Monthly Archives: April 2013

Bushwhacked! Do the Nuggets have an answer for the greatest-shooting backcourt ever?

In Mark Jackson’s brain, there was a certain intrigue to the starting lineups for Game 2 of the Nuggets-Warriors playoff series Tuesday night.

Kenneth Faried, the Nuggets’ power forward who missed Game 1 with a sprained ankle, was cleared to return, but his coach, George Karl, told reporters he would bring him off the bench rather than return him immediately to the starting lineup.

Karl tends to be more transparent about such things than some coaches because he figures his opponent will know soon enough anyway. If he says he’s not starting Faried and then he does, it would be a simple matter for Jackson to alter his own lineup in response, or to substitute early if he felt the matchups were going against him.

But Jackson, in his first playoff series as a head coach, thought Karl, an old hand, might be trying to snooker him. Knowing the visiting team’s lineup would be introduced first, he sent out a group that included Carl Landry at power forward, replacing the injured David Lee. Landry would be a suitable matchup for Faried.

When the Nuggets did what Karl said he would do, starting Wilson Chandler in Faried’s big forward spot, Jackson called Landry back and replaced him with guard Jarrett Jack, giving the Warriors a smaller, three-guard lineup.

Why didn’t Landry actually take the floor after being introduced with the starters?

“I’m not really sure,” Jackson said. “He may have had to go to the bathroom or something.”

So Jackson didn’t change his mind between introductions and tipoff?

“No,” he said. “Just covering all the bases.”

In other words, if Faried was in the Nuggets’ lineup, Jackson had Landry ready to match up. If he wasn’t, Jackson would make a last-minute switch. The decision had actually been made earlier in the day.

“I came to my coaches early this morning,” Jackson recounted. “I said, ‘Am I crazy to start Harrison (Barnes) at the four (big forward)? I mean, somebody talk me out of it.’ They all just smiled and they co-signed it. And I knew it was the right thing.”

If Karl or any member of his staff was surprised by the last-minute change, it didn’t show. The effect of Jackson’s decision was to go small against a small Nuggets lineup that also featured three guards — Ty Lawson, Evan Fournier and Andre Iguodala. The Nuggets held their own early, winning the first quarter 28-26. It was their only competitive episode of the evening.

“Did it throw us off?” Karl asked, repeating the question. “I mean, we play small as much as any team. The first quarter, we actually had somewhat control of what was going on. So we kind of knew what was going on.”

Whatever happened after that, it should have been accompanied by alcoholic beverages of some kind. The Nuggets saved their biggest stinker of the six-month season — a 131-117 blowout that was even worse than it sounds — for the first round of the playoffs. It’s like an allergy or something.

The game takes its place in the Nuggets’ book of dubious records. It was not only the most points scored against the Nuggets this season, it was the most scored against them in a playoff game in 23 years. It was the most scored against anybody in a playoff game in 18 years.

The Warriors’ 14 three-pointers were a new record for a Denver playoff opponent. The Nuggets collected a total of 26 rebounds, their most meager postseason total ever. Faried, the rebounding Manimal, had two in 21 minutes.

You get the idea. The Warriors made nearly two of every three shots, an astounding shooting percentage of .646. It’s been 22 years since anybody had a bigger number in the playoffs.

When I asked Karl if it was his team’s worst defensive performance of the season, he didn’t argue.

“I would think so,” he said glumly. “I can’t recall another one. We didn’t do very much of anything very well. Pick and rolls, give up the paint, three ball, transition.

“We let their shooters get into the game, and the frustration of covering shooters making shots broke down our team concepts some. Our shot selection offensively broke down and that gave them the fast break a lot of times. I don’t think I’ve ever coached a game where a team got three 35-point quarters, maybe in my career. I don’t remember that.”

After that first quarter, the Warriors’ shots rained down from everywhere and everyone. Jack hit 10 of 15, Barnes nine of 14, Klay Thompson eight of 11 and Steph Curry 13 of 23. Success energized the Warriors. Failure drained the Nuggets. The Warriors moved the ball until the Nuggets quit chasing it, then made the open shots.

