Nuggets journal: Rookie Facundo Campazzo is ready for his playoff close-up

If game recognizes game, then dog recognizes dog.

Defensive ace Aaron Gordon sees it in Nuggets rookie Facu Campazzo, who spent his rookie season harassing and flustering some of the NBA’s best guards.

“Facu’s a dog, man,” Gordon said this week as the team prepares for Saturday’s Game 1 against Portland. “He’s first-team All-NBA defense.”

For a number of reasons — minutes, role, exposure — Campazzo’s unlikely to get the accolade, but it’s telling that Gordon’s not the first Nugget to float the idea. Fellow grinder JaMychal Green suggested Campazzo was worthy of the honor in April.

“I don’t care how many minutes he plays,” Green said. “I really feel like he’s first-team defense. I’m not saying that because he’s my teammate. Just feel like he’ll lock down anybody he’s assigned to.”

The Nuggets better hope so. Campazzo, Denver’s likely Game 1 starter, has the unenviable task of shadowing Damian Lillard. The Nuggets are quick to point out it’s not a one-man job, but Campazzo’s going to be the first line of defense against Lillard, a 39% 3-point shooter on over 10 attempts per game this season.

Back on April 21, only two games after becoming the Nuggets’ starting point guard in the aftermath of injuries to Jamal Murray (ACL) and Monte Morris (hamstring), Campazzo was instrumental in Denver’s 106-105 win over the Blazers. He was a game-high plus-8 in his 27 minutes, which included four 3-pointers, five rebounds and three assists.

On the other end, he chased Lillard over screens, challenged him on jumpers and did his best to maintain contact at all times. Lillard finished the game 9-of-23 from the field with 22 points. He was just 2-of-10 from 3-point range.

Of the 15 times Campazzo was Lillard’s primary defender this season, Portland’s superstar connected only four times with three assists and three turnovers, according to NBA.com tracking data.

“Night in and night out, he’s getting under guys’ skin,” Gordon said. “He plays the right way. He’s just a smart, heady basketball player, real gritty. Always knows the gameplan. He’s always in the right spot. He’s one of those guys that makes it difficult for the other team.”

If Campazzo can minimize Lillard’s impact, the Nuggets’ chances to advance increase substantially. Yet no one needs a reminder of the chaos C.J. McCollum can cause. Both Austin Rivers and Shaq Harrison have huge defensive responsibilities as well.

That Campazzo is even in this position in the first place is indicative of his newfound status within the team. Since Campazzo entered the starting lineup on April 19, the Nuggets are 11-5. Their offense dipped (13th overall) yet their defense has become more reliable (9th). Against the Blazers, there should be no concerns that a Nikola Jokic-Michael Porter Jr. frontcourt can score. It’s Denver’s defense that will determine what type of series this becomes.

“I think in that stretch, Facu really impacted the game on both ends,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Scoring and playmaking on offense, defense, loose balls, being into guys, being just a constant pest out there. I don’t know if we’re 13-5 without Facu’s play.”

Part of the reason the Nuggets chased Campazzo this offseason was because of his play on the international stage. They saw him at the Olympics, in World Championships and playing for Real Madrid and were reassured the NBA wasn’t too big of a stage for him. After a difficult transition, Campazzo established himself as a trustworthy facilitator and a nuisance on the defensive end.

“I don’t anticipate Facu having a deer-in-headlights look,” Malone said. “I think he’s going to be very comfortable in this setting. He knows that the playoffs are a different level, and I’m sure he’s going to bring his game to a different level.”

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