Since a disappointing loss in New Orleans that left many fans fearing the Denver Nuggets would be sitting at home when the playoffs began the Nuggets have won five of seven games and solidified their position as a playoff team. The biggest of those five victories came in Houston at the expense of a desperate Rockets team who were playing for their season.
I have been very realistic, some would say pessimistic, about the Nuggets ability to be competitive come playoff time. With the Nuggets finally fielding a healthy team they are doing their best to prove me wrong. Here are several observations I have made recently that are making think Denver could possibly be more than a speed bump in the postseason.
1. Their pick and roll defense is showing significant signs of improvement
The number one reason I have completely dismissed the Nuggets chances in the playoffs is their horrible defense. Over their previous three games they have shown signs of life, particularly defending the pick and roll. The big men, Koufos, Faried, Harrington and even McGee have started doing a much better job of hedging, or at least challenging the ball handler as he comes off the pick. McGee has shown the most improvement as he is no longer just hanging back by the rim hoping for a blocked shot. Kudos go to the coaching staff for getting him to make such a big adjustment so quickly. While Denver’s defense is still a work in progress, it is showing signs of solidifying.
2. Arron Afflalo is a legitimate scoring threat every night
I was very hard on Afflalo early in the season, as many fans were. He has always done a good job of adding something to his game every summer. This offseason it was obvious he wanted to be able to create his own shot and be more than filling just a supporting role. While AAA is more likely than anyone to pound the ball into the ground with little to show for it, he has developed a herky jerky game that is part Brandon Roy and part Dwyane Wade. Of course Afflalo is not the passer Roy was, nor is he the finisher that Wade is. He has developed a deadly touch in the lane and an uncanny ability to get a well-balanced shot off under pressure. His efficiency numbers have slid a bit since last season, but part of that was due to a very slow start to the season. He has been incredible in March and April. Monday night in Houston, he moved without the ball better than I have ever seen sneaking behind the defense on at least three occasions to get a layup or draw a foul.
3. Kenneth Faried is learning how to play defense
I already mentioned Faried’s improvement in defending the pick and roll, but he is also showing growth in defending the post, especially in the past three halves against Houston. Faried has been abused by both perimeter oriented power forwards and those who are just bigger than he is on the block. While he still has a lot to learn, he showed he can figure out how to handle a crafty player like Luis Scola. Scola had destroyed the Nuggets over the first two and a half games this season. No one had been able to handle him on the block. Starting in the second half in Denver and into the game in Houston, Faried showed he could deal with Scola in the post. Faried made the adjustment of bodying Scola up and keeping his weight forward in order to hold his ground all while staying on his toes ready to move as soon as Scola tried to spin or drive. It sounds simple, but mastering that balance between pushing while being prepared to move your feet is difficult. It appears to me that Faried is beginning to get the feel for it.
4. George Karl is figuring out who to trust
I have hesitated to praise or criticize Karl too much during the course of the season. He has had an incredibly difficult task this season. He has been handed new players, a shortened season, injuries and a big unexpected midseason trade. He has a lot of NBA caliber players on the bench, but he has not been able to know who to trust night in and night out. The perfect example is Corey Brewer. Brewer brings a lot of intangibles to the table, but he does so in a very unorthodox package. He is a terrible shooter, even from the short corner. He is so bad that his teammates sometimes choose not to pass him the ball when he is wide open in the corner. Still, his length and determination on defense can swing the course of a game. We have seen him do it late against Minnesota and his presence helped blow the first Houston contest open. Of course, there are also nights where Brewer is not getting steals, or scoring easy baskets in transition. On those nights he is a killer to have on the court. Recently Karl has done a good job of knowing when to play Brewer and how much. He may have kept him in the game a little too much against the Lakers, but Brewer gave him good reason to keep him in the game.
Gallinari is back from injury and is proving to be a slow starter who needs time to shake off the rust. Karl has pushed the right buttons with him, first keeping him off the court on Sunday when the Nuggets were making their big second half run to take control of the game and then having him play the closing minutes in Houston. Faried is another player who Karl has embraced. He may not play as much as some would like, but Karl has slowly lengthened his leash as the season has progressed. You can also point to the benching of Mozgov as a sign Karl is willing to make a significant change. Koufos has proven to be more consistent, if not more spectacular, and McGee certainly deserves to play. Mozgov was a Karl favorite to start the season, but Karl has basically admitted he was wrong, which is never easy for a coach, or a blogger, to do. I do feel badly for Birdman as he has shown that when he is rested, he can still play very well, but there is only enough minutes for two centers in the rotation to get consistent minutes and Bird is the odd man out. Miller and Harrington have certainly proven that they deserve to play down the stretch and both have made big plays for Denver recently.
Now, I am not saying Karl is without blame. I think it took him a little too long to come around on Faried and he has certainly relied too much on small ball during the season, plus I have taken umbrage with his constant downplaying expectations and that has certainly not changed this season. Still, he has been dealt a very difficult hand from a personnel standpoint, but is doing as well as can be expected.
5. Afflalo and Harrington are filling the on court leadership void
The Nuggets have been rudderless on the floor since Chauncey Billups left town along with Carmelo. Ty Lawson is a talent, but not a leader. Miller can direct the offense, but is also not a rah rah sis boom bah kind of guy. When you watch Afflalo and Harrington you can see that they are reaching the point of taking the results of these games personally. Harrington is not afraid to yell at his teammates if they are not hustling or doing their job and Afflalo is displaying tremendous determination and a will to win.
It remains to be seen if those two can help direct their teammates when they are seeing things crumble around them on the road in the playoffs in a must win situation, but they have earned the right to try.
That goes for this entire Nuggets team. I am still dubious that they will make any noise in the playoffs, but they have certainly earned the right to try and I sure hope they can do it.