Tuesday April 8th, 2008

Watch enough Denver Nuggets games this year and you will be forgiven for entertaining the thought that, if given the PT, you might be able to go for 30 in that offense.

Such is the contagious nature of scoring on the most talented and mystifying of the teams jostling for the final two spots in the Great Western Playoff Race of '08, in which each morning brings a reordered playoff seeding. To the untrained eye, Denver appears to be playing one big, frenetic game of pickup basketball: Players hurtle down the court, pull up for crazy threes and think nothing of going one-on-two, not to mention one-on-three or one-on-the-Kings, as guard Allen Iverson did last Saturday in a 118-115 loss to Sacramento, hopscotching through five defenders to score on a runner in the third quarter.

Then again, even to the trained eye the Nuggets appear to be playing pickup basketball, because, well, they essentially are. Coach George Karl encourages whoever gets the ball to push it upcourt and wants players to shoot in less than 10 seconds. Even when Karl does call plays -- which he says has been on less than 50% of possessions in some recent games -- they're often simple isolations for Iverson or Denver's other All-Star, forward Carmelo Anthony. While Karl prefers his players to (in order) get to the rim, shoot free throws or take open threes, the only shot he considers a bad one is a contested two-pointer in the first 10 seconds, and even that doesn't apply to his two stars. "They pretty much freelance," says Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan. "Everybody else plays off of [Anthony and Iverson]. You know what they're going to do, it's how do you stop them?"

For the last couple of months, few have. Since the All-Star break the Nuggets (46-31 through Sunday and in eighth place in the West) are averaging a league-best 118.8 points and shooting 50.0% from the field. In a surreal March 16 win against the Seattle SuperSonics, Denver scored 168 points, the most in the NBA since 1990. It's not just the Big Two, either: Four Nuggets, including two reserves (Linas Kleiza and J.R. Smith), have dropped 40 or more this season, and five have set or tied their career highs in scoring.

Perhaps no player embodies the unconventional, see-basket-and-shoot spirit of this year's team better than reserve forward Eduardo Nájera. A classic banger, the 6' 8", 235-pound Nájera spent the first seven years of his career setting retaining-wall screens and taking more elbows to the face than he did jump shots. So what does Karl have him doing now? Hoisting up threes, of course. Through Sunday, Nájera -- Nájera! -- was attempting nearly two three-balls a game and hitting a respectable 37.5%, despite having averaged only eight attempts per season over his career. The experiment began last fall when, after watching Nájera hit 20-footers in shooting drills, Karl told him to take a step back and start launching threes in games. Assuming his coach was "playing around," Nájera did no such thing. To his surprise, however, Karl approached him a few exhibition games later. "Hey," Karl said, "I'm still waiting for you to shoot those threes."

Indeed, these days Karl seems to be doing his best Don Nelson impersonation. Witness the near manic giddiness he summons when talking offense. "It's about the power of explosion, the power of going on a 20-2 run and [the opponent] can do nothing about it," Karl said after a recent practice, eyebrows dancing up and down. "When we're rolling, I don't care if it's San Antonio, Detroit, whoever. When we're hot, it doesn't matter." In recent weeks the Nuggets have outrun and outgunned the run-and-gunners, beating both the Suns and the Warriors in scoreathons (scoregies?). "It's fun," says Kleiza, who had 41 in a January win over the Utah Jazz. "Coach Karl gives us freedom and expects us not to be knuckleheads."

Speaking of knuckleheads, until recently the 22-year-old Smith was the embodiment of every negative NBA stereotype: the young, hubristic player straight out of high school who gave himself a ridiculous nickname (Young Rich) and felt his skills exempted him from normal responsibilities like, you know, playing defense and listening to his coach. But Smith is bursting with raw talent; he's the rare player who could capably compete in both the slam dunk contest and the three-point shootout. And while it's too early to say Smith has reformed, Karl's message is getting through, if slowly. Smith's minutes -- and his production -- have increased as he's begun looking to pass (at least occasionally), playing defense (or at least a reasonable facsimile) and taking better care of the ball. Since the All-Star break, he has averaged 15.6 points and 2.6 three-pointers on 48.8% shooting.

Of course, Smith could revert to his old self next week, and the same goes for the Nuggets. Up until the last month or so, Denver was consistently inconsistent, overpowering teams one night and playing lackadaisically the next. Just as the Nuggets' hot shooting is contagious, so too is their missing, of both jumpers and defensive assignments, something Iverson refers to as "our slippage." Too often Denver's rotations don't rotate, and its double teams turn into leak-outs. In last Saturday's loss to the Kings, the Nuggets allowed layups off made baskets, repeatedly didn't box out and gambled on ill-advised steals. "We spend more energy offensively and take a rest defensively when it should be the other way around," says Nájera. "That's the difference with a team like San Antonio or Detroit. They hardly ever make mistakes defensively and give you easy buckets."

Back when Karl was a defense-first coach, this would have driven him crazy. Now, despite the fact that Denver's locker room rather comically boasts a sign that reads DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS and includes the team's rankings in opponents' scoring (28th), field goal percentage (12th) and assists (30th), Karl is resigned to his club's style of play. "I still like defense more than offense," he says, "but when four of your top six players are offensive players, that's what you do."

So Karl and his Nuggets head down the stretch and, they hope, into the playoffs with a simple mission: Outscore the other team. "I know at times it looks bad," says Karl, "but at times it's explosive as hell."

Just so long as it doesn't blow up in their faces.

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