I have written about how the Denver Nuggets have a low defensive IQ. There have too many breakdowns in communication and positioning that should not be happening at this point in the season. In their hard fought 124-118 overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder there was a perfect example of that. On a key play in the game where Denver needed a stop, they had two players fail to think and communicate. The result undermined very solid defense by their teammates.
With the Nuggets down two and under 40 seconds left Russell Westbrook, who had 38 points on 15-28 shooting ran a pick and roll on the right side of the floor with Serge Ibaka. Arron Afflalo was covering Westbrook and Kosta Koufos was checking Ibaka.
Ibaka sets a very strong screen and Westbrook does a fine job of directing Afflalo into it. Koufos does a solid job of hedging.
Koufos forces Westbrook back into the middle of the lane, the other Nuggets all collapse into the lane to force Westbrook to pass, all except for Al Harrington who smartly remains in place to deny a pass to Kevin Durant who had already gone nova. Miller sags off of James Harden and forces Westbrook to pass.
Lawson, who had been covering Daequan Cook and dropped down to the left block when Westbrook drove into the paint, closed out on Harden. Miller reacts and rotates to the corner to challenge a potential pass to Cook.
So far, so good, Denver has stopped a pick and roll and rotated. However, for some reason Afflao and Koufos have both decided to stay with Ibaka. Westbrook is wide open at the top of the circle. Harden gets past Lawson after a shot fake and Westbrook is ready for a pass back.
Westbrook, who if you recall is one of the two Thunder players who is making shots, catches the ball at the free throw line and drains a jumper to put the Thunder up by two possessions with only 27 seconds remaining.
In my mind the blame falls on Afflalo, however, it is certainly possible that he could have thought that he and Koufos switched and Westbrook was Koufos’ responsibility. Regardless, how two players covered Ibaka while Westbrook was wide open is the kind of mind-numbingly poor decision making on defense that has been haunting the Nuggets. It also goes to show how one mistake can undermine solid defense by the rest of the team.
It also displays the lack of communication that is necessary to play successful team defense. Afflalo clearly saw both he and Koufos were covering Ibaka. It was clear they were not on the same page. If he thought they had switched, why did he not instruct Koufos to return to Westbrook. If they were playing hedge and recover, as Koufos clearly was, he should have told Afflalo to return to Westbrook because he was back in position to cover Ibaka.
Denver cannot continue to struggle on both ends of the floor in close games. Hopefully the return of Danilo Gallinari will help on the offensive end, but at this point their defensive shortcomings are not going to be resolved via personnel.
The good news, if there is any, is Denver had stopped Westbrook on the pick and roll and rotated to handle any threat on the weakside. However, as long as they fail to make simple adjustments, such as cover the red hot point guard, or box out, they will continue to exit the court in defeat.