Iguodala had the hot hand for the Nuggets early, hitting five of six first-quarter shots, including two three-pointers, and doing his part to fire up the full house as he ran back up the court. He got only five more attempts the rest of the game, and he didn’t seem that happy about it.

“We have so many guys who are attacking,” he said. “We’ve got to stick with some things that if they’re working, we’ve got to continue to go with it. But they went zone in the second half and kind of threw us out of our rhythm a little bit. And it kind of takes away from one guy being able to attack.”

Chandler, in particular, suffered in Golden State’s switch at big forward to Barnes from the injured Lee.

“We matched up better on defense,” Curry said. “Wilson had a huge game last game. D. Lee did a great job guarding him, but when you have Harrison able to defend him, that’s a better matchup for us.”

Chandler took one more shot than Barnes and scored 10 fewer points. Matched up against another natural small forward, he lost the quickness advantage he has against bigger, slower power forwards.

“Harrison Barnes, for a rookie, hasn’t been getting the respect that he deserves,” Jackson said. “A rookie that starts for a No. 6 seed all year long, defends, doesn’t kill you with numbers but does everything the right way.”

Barnes said Jackson didn’t tell him he was going to play big forward until he was about to walk out on the court for the opening tip.

“I think Carl even came out in the starting lineup when they announced it,” Curry said. “So I think Jack knew right before the game started that that was what we were going to do. He was ready for it. We had that lineup a lot during games, but just a different look to start with it. But defensively I think it helped us to start the game that way.”

Having removed the Nuggets’ matchup advantage, the Warriors proved better, for one night anyway, at pretty much every position. Curry put up a dazzling line of 30 points, 13 assists, five rebounds, three steals and one turnover. Thompson scored 21 points on only 11 shots. He took six threes and made five.

“We’ve got guys that can knock down shots,” Jackson said. “When you talk about Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, in my opinion they’re the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the game. And I’m a guy that’s just not throwing that out there. I followed basketball my entire life. Not only played, covered it, but I was a fan as a kid. I watched the great players. And these two guys are absolutely off the charts. I would have put Reggie Miller and myself in there, but I held him down.”

So the Nuggets got smoked. What do they do now? Games 3 and 4 are in Oakland this weekend. New schemes? New lineups? Try harder?

“We’re going to have to play harder,” Karl said. “There’s no question that to win in Golden State is going to take much more energy than we’ve put into these two games. I’m not saying we didn’t try hard. We played hard. But we didn’t play hard enough. They played harder than we did.

“They made shots, they get cocky, they get enthusiastic, they get into it. They were urgent and desperate. I can’t say that we didn’t play hard, we just didn’t play playoff hard. A little bit, I think they were more physical than we were. Their big guys hit us more than we probably banged them. The momentum and pendulum of urgency and desperation comes on our side in Golden State when we get there.”

Speaking of big guys, if anybody has seen center Kosta Koufos, please alert local authorities. Somehow, the Warriors managed to outscore the Nuggets by 18 points in the 14 minutes he spent on the floor. Might this be an opportune time to start JaVale McGee? Or does Faried, who was ineffective off the bench, return to the starting lineup?

“I’ll evaluate everything,” Karl said. “We will evaluate everything. And we will try to make the adjustments that put the best team out there for more minutes than we did tonight, and that won’t be that difficult.”

Each playoff game is its own story, and one doesn’t necessarily influence the next. But the Warriors were the more aggressive, skilled team in the first two games of the series. Only Andre Miller’s miraculous 18-point fourth quarter in Game 1 prevented the visitors from winning both.

“This series is far from over,” Jackson said. “We’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for them and they’re more than capable of coming into Oracle (Arena) and beating us. So we’ve got to relax, and then we’ve got to get back to work.”

The Warriors are much better outside shooters, so the Nuggets have to do what they did all season, which is get to the rim. But they aren’t rebounding, the catalyst for the fast break, and the Warriors are frustrating penetration by turning to a zone defense at times that turns the Nuggets into jump shooters or turnover machines.

