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Bubble observations: Imagining Nuggets side pick and roll set with Hawks personnel

Denver Nuggets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

On Friday evening, the Denver Nuggets avoided a potential season-ending loss in an elimination game against the L.A. Clippers. This time, it took a fourth quarter comeback to secure an eventual 111-105 win, extending the Western Conference semifinals to a game six, set to take place on Sunday afternoon.

Lead guard Jamal Murray has been a key for the Nuggets thus far in the bubble, though he is finding it more challenging to put up impressive number against a Clippers team with as much wing depth as any squad in the NBA postseason. In 12 playoff games, Murray has averaged 26.5 points on an impressive 60.9 percent true shooting. To put that in perspective, only James Harden has put up a better true shooting mark among lead guards that have played into the second round of the playoffs, and Murray has flashed considerable upside in Orlando.

The presence of All-Star center Nikola Jokic doesn’t always make it possible, but opposing teams have tried to double or trap Murray at times as to force another Denver player to make plays. To counter the extra attention on Murray, the Nuggets sometimes go to a set they call “2-side.” To translate this a bit, this typically calls for a side pick and roll set for the two guard (or shooting guard), which is almost always Murray when they run it.

As a note, the Nuggets sometimes run this set simply to give Murray some space to work, even when he is not seeing a second defender in the half court.

Well, Hawks fans, guess who else frequently sees an extra defender when initiating offense in the half court? Of course, that player is Trae Young.

The way Atlanta sometimes counters the trap — or a strong “hedge” — with Young in the high pick and roll is simply to ask Young to give up the ball and let his teammates attack in four-on-three opportunities. But, in a possible playoff setting in the future, might the Hawks want to find a way to counter the aggressive defensive scheme without taking the ball out of Young’s hands?

Let’s look at how Denver uses 2-side to keep the ball in Murray’s hands.

This is the most common way the Nuggets run this action, which eventually results in Murray and Jokic running a side pick and roll. On this possession, it sets up Murray for the comfortable three-point attempt.

Notice, before space is cleared for the Denver duo, Jokic gets a “wedge screen” from Gary Harris. This creates additional traffic for the defensive big which prevents him from being able to get up to, at least, the level of the screen where he would need to be as to present an additional defender.

The pick set on Jokic’s defender also gives the Denver big man extra space to use in setting an effective screen.

It is not difficult to envision Young making use of this in an effort to get additional space when opposing defenses are wanting to be aggressive with him.

Now, let’s glance at how Denver runs it at times with a slight wrinkle.

On this possession, instead of a wedge screen for Jokic, the wing prepares to set a ball screen for Murray. He decides to slip the screen after the Clipper commit to a switch.

As Grant’s defender, after the switch, helps toward Murray, he sets up prepared for a catch and shoot on the weak side.

With either type of screen, the action creates bi-directional flow which the defense has to deal with. This makes it difficult for a second defender to be used to pressure the ball until the eventual ball screen by the center, at which point the offense has often generated leverage on the defense.

Denver also choeses to run this at times when opposing teams were “icing” the side pick and roll. This means that the defensive big plants himself in the path of the ball handler in the direction of the baseline.

In these cases, 2-side allows Denver to get Murray matched up in space on the opposing team’s center, which can look like this:

This video picks up after the screening action, but it offers a look at the advantage that is created.

Even when opposing defenses aren’t being aggressive against the pick and roll, this could be an option to allow Young to get isolated on a big, slow defender. Additionally, this could be an option for Atlanta’s secondary creators such as De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter.

And since the set is optimal when the big man in the play is a capable shooter, it could be an especially interesting fit when John Collins or Dewayne Dedmon are manning the center position.

To date, the Hawks playbook has been more than enough to set Young up for offensive success. He’s been wildly productive. But as they prepare to move toward getting ready to compete in a seven-game playoff series, actions such as this might be something that could be of interest.