewhere pre-pass, throwing one-armed full-court outlets, bouncing balls through inconceivable angles. Denver’s array of cutters give Jokic a full fleet of players to find en route to the tin, and the man has spider vision bag helps him survey the full floor at all times. Their team cuts at the third highest frequency in the league, scoring with a top-five efficiency on those plays.
What will be fascinating is how Denver’s inverted offense could muck with the Bucks preference to keep their big men at the basket. Jokic can hit capably from deep (31.8%) so Lopez may have to trudge up from his cozy restricted area home. His ability to body up on Jokic when he drives, keep his hands up to disrupt passing lanes and communicate with teammates occupied with chasing around cutters will be paramount.
Jerami Grant for the Nuggets is a springy dude, a jump-out-of-the-gym athlete who can probably keep up with Giannis’ propensity for sprinting up the court. Typically, Giannis would have to contend with the beefy, intelligent defensive stylings of vet Paul Millsap, but he remains out with an injury. Instead, he will likely have the shifty but skinny Grant tasked with curtailing his offensive performance. It’s certainly not a marquee matchup of power forwards, but Grant was supposed to be a low-key central cog for this Nuggets team when they acquired him in the offseason.
The real rationale for this whole preamble though is that, provided he is healthy enough to return, I doubt there is anything Grant could do to stop Giannis if this is his first game following the emotional, tragic passing of Kobe Bryant. We all know the fondness Giannis felt for Kobe, and if he suits up against Denver, rest assured he will try to honor the NBA great who mentored him.
Can Khris Keep Cooking?
The Nuggets have a 3-and-D prospect in Gary Harris who I’m sure Denver would love to see explode into the type of ball-handler and shot maker that Khris Middleton is. Given Harris, a quite capable defender, may have the unenviable task of tackling Middleton’s arsenal of transition pull-ups, midrange turnarounds and pesky penetration to find teammates, it should be a fitting clinic for the young Michigan State product whose offense has fallen off this year with 3-point shooting down to 31.1%.
The Nuggets will be zeroed in on sealing off Giannis from down low, because who doesn’t these days, and Middleton bringing the heat could alleviate Giannis from worrying about another help defender poking in to disrupt his rhythm as he drives. How Middleton can build off his piping hot artistic display of shotmaking against the Wizards remains to be seen, but detonating for a 51-point performance to launch your team towards victory is one hell of an expectation-setter.
The other guy to watch Khris go tete-a-tete with in shotmaking prowess is the recently unleashed (and finally somewhat healthy) Michael Porter Jr. The mammoth forward out of Missouri has spent far more time on the mend these past three seasons than meting our defenders. He’s shown flashes of the kind of quick-trigger athleticism unusual for a man his size that drew scouts to him in the first place. Porter Jr. is only averaging 7.7 points per game on low volume, but with some of Denver’s marquee players out, he may have to pick up some offensive slack.
The Nuggets may not get as much chatter about their championship bona fides as the Los Angeles crews or even their Mountainous neighbors in Utah, but their singular style makes them a dangerous opponent for anyone on a nightly basis. Given the Bucks troubled history playing out in mile-high Nugget land (they’ve won four times there in the 2000’s), this could be their best chance to notch a win against this Denver squad. Plus, it’s not often you may get to see the best passing big men of his generation square off at home against an equally skilled giant in Giannis. Jokic is likely worth the price of admission on his own. You can snag tickets through this Stubhub link.
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