Curry has been better than Lawson. Thompson has been more efficient than Iguodala. Barnes outplayed Chandler in Game 2. And Koufos vs. Andrew Bogut has been no contest.

“This process has just begun,” Karl said. “We’ve beaten this team four out of six games. Someone’s always said the series doesn’t begin until someone wins on the other team’s court. Now the series in a lot of ways, the process has begun.”

Well, if we’re in a battle of cliches, the pressure is on the Nuggets now. They do not look like the team that finished the regular season on a 24-4 roll. Their 24-game home winning streak is over. Now we find out if they know how to counterpunch.


So Andre Miller is ready for the playoffs; anybody else?

For most of the last two months of the NBA regular season, the Denver Nuggets seemed impermeable to bad news.

Leading scorer Ty Lawson goes down? Andre Miller takes over at the point. Miller is lost to one of the best bench units in the association? Twenty-year-old Evan Fournier steps into the rotation.

Second-leading scorer Danilo Gallinari goes down? Wilson Chandler steps into the starting lineup. Chandler is lost to one of the best bench units in the association? Young Anthony Randolph steps into the rotation.

Leading rebounder Kenneth Faried goes down? The ever-versatile Chandler moves from Gallo’s small forward spot to Manimal’s big forward spot and Fournier, who couldn’t find the floor a month ago, moves into the starting lineup.

Through it all, the ensemble kept winning — 13 out of 15 in March, seven of eight in April. The Nuggets were 24-4 after the All-Star break. Their 57 wins were the most since the franchise joined the NBA in 1976.

They remained impermeable Saturday in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Warriors, but just barely. Miller’s game-winning layup with 1.3 seconds to play was a nice story. At 37, he said it was the first game-winning shot of his long career.

On the other hand, the fact that the ageless Miller had to bail out his team with an 18-point fourth quarter — the rest of the team scored eight — didn’t say much for anybody else. The Warriors’ starting backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson outscored their Denver counterparts, Lawson and Fournier, 41-23, leaving the bench a lot to make up. Miller outscored the Golden State bench by himself.

The Nuggets’ finished the regular season third in the NBA in assists at 24.4 per game. They managed only 16 in their 97-95 Game 1 victory. Without that active passing game, they were forced to play one-on-one, which is not their strength. They shot .447 as a team after averaging .478 for the season. Lawson was 6-of-15, Chandler 5-of-16 and Corey Brewer 4-of-12.

“We didn’t shoot the ball with much confidence all night long,” coach George Karl acknowledged. “We won tonight basically because of Andre Miller and our defense . . . . It’s just the beginning. One win is a good start. I think Golden State has shown that they’re going to be able to play on the same level as us and we’re going to have to continue to get better and continue to find other ways to win games.”

One way would be to score more. The Nuggets led the league in scoring this season, averaging 106.1 points per game. They scored fewer than 100 only 19 times in 82 games. Yet the Warriors, who gave up an average of 100.2 points per game during the season, held them below 100 on Denver’s home court.

“I thought we had a very good performance of executing our game plan,” Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. “We made plays. We made shots. We defended. . . . Overall, we kept a body on them. We were physical. I thought at times we were a little bit careless. That’s to be expected with a young basketball team. But I’m proud of my guys. We put ourselves in position to win the ballgame; unfortunately, fell short.”

If you suspect that Curry will shoot closer to his season average — .451 — than his Game 1 average — .350 — going forward, the Nuggets will need to improve their own offensive efficiency.

The good news is the war of attrition seems to be turning in their favor. Warriors all-star forward David Lee tore a hip flexor in Game 1 and was lost for the remainder of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Lawson is back from a torn plantar fascia and Faried may be sufficiently recovered from a sprained ankle to play in Game 2 on Tuesday.

“The strength of our team is we find ways to win,” Karl said. “Anthony Randolph has helped us win games. Corey Brewer has been spectacular at the end of games, as our lead guy. Our big guys, you don’t know who’s going to perform at a high level. We don’t have one guy that wins it, but Andre was obviously the guy tonight.”

