Extensive Pregame Open Thread: The Melos vs. the Non-Melos

George Karl Avery Johnson, Nets-Nuggets
George Karl & Avery Johnson (AP Photo/Chris Schneider)

In honor of how the teams have done battle off the court all season, I’m going to do an extended pregame open thread for you guys. The Nets take on, of course, the 28-19 Denver Nuggets, and while Denver’s a very good team, I think the Nets have a good chance to pull off the upset tonight. This isn’t just a homer gut feeling, either (although when I’m recapping a 40-point loss I may think differently). If the Nets recognize & exploit Denver’s weaknesses, I do honestly believe they can take the Nuggets down.

The Nuggets employ a balanced, high-octane offense, and all the analytics agree: they’re #1 in the NBA. They have the highest offensive rating in the NBA at 112.5 according to Basketball-Reference, and they’re the #1 ranked offense according to Synergy Sports as well. The Nuggets are expected to be at full strength, while the Nets are still missing Damion James and Jordan Farmar. Despite their record, the Nuggets are actually not very strong on the road – only 8-13 when away from Denver. The Nets are 11-11 when playing in the Prudential Center.

It’s only one game, but Carmelo Anthony coming to Newark as an opponent is one of the bigger stories of this Nets season. I personally think a Nets win tonight would be huge – these teams have been battling it out all season behind closed doors, and this is the last chance they get to do it on the hardwood this season.

Here’s how you want to stop Denver and crawl out of the Rock with a victory:

Run real offenses! Attack them with pick & rolls, cuts, & spot-ups. Luckily, the Nets biggest offensive strengths line up perfectly with Denver’s biggest defensive weaknesses. The Nuggets are horrid at defending the pick & roll – according to Synergy, they allow 0.87 points per possession defending the ballhandler (24th in the NBA) and a matador-like 1.10 points per possession against the roll man (28th in the NBA). They’re also poor at defending post-ups (.90 PPP, 23rd), spot-up shooters (1.01, 19th) and terrible on cutters (1.30, 26th).

Thus, the Nets should run very basic but effective plays. Here’s one obvious one, which I’ve drawn up with the always great program FastDraw: the pick & roll.

Like any pick & roll, the keys are spacing, setting a good screen, and coming hard off the screener’s shoulder. In the setup, envision Harris, Morrow, Outlaw, Favors, & Lopez in these spots. If Graham is in, he doesn’t have great three-point range but he can spot up from up to 20 feet. Lopez is a better shooter from 15 feet than Favors, which is why Favors is the one coming up to set the pick & Lopez is moving back to spot up & create space. When Humphries is in the game, those two are interchangeable (although Hump isn’t a great shooter).

As Harris cuts into the lane, Morrow/Outlaw should be replacing up top so that he & Lopez aren’t bunched together on the left side. The other one of those two should be in the corner for two reasons: firstly, the corner is the most efficient place to shoot a three-pointer, and secondly it makes the defender more likely to help down if Harris gets to the basket (leaving the corner open). Favors should be rolling down the other side as Lopez spots up.

If they run this play effectively, every player on the Nets is a potential scorer: Harris & Favors at the rim, Lopez spotting up from midrange, or Morrow/Outlaw spotting up beyond the arc. Running an effective pick & roll exploits many of the weaknesses in Denver’s defense: switching on screens in the pick & roll and not consistently rotating defensively to make sure all potential scorers are covered.

Other than that, the Nets should consistently go to Lopez, Favors, & Humphries in the low post, and look to back-cut if players try to double down low. These are offenses that the Nets have proven they can run before. If they can do it again, in front of their home crowd, they stand a much better chance at victory.

Defend strong in the post, avoid fouls, & close out on spot-up shooters. The Nuggets rank first in the NBA in offense, and it’s no accident. With Nene & Carmelo Anthony leading the way, they’re the best team in the NBA at posting up, and with six – count ’em, six – legitimate three-point shooters, they’re also the best team in the NBA at spotting up. They shoot a blistering 43.1% from beyond the arc on spot-up opportunities and score on 51.7% of trips in the post, both league bests.

It’s because of this – and not because of any pseudomachismo mind games – that I hope Derrick Favors stays out of foul trouble and plays big minutes tonight. Favors is the best player on the Nets at getting out to spot-up shooters, allowing only 31% shooting when he goes out to contest. Humphries is also very good at contesting spot-ups – opposing shooters only shoot 39% against him, and both are better than Lopez – and the two should see some time together on the floor.

Force them to run isolations. Other than kickouts to spot-up shooters, the most-used play by the Nuggets is isolation – with a cool 1,000 isolation plays this year. However, the Nuggets are actually at their least effective in isolation, only scoring 0.86 points per possession when they rely on isos. Carmelo Anthony is the biggest culprit – he accounts for 370 of their isolation plays and scores a pedestrian 0.79 PPP on isolation sets. J.R. Smith is also culpable, with 158 isolations and a 0.84 PPP.

The nature of the game may force Carmelo into an isolationist mindset, perhaps to show Nets fans the offensive repertoire they’re missing out on. Or something like that. Hopefully it does. I’ll take 40 inefficient points from Carmelo and a Nets upset any day.

Either way, tonight should be a lot of fun to watch, if only for how the fans will react to Carmelo Anthony. As the base was sharply divided about ‘Melo, I expect the reaction to be similarly mixed: some boos, some cheers. Stefan Bondy certainly found a divide among fans yesterday. I will say that the whole saga wasn’t really his fault, but he’s an easier outlet than Denver’s front office, who won’t be anywhere near the court in this game and thus not as easily scapegoated.

Let’s go Nets.

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