Through Dec. 21, the Denver Nuggets own the No.1 seed in the Western Conference. With a 21-9 record, a depth has emerged from the injury-ravaged group that is missing six potential rotational …
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Through Dec. 21, the Denver Nuggets own the No.1 seed in the Western Conference.
With a 21-9 record, a depth has emerged from the injury-ravaged group that is missing six potential rotational players, including three opening-night starters.
So, what has this all meant for a team brawling on a nightly basis against fierce competition in the Western Conference? Next man up.
“The injuries I think have been a blessing in one way, that other guys have had a chance to show their skills,” Altitude Sports and Entertainment Nuggets’ play-by-play announcer Chris Marlowe said.
Marlowe, who’s been the voice of the Nuggets since 2004, would know.
“The difficulty will be when they have to add these guys back into the lineup,” Marlowe said. “That will be the greatest challenge for (coach Michael) Malone down the line.”
For the time being, however, stepping into prominent roles for Denver have been third-year man Juancho Hernangomez (9.9 points per game), second-year backup point guard Monte Morris (league-leader in assist to turnover ratio, 6.2), 28-year-old journeyman Torrey Craig and former 2016 first-round pick Malik Beasley.
With the help of veteran presences in sixth-year man Mason Plumlee and the versatile Trey Lyles, the Nuggets don’t have many weaknesses in their rotation, going two-to-three deep at every spot.
“Monte Morris was always going to be an important part of this team, but he has become a key part now,” Marlowe said. “He’s playing 28-30 minutes, he’s closing with the first team, and he has really been a revelation I think for the Nuggets.”
Morris has been the most pleasant surprise, Marlowe said, and with the absence of Will Barton, Juancho has moved right into the starting lineup and done well. Jauncho is probably the Nuggets’ best three-point shooter at 42 percent and has improved defensively.
“I certainly think he has taken advantage of this opportunity,” Marlowe said. “With the injury to Gary Harris, Malik Beasley is now playing 25 minutes a game and is getting 10, 12, 15 (points) a night. He has become a reliable performer also.”
Finally, there is Torrey Craig, who was kind of in-and-out of the lineup. He started, and then went out of the lineup, and then has come back and he seems to be improving.
“He’s a terrific defender, athletic, strong, and showing he has a little bit of a three-point shot,” Marlowe said. “Tim Connelly (Nuggets President of Basketball Operations) told me he shot 38 percent his last year in Australia, so maybe adjusting to the NBA three-point line, which is a little longer, has been a transition, but he has done well.”
Not missing a beat
Filling as starters for the injured Barton (two games played), Harris (21 games played) and Paul Millsap (25 games played, broke toe Dec. 7), Hernangomez, Craig and Plumlee have stepped in, without missing a beat. Going 4-1 since the loss of do-it-all Millsap, Denver continues to go with the `next guy’ as they have all season.
“I don’t think anyone predicted the Nuggets would shoot out of the gate like they did at 9-1,” Marlowe said. “They stumbled and lost six of seven, but since then they have been playing great basketball.”
For Marlowe, the difference this year obviously has been the defense.
“There is a confidence that they can do it on the defensive end, and they don’t have to score 120 a night to do it,” he said. “I think they have the formula now and I think the ideal scenario for Michael Malone is to score 108-109 points and give up 96. I think Malone would take that every time.”
For a team that has averaged 107.9 points per game since Malone took over in 2015, scoring is not a problem. The Nuggets have averaged 110 points-per-game. The monumental change for this 2018 group, however, has been defense. Allowing 103.4 points-per-game, (third-best in NBA) the average of 108.2 points-per-game over the last three seasons seems to be a distant memory for this effort-driven group.
“I think there are three main reasons why they are better defensively,” Marlowe said. “The first was a subtle scheme change where they have moved Nikola Jokic up on the pick-and-roll. Instead of dropping him back and playing passive defense, they got him up attacking the ball handler. I think that works for him."
Jokic’s attacking the ball handler and he’s not the only one. Plumlee does it, Millsap does too, Marlowe said.
“I think that particular change on pick-and-roll has really helped their defense,” Marlowe said. “The second reason, they are doing better is because they have most of their guys back, and they have all been in the program now for two or three years. The continuity is much better because guys know where they are supposed to go now. The third thing is, credit to Mike Malone on this, he’s been able to get the guys to buy-in and to play at 110 percent.”
Jokic isn’t only progressing defensively, he has taken over as of late on the offensive end, Marlowe noted. The face of the franchise currently leads the Nuggets in points (18.1), rebounds (10.2) and assists (7.4). While shooting 48.5 percent from the field, the triple-double machine has changed his approach these last couple of weeks. With 46.7 points-per-game out of the starting lineup with injuries, aggressiveness from “The Joker” and lone remaining starter, Jamal Murray (17.6) have been at an all-time high.
Usually more willing to share the ball than get his own, Jokic is scoring 23 points-per-game on 51.1 percent from the field in December. Gaining national attention from NBA Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley Dec. 20 on TNT’s Inside the NBA, Barkley called Jokic his front-runner for MVP.
“I think an aggressive Nikola Jokic is a better Nikola Jokic,” Marlowe said. “He has to be the focal point of the scoring for the Nuggets. If he doesn’t try to score, teams back off of him and then play the passing lanes, and the offense doesn’t work as well. Early on, the Nuggets had so many scoring options, as he was trying to get everyone involved, but once Harris, Millsap, and Barton went down, he realized he has to score for this team to be successful.”
With all-around fantastic play through the team’s first two months of the season, the big question remains. After missing the playoffs by one game in 2017-18, is this 21-9 start the beginning of something special brewing in Denver?
“A lot depends on chemistry when the guys come back,” Marlowe said. “Barton, Millsap, Harris and the other three guys (Michael) Porter Jr. (2018 first-round pick), Isaiah Thomas (two-time All-Star) and (Jarred) Vanderbilt (2018 second-round pick) you know, you have so many guys that it is a little bit of a concern on how everybody fits.”
He gives the Nuggets fair odds since they’ve beaten every good team in the league already this season.
“The only team the Nuggets seem to have trouble with is Houston, because of James Harden,” Marlowe said. “But, if you put the Nuggets up against any other team right now in a seven-game series, I feel pretty confident. I think the sky is the limit for this team, and they are just going to get better.”
That said, there’s still room for improvement.
“Scott Hastings, my partner, likes to point out that the Nuggets haven’t even shot the ball great, only shooting 34 percent from three-point land,” Marlowe said. “They’re not clicking on all cylinders offensively, and if they can get there, they not only have a chance to get in the playoffs but get in there and do some damage.”
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