Why Justin Holiday replaced Peyton Watson

It’s the holiday season in Denver. The Nuggets’ second-round playoff run was characterized by a problem in Michael Malone’s rotation: an increase in bench minutes for 35-year-old Justin Holiday, who was in and out of the lineup throughout the season.

Holiday, who signed a one-year deal with Denver at the veteran minimum last July, was DNPCD (did not play; coach’s decision) 24 times during the regular season. He played on average less than 15 minutes per game. But while he was used as a ninth or tenth option by Malone, he also started nine games when the Nuggets had to draft someone for Aaron Gordon or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

“The biggest thing (being in and out of the rotation) is mentally,” Holiday said Sunday before Game 4 at Minnesota. “I’m going to practice, right?” I will, day after day, take these photos. It’s about how you actually deal with failure when you play. How do you deal with success when you play.

In the first round of the playoffs, Holiday scored just three points against the Lakers, playing single-digit minutes in four of five games while Malone put nine points into his bench. But against the Timberwolves, second-year wing Peyton Watson was phased out throughout the series. His only second-half minutes came during trash time, and he was DNPCD in Game 4. Vacation dependency increased.

Why this change? Malone indicated before the playoffs that his rotations would depend on the games rather than being concrete for the four rounds of a possible championship. Simply put, this is the first evidence of this philosophy being put into practice.

Specifically, this is a decision to prioritize offense over defense for this matchup. The Timberwolves ranked No. 1 in the NBA in defensive rating this season. Even during the first two games, when Watson was part of Malone’s substitution pattern in the first half, he only participated in games after Nikola Jokic’s minutes of rest. The second unit all series consisted of Jamal Murray, Christian Braun, Michael Porter Jr., Holiday and Gordon.

For most of the regular season, Watson played four with Denver’s second unit. This second-round wrinkle has as much to do with Porter at four as anything else.

“I’m just trying to find a lineup that can give us the best chance to be successful,” Malone said last week. “With the way (the Timberwolves) guard and their defensive efficiency, sometimes you have to put your best offensive team together to give yourself a chance to score and stay in the game. And obviously, I think we had four points five minutes into the first quarter (in the first game), so to say our offense was struggling would be an understatement. So Michael at four lets you try to keep them a little more honest.

Watson was a 29.6% 3-point shooter in the regular season. The Lakers played the percentages against him in the first round, not guarding him on the perimeter and setting a pattern for other playoff opponents to do the same. This poses a risk to the Nuggets’ floor spacing, which is especially important against a defense as powerful as Minnesota’s. Gordon also shot 29 percent from three during the regular season, so the Timberwolves have already shown they’re happy to invite him to shoot open jump shots early in the series. (Slowly but surely, Gordon outgrew his media coverage.)

Putting Watson and Gordon together on the field in the usual second-unit configuration would be particularly stifling to Denver’s offensive ambitions. Hence the sub-diagram of Game 1 and Game 2, featuring a few minutes of Watson alongside Jokic while Gordon took a breather. The Nuggets opted to spread the defense out more during Jokic’s off minutes by surrounding Gordon with four shooters. Holiday was 40.4 percent from beyond the arc in the regular season, including 48.6 percent on corner 3s, automatically making him a worthwhile $2 million investment for general manager Calvin Booth. And Porter can still spot, drive and rebound at the four, which is no stranger to him.

Most NBA coaches shorten their benches and rely more on veterans as they advance in the playoffs. Malone is no exception. But if there’s an argument for keeping the rotation at nine, it’s that Watson is already one of the best defenders on the roster. He blocked six shots in a win over Minnesota late in the regular season, limiting Naz Reid’s contributions. He makes electrifying and dynamic plays (swats, dunks) exponentially more often at home than on the road.

Justin Holiday (9) and Christian Braun (0) of the Denver Nuggets stand on the court during the second quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Sunday, May 12, 2024. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post )

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