Erik Spoelstra looked like a man who’d just received an early Christmas present.
His team hadn’t won in Denver since long before he started coaching it — 10 years ago, in fact — and it arrived Thursday under circumstances known in the NBA as a fait accompli. Since the 2006-07 season, teams flying in from the west coast to play the second of back-to-back games were 2-26 against the Nuggets, largely because they seldom got to bed before the sun rose the day of the game.
This is the circumstance that so infuriated Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in 2009 that he made his top four players healthy scratches in apparent protest of the schedule makers — and nearly pulled out a win with his bench.
In this case, Spoelstra, the Miami Heat coach, had no choice but to sit one of his stars. Dwyane Wade missed the game with a foot injury. To stretch his roster further, his other starting guard, Mario Chalmers, went out in the first quarter after taking a Kenneth Faried elbow to his triceps.
So the defending NBA champions were not only exhausted, they were also short-handed. Concluding a five-game road trip that had taken them from Atlanta to Los Angeles, the Heat was riding for a fall.
The Nuggets’ plan in such games is generally as simple as it is predatory: Take advantage of the visitors’ fatigue by having the public address announcer remind them of the elevation and then run them into the ground with a turbocharged offense fueled by Ty Lawson, their jet of a point guard.
Rested and waiting for the Heat after two days off and motivated by a narrow loss in Miami less than two weeks before, Thursday night’s late TNT game at the Pepsi Center (a made-for-TV 8:45 p.m. tip) seemed scripted for payback.
Instead, the Nuggets came out lethargic, inexplicably failed to cover Miami’s myriad three-point shooters and, as has been their custom in the early going of the new season, couldn’t make a three ball or a free throw themselves. They were down eight after one quarter and 12 at the half. At some point, it occurred to the tired visitors that they might actually win the thing.
“We came too far to let that game slip away from us,” LeBron James said afterward.
The Heat controlled the pace of the game until the fourth quarter, when the Nuggets made a frantic run that was too little, too late.
“A little bit of adversity, Dwyane being out, ‘Rio having to come out in the first quarter, and then the challenge of playing to the west coast to here,” Spoelstra said.
“We didn’t want to come in with any excuses. The thing about this ball club, the one thing you can’t knock them about is rising to challenges. I could tell even from the walk-through today that it wasn’t just about showing up and laying down, but really trying to overcome the odds. Everybody was so well aware of what the record is in the last three or four years here when you’re coming from the west coast. So it shows the character of our group.”
Seriously? Winning a regular season game now demonstrates character?
Fine, whatever. But what did it show about the new-look Nuggets, other than the possibility they were blinded by their own phosphorescent new yellow uniforms?
Well, let’s see. They’re not running at anything like the pace of the past. After leading the NBA in scoring the past two seasons, they rank 10th through their first nine games. They are down from 107 and 104 points per game to 98 in the early going this year. Against a team ripe to be run into the ground, they played at a lugubrious pace that produced just 66 through three quarters, finishing with 93 after their belated rush.
“They’re a smart team,” said veteran Andre Miller, who almost willed the Nuggets to victory on his own with a brilliant fourth quarter. “They’ve got guys over there that have been to the Finals and you’ve got veterans — Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis, you got Ray Allen, you got Shane (Battier). Those guys over there are smart and know how to control the game and know how to take out a transition. And they did that.”
The Nuggets’ decline in scoring is partly a function of pace, but it’s also a natural result of the fact that they aren’t shooting well. At all.
Through their first nine games, they rank 16th in field goal percentage (.436), 25th in three-point percentage (.300) and 30th (out of 30) in free-throw percentage (.647). Thursday night they missed six of 19 foul shots, including two in a row by Faried with his team down five points and 2:19 remaining in the game.
“The one that scares me a little bit is our free throws,” coach George Karl said. “Free throws have an effect on your other shooting. There’s a confidence that comes from making free throws and if you don’t make free throws, sometimes that confidence rubs off on other shots. It’s a mental thing.”
Lawson, allegedly their emerging star, was a zero, and I mean that strictly in the arithmetic sense. He totaled zero points in 36 minutes, missing all seven of his shots, not getting to the free throw line once and failing to ignite the frenetic pace he fired up the past two seasons.
“We’ve got to start making shots,” Karl admitted. “We’ve got to make free throws and we’ve got to make threes.”
It is way too early to judge the Nuggets’ big off-season move — trading shooter Al Harrington and 2-guard Arron Afflalo for Andre Iguodala — but it is not too early to observe that their best player for the moment is Miller, a 36-year-old guard, which is not that good a sign for a team ostensibly full of budding young stars.
If the Nuggets have a big three, they are Lawson, Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari, each averaging more than 35 minutes a game. Their shooting percentages, respectively, are .383, .441 and .322.
“We need more, probably, from Ty, Gallo and Iguodola,” Karl acknowledged.
And, if I may interject a question from the cheap seats, why is Kosta Koufos starting for this team? The 7-footer spent 14 minutes on the court doing a pretty good impression of a streetlamp. In the second half, Karl subbed him out after barely three minutes.
JaVale McGee gets most of the minutes in the middle — he had 18 points, six boards and four blocked shots in 21 on Thursday — but Karl doesn’t like to play him beside Faried for too long because they both tend to gamble defensively. When they’re on the floor together, it produces unreliable defensive rotations. But against a Miami team without a center, I could only conclude that Koufos either has pictures of somebody in the organization or holds the solution to the Greek debt crisis.
I know, it’s early. At 4-5, having played only three home games, the Nuggets are in the midst of surviving an early stretch in the schedule that has them playing nine of their first 12 on the road. Still, when your best-looking outside shooter is 22-year-old Jordan Hamilton, barely a member of the playing rotation when everyone is healthy, that’s a problem.
The Nuggets are built for speed and defense. Their offense is supposed to be fired by their defense and transition game. Theoretically, they don’t have to shoot from the perimeter much because they score so much in the paint and on the break.
They do win most of the hustle categories most of the time. They beat the Heat in points in the paint (50-24), fast break points (19-6) and second-chance points (22-12). They did a nice job crowding James, holding him to 11-of-23 shooting, although this left lots of three-point shooters wide open, including young Norris Cole, who hit the dagger with 1:03 remaining and the Nuggets down by one.
Unfortunately, the home team’s crooked shooting made all their extra hustle possessions necessary just to stay close. Miami had one fewer field goal on 11 fewer attempts. The Heat outscored them 39-18 from long distance. Without Wade and Chalmers, Spoelstra surrounded LeBron with three-point shooters and dared the Nuggets to cover them. The Nuggets largely declined. Battier hit six of seven threes; Miller, four of eight.
“There’s a process,” Karl said. “Our personality is different. Andre Iguodola is different from Al and Arron and we have to learn this team’s personality of winning. I don’t think we’re that far away from getting that done.”
I wouldn’t be surprised. No one in the NBA is better than Karl at adapting to his talent. On the other hand, it’s hard to win consistently in the NBA if you can’t shoot, and it’s really hard to win playoff series if you can’t shoot.
Not long ago, TNT analyst Steve Kerr said he thought Gallinari had regressed since coming to Denver from New York. In his early days as a Knick, Kerr thought he would be a great three-point shooter. Now he’s a guy who seems to shoot mostly off-balance, fadeaway jumpers. He’s shooting .222 from long distance in the early going.
Granted, there’s plenty of time to work out the kinks of yet another chemistry experiment. But if the shooting doesn’t come around in a month or two, general manager Masai Ujiri might have to look at making another move.