Miller’s shot chart was characteristically unbalanced. Of his 16 field goal attempts, not one came from left of the lane. Even on the final play, when he drove the paint, going left around Warriors rookie defensive specialist Draymond Green, he slipped back to his right to make the winning layup, avoiding center Andrew Bogut, who was a tad late coming to help.

“He’s a big-time defender and I’ve got a lot of confidence in him,” Jackson said of Green. “We’ve got a group of rookies that came in the day after the draft, drilled every single day, got prepared and understand how to be successful on this level. And Draymond Green is an elite defender. And I feel extremely comfortable putting him on anybody, one through five. Andre Miller made a heck of a play.”

Asked to compare the winner to previous big shots, Miller had a quick answer.

“Well, I never hit a game-winning shot,” he said. “Never. I’ve taken a couple and missed or turned the ball over, but that was big for a first playoff game.

“I was tired, actually. I think both teams were tired. Me and Ty was going back and forth on who was going to get the ball — you know, ‘You bring it, I bring it.’ He saw that I was in a rhythm and I was just like, just suck it up. I knew who to put in the pick and roll to get to my sweet spot and I just took the shots.”

But even Miller acknowledged that with Bogut guarding the rim behind a Warriors zone defense — Golden State outscored Denver by 10 points while the 7-footer was on the floor — the Nuggets’ offense was largely stymied.

“A lot of things went wrong,” Miller said. “They got into a zone, slowed us down, we started relying on jump shots. You’ve got a couple young guys out there that’s not out there much.”

Having clawed their way back into the game in the fourth quarter without Lee, the Warriors seemed to gain confidence in defeat. Sunday’s news that Lee is out for the duration may moderate that confidence, but the Warriors know they have a defensive game plan that worked in Game 1.

“We haven’t played ’em since January,” Curry said of the Nuggets. “Their style hadn’t really changed since then. We knew what to expect. It was going to be an uptempo game. That’s how we like to play as well, so we tried to implement our own strengths throughout the course of the game. Hard-fought all the way to the end. One big play by Andre Miller changed the game. So we feel good about where we are going into Game 2.”

All year, the debate around the Nuggets has been whether their high-flying, rim-rattling, star-starved ensemble concept could thrive in the postseason the way it did in the regular season. Conventional wisdom says no. Even with a legitimate star in Carmelo Anthony, their full court, uptempo style got them out of the first round only once.

But they were so good in the regular season this year that they improved their postseason odds, earning home court advantage in the first round over a team that won 10 fewer games over the course of the first 82. Anything seemed possible, including gathering confidence while making quick work of their first-round opponent and giving themselves a chance to compete with the best of the West.

All of that is still possible, but the Warriors served notice in Game 1 that their strategy is to turn the Nuggets into jump shooters. If they continue to succeed at that, it’s going to be a long series, because the Nuggets aren’t particularly good jump shooters.

If the Nuggets are to gain credibility as a contender, they will need to dominate the Lee-less Warriors in Game 2 and demonstrate that they have an answer to the strategy that largely baffled them in Game 1.


The 5 movies you need to know if you want to be Peyton Manning’s teammate

In his first meeting with the wretches since the end of last season, Peyton Manning opened the door. Earlier this week, from the podium at Dove Valley, he dropped a little gem on the inquiring minds from Nuke LaLoosh. He was talking about returning to the NFL last season after missing all of 2011 with a neck injury.

“Being back out on the field, playing with my new teammates, it was a new atmosphere for me, totally different culture and a huge transition, but I did not take it for granted one single moment, being out there on the field,” he said.

“Now, once you’re out there, you certainly want to win. It’s more fun, as the great Ebby Calvin ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh said in Bull Durham, ‘I like winning. It’s like, uh, you know, better than losing, you know?’ One of my great quotes that I’ve always used to motivate me.”

