The playoff hopes of the Denver Nuggets are probably cooked. They’re two back of the Pelicans with just six games left to play, and they’d dropped four of six coming into Friday night’s game in Oklahoma City. Realistically, losing that incredible stinker in Memphis on March 17 was probably the point of no return. But they’ve got games left to play, and they’re still technically within reach, and so every game these days is absolutely crucial.
Certainly a tilt between a team just outside the playoff picture and another team sliding around in the insane chaos of Western Conference seeding is about as important as late-regular-season games get. This one was hotly contested, and both teams dearly wanted it—you know this, in part, by the odd-seeming choice the Thunder made to ride the hot hand of, of all people, Jerami Grant, to the exclusion of any fourth-quarter minutes for one Carmelo Anthony. The hot hand theory is a relatively controversial one, and coaches are largely damned either way, but at least the decision to stick with Grant came with the approval of Anthony himself. Per Royce Young of ESPN:
“I was sitting for the whole fourth, and there was like two and some change on the clock,” Anthony said. “[Grant] hit that 3, so it was like, just let him continue to go out there and just play it out and see what happens. But then we wind up going to overtime.”
“I think I’ve done it before, but not that late in the game and in the quarter,” he said. “I’ve done it before where a guy has it going and didn’t want to break his rhythm. A lot of times, when guys have it going like that, especially role players guys, bench guys, that gives them confidence, that you do believe in those guys. But not that late in a game like that, never did that.”
The strategy largely worked: the Thunder erased a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter, and held the Nuggets to their lowest-scoring quarter of the game, and Grant scored nine points on four shots in the frame. The Thunder, who’d trailed by as many as 15 points in the second half, found themselves up a bucket with 15 seconds left in regulation, and the Nuggets without a timeout. This, in the end, is why we are here. We are here to gape at this gorgeous clutch drive from the endlessly entertaining Will Barton, to push the game to overtime:
The Nuggets used a Jokic “screen” to get Barton onto Steven Adams. I’m putting “screen” in quotes because Jokic didn’t bother setting himself or even pretending to have any interest in making contact with Corey Brewer, and the Thunder, as if this had all been arranged via advanced negotiations between the two teams, conceded the switch with no resistance whatsoever.
NBA teams do this a lot in late game situations, and I go back and forth on it: the pick-and-roll is the bread and butter of late clock NBA offense because the very brief chaos of a defender having to fight over or under or through a good screen can create huge advantages for a good ball-handler, especially one like Barton who can score going to the cup or by pulling up from outside. On the other hand, clearly the Nuggets would prefer to have Barton working against a big, instead of against another guard, and if the Thunder believe Adams has the agile feet and lateral quickness to stay with Will Barton, he must also have the maneuverability to stay attached to Jokic, popping to the perimeter. And since there actually was no screen, Corey Brewer obviously would’ve had no trouble staying close to Barton. I understand switching as a way of eliminating the chaos of a screen; I have a harder time understanding conceding a switch when a switch is clearly what the offensive team is after.
At any rate, Steven Adams really is a nimble and athletic big guy, and he made Barton work like hell for every foot of space between the arc and the basket. And it’s because of that heroic defensive effort that we are treated to just a sizzling combination of improvised attack moves: Barton tries to use a first-step move to blow by Adams, but Adams forces him wide, where Grant is waiting to cut him off; Barton responds by going behind the back, but Adams’s perfect defensive footwork once again cuts him off; the spin back to the baseline is the trump card, but even there, Adams has the agility to pivot around and come within mere inches of getting a finger to Barton’s scoop layup. The Nuggets got the switch, and got the bucket, but only a spectacular winding drive of pure improvisational brilliance keeps this highlight from belonging to Steven Adams.
Barton dropped in six of Denver’s 12 points in overtime, and the Nuggets escaped with a win they absolutely had to have. This was a hell of a game. The Western Conference fucking rules.