NBA @ 2: Nuggets Rebuilding and Winning
The Denver Nuggets won a huge game on Monday night in Houston 105-102 over the Rockets, giving Denver a major advantage in the race to the postseason.
Now at 34-27, the Nuggets have a two-game lead over both the Phoenix Suns and Rockets (currently tied at 32-29). Denver has clinched the season series over both, so the difference is three with five left apiece.
Additionally, the Dallas Mavericks lost in triple-overtime to the Utah Jazz Monday, falling to 34-28, a half-game behind the Nuggets. The Mavericks have the tie-breaker over the Nuggets, but Denver is suddenly in a position of power.
Win out and they won’t drop below six.
Catching the Memphis Grizzlies, who have the tiebreaker, may be a little unrealistic but the Nuggets are now quite likely to see the postseason, surviving what has been a difficult season.
The hardest part has been fielding a healthy roster. Forward Danilo Gallinari has missed 23 games. Rudy Fernandez is out of the year (playing in just 31). Before the trade to the Washington Wizards, center/forward Nene couldn’t stay on the court.
Guards Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo have both missed time and played hurt. Even the recently signed Wilson Chandler isn’t able to go.
“I’m glad [Gallinari] is back because I think we were putting extra stress on Andre [Miller] and Ty to make so many decisions on the court,” said Coach George Karl. “Our decision making has improved . . . I think Ty got worn out for running all the pick and rolls and now he shares it with Andre and Gallo.”
The latest injury is to forward Al Harrington who is trying to operate with a torn meniscus (knee).
“I’m just playing for my team right now,” said Harrington. “We’ve been through a lot this year a lot of injuries and stuff like that and I know how important it is to make the playoffs and I just want to be a part of that and keep fighting with the guys.”
“I still don’t know who Al Harrington is going to be with his knee,” said Karl, also noting that Chandler’s issue remains a factor.
“We hope Wilson will get on the court next couple of days,” said the Nuggets coach. “There’s going to be a situation where he is probably going to need surgery at the end of the season, but he wants to play and try to help this team in the playoffs.”
In Harrington’s case, he’s not expected to cause further damage by playing on the knee.
“I don’t think I could do nothing worse to it,” said Al. “The doctor just told me to play according to my pain threshold and I think it’s important to play all 66 games to get ready for the playoffs.”
Harrington has been able to stay productive, scoring 15 points off the bench with nine boards and three steals against the Rockets on Monday.
Still, he notices the limitations.
“I just can’t push off it,” said the Denver forward. “I think the biggest thing that’s affected by it is rebounding because I can’t box out and jump. I have to do one or the other.”
The Nuggets have recently seen an upswing in recently acquired center JaVale McGee who struggled initially to find his way with the team.
Karl noted that his 14-point, 10-rebound game against the Los Angeles Lakers (the team’s lone loss over the past five) was McGee’s best performance to date.
“For a guy that you make a trade for in the middle of the season, they have a lack of the philosophy of how you want to play,” said Karl. “When you’re playing playoff games and you’re having to react to the pressure to probably the best playoff race I’ve ever seen in the Western Conference (usually in the last two weeks you start scoreboard watching, we’ve been scoreboard watching for six weeks) and you throw him out there?”
“He probably doesn’t have a good rhythm to him for numerous reasons,” answered Karl. “He has a bit of an asthma situation, so the altitude has definitely bothered him. I think he’s doing fine but I’m sure there are times he feels he doesn’t have anything to grab onto. He’s a very good talent for us I think the organization and the coaching staff are 100% together understanding what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to go young and figure out our team on the run and still be a good basketball team.”
Rebuilding can be difficult. It wasn’t that long ago the Nuggets challenged the Lakers in the 2009 Western Conference Finals.
Now it’s an entirely different team and yet Denver remains competitive.
One spark has been from a rookie whose name-tag above his away locker reads “Manimal.”
Morehead State forward Kenneth Faried has become a fixture in the starting lineup after starting the season with a long series of DNP-CDs. Now as a starter (over 34 games), he’s nearly averaging a double-double at 10.6 points and 8.1 rebounds a night.
Faried didn’t necessarily expect to be the team’s starting power forward but he believed he’d make an impact in the NBA.
“You never doubt yourself,” said Faried. “I stay focused. My coach has always told me to be ready. You never know when your opportunity will come because injuries did bite us and then I stepped up and finally was able to just get minutes.”
Given the chance, he helped make Nene somewhat expendable – especially with the youth movement.
“I just produced in those minutes and I got more minutes and I kept producing and kept getting better every day,” said Faried. “Treat every game like it’s your last game. I try to go in there and just play my heart out and hopefully the best comes out of it. On some nights just hard for me to do but we’re trying to make this playoff run and I’m just trying to focus on that.”
The Nuggets have plenty of scorers. There isn’t a team in the league putting up more points per game (103.6). Faried does the little things to help Denver win.
“I’m not scared of nobody no matter the size, length, weight, whatever,” said Faried. “I am just going to play hard and hopefully come up with the ball.”
Karl is not a fan of the lockout-shortened season, which limits how much true coaching he can actually do. With a younger team going through roster changes and dealing with injuries, it’s made his job extremely difficult.
“There’s really no foundation to anything from the coaching standpoint,” said Karl. “You had a short training camp. Our training camp didn’t have there of the players that we’re playing now.”
“Resting your body – throw the injuries in there,” continued the Nuggets coach. “I don’t think I want to go through another year like this. Next lockout I’m going to put in my contract I don’t have to coach.”
Not that George believes his problems are unique. He’s well aware most of the league is fighting the same battle.
“Some coach compared it to having a house, because having a great foundation so on a sunny day your house looks great feels great, but on a windy rainy day your fence is going to fall down or your roof is going to fall off and I think you’ve seen that happen to almost every team,” said Karl. “You can win two or three games in a row then lose to a team and say how did we do that? Not only has it happened to us it happened to everybody.”
Fortunately the marathon of 66 games in about four months is nearly complete and, for the Nuggets, they’ll likely get at least a series of seven against a team like the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder or Lakers.
Next up for the Nuggets will be a visit from the Clippers in Denver on Wednesday night.
Coach Kobe; Coach Chauncey
The Lakers and Clippers have been winning despite injuries to Kobe Bryant and Chauncey Billups and yet both former NBA Finals MVPs are finding ways to help on the sidelines.
Bryant has missed the team’s last five games with a shin injury and yet the Lakers are 4-1. Billups has missed much of the year with a torn Achilles’ tendon.
On the sidelines, sharply dressed during games according to the league dress-code, Kobe and Chauncey are working as unofficial assistant coaches.
“Chauncey just has that way about him, he has great leadership,” said Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro. “He has a tremendous respect from the guys and he just has a presence about him that just helps us and he’s been through it and the guys respect that.”
Bryant, who is expected to return over the course of the next few games, has remained in the ear of All-Star center Andrew Bynum. Kobe’s even been caught on camera drawing out a play on a coach’s whiteboard.
Billups has a more subtle approach.
“Chauncey doesn’t do it that way because timeouts are quick especially you know, but pulling guys aside I’ll talk to him and say talk to this guy about this or whatever and it helps,” said Del Negro. “Chauncey is a player. Chauncey is a part of the team so why not use someone experienced that’s been through it, that is well respected, that I know understands what we’re trying to do and how to do it? That’s a comfort for me for allowing him to do that.”
Lakers Coach Mike Brown is collaborative in nature, often crediting his assistants for their hand in a victory.
After a game-winning shot from Bryant (prior to the shin problem), Brown said it was Assistant Coach John Kuester who drew up the play.
That might be considered by some to be a weakness, that Brown should be the one making the calls to end games, but ultimately the goal is to win regardless of responsibility.
Del Negro has his fair share of critics, especially when the team slogged through the brutal March schedule with a “terrible” 11-9 record.
At what point should Brown get the credit for his team’s record without Bryant? Or for the Lakers’ success this season that has Bynum putting up career numbers and the team tied with the Indiana Pacers with the fifth-best record in the league?
What of Del Negro and the team’s recent surge that has the Clippers just one loss behind the Lakers, helping the Clippers to clinch their first playoff berth since 2006?
It doesn’t make sense to parlay credit for success to specific components of the team and all blame to others. Even if a coach is just getting out of the way of his talent, that in and of itself may be what the job requires.
It remains to be seen if Brown or Del Negro is a championship-level coach. They both have their share of skeptics.
That’s the nature of the game. Boston Celtics Coach Doc Rivers was reportedly on the hot seat and the easy scapegoat for an awful lottery team. Of course once Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen showed up (to join Paul Pierce), Rivers suddenly knew how to coach.
If the standings hold, the Lakers will be the three seed – the Clippers the fourth.
How far does Brown or Del Negro need to get to earn that reputation as one of the league’s best coaches?
Neither may have it in them but the future remains unwritten.
Then again, the credit for a title may go instead to Coach Kobe or Chauncey.
Can Kobe Make a Smooth Return?
The Lakers have embraced the inside game without Bryant, dumping the ball to post players Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
“It has worked well for us the last couple of games. We put the ball inside to Andrew and myself and then we attract defenders and our teammates are getting good, open looks,” said Gasol. “It’s great to see because it’s us playing smart and unselfish, moving the ball and finding the open guy. I think it gets a really good energy overall for us.”
Will Bryant, who may have learned something himself while watching the team play, embrace the Lakers’ edge in the post?
“Kobe does what he does and he’s great at it,” said Gasol. “He’s going to come in really aggressive, I know that for a fact. We’re going to have to continue to be as active, work as hard as we have the past couple of games. When he comes back, that’s just what needs to happen.”
The Lakers aren’t a better team without Bryant. A few regular season wins aren’t equivalent to winning to clinching a playoff series.
Still, it’s important for Bryant to blend his individual abilities with what clearly has been working for the Los Angeles.
The right combination could see the Lakers return to the NBA Finals ahead of schedule.
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