So naturally, when Manning joined us on the Dave Logan Show a couple of days later, I followed up, asking whether he found wisdom in other sports movies as well. Apparently happy not to be taking another question about nerve regeneration, he gave us an overview of sports films.

Then, without further prompting, he revealed the five movies he wants teammates to watch so they’ll understand his casual references to famous lines. Only one of the five is even nominally a sports movie.

“Well, I’ve always been a big fan of sports movies,” Manning said. “There’s probably better baseball and basketball great sports movies. If you had to name your No. 1 baseball movie, you’ve got to go with The Natural and Roy Hobbs. Basketball, you’ve got to go with Hoosiers, obviously.

“In football, it’s kind of up for debate. I mean, you could go with The Longest Yard — the original, not the remake, clearly — but it’s really more of a prison movie than it is a football movie. And, you know, there are some bad ones out there, right? There are some bad ones.

“But you could get into a little maybe R-rated with North Dallas Forty, and those kind of movies, a little more old-school. Kind of your era there, Dave. That’s kind of yours.”

“I know, I know,” Logan acknowledged.

“But Any Given Sunday, with (Al) Pacino, not necessarily what I would define as the classic football movie,” Manning continued.

“Listen, dude, you could never have played for Pacino as a head coach,” Logan interjected.

“No, absolutely not,” Manning agreed. “There’s no way. But I think there’s still that great football movie to be made out there. But Bull Durham, it’s a classic.”

That’s when he let us in on his strategy for connecting with younger teammates.

“I tell you, the past few years, as I’ve reached my elder years as a quarterback in the NFL, I’ve kind of tried to get to know these rookies and try to get on the same page with them,” Manning said.

“But what I’m finding out is we don’t speak the same language because we don’t know the same favorite movies. In order to get on the same page with me, you need to watch these five movies, so we can repeat lines and all that. I’ve kind of changed it up over the years, but the main five are going to be VacationFletchStripesCaddyshack and probably The Jerk.

“That’s kind of my top five. But most of these guys have never heard of these movies, and they really don’t think they’re funny because it’s a different kind of humor. It’s this ’70s-’80s-’90s humor. But whatever you can do to get on the same page.

“So right now (Broncos backup quarterback Brock) Osweiler is kind of working on that project and he’s trying to get to know those movies. I don’t think he likes ’em either, and he probably shouldn’t because I’m 37 and he’s 22 and that’s just the way it is. But it’s all about trying to establish the connection.”

“Honestly,” I asked him, “doesn’t Nick Nolte in North Dallas Forty remind you a little bit of Logan?”

“Absolutely,” Manning said. “Absolutely, he does. And I can be Mac Davis.”

“I couldn’t get out of bed on Monday, I can tell you that much,” Logan said.

There are several interesting aspects to Manning’s list:

First, they were all made between 1979 and 1985. Manning was born in 1976, meaning they all came out before he turned 10. So either Archie Manning gave him an early education in adolescent humor or Peyton went back to discover these classics later on.

The Jerk was released in 1979, when Manning was three; Caddyshack in 1980, when he was four; Stripes in 1981, when he was five; Vacation in 1983, when he was seven; and Fletch in 1985, when he was nine.

Second, they were all built around early members of the cast of Saturday Night Live: Chevy Chase (Vacation and Fletch), Bill Murray (Caddyshack andStripes) and Steve Martin (The Jerk), one of the most frequent early hosts of SNL.

Third, of course, each sports some memorable repartee that can be applied, often inappropriately, in other contexts. A few aren’t even profane. For example:

From Fletch:

Dr. Joseph Dolan: You know, it’s a shame about Ed.

Fletch: Oh, it was. Yeah, it was really a shame. To go so suddenly like that.

Dr. Joseph Dolan: He was dying for years.

Fletch: Sure, but the end was very sudden.

Dr. Joseph Dolan: He was in intensive care for eight weeks.

Fletch: Yeah, but I mean the end, when he actually died. That was extremely sudden.

From Stripes:

Recruiter: Have you ever been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor? That’s robbery, rape, car theft, that sort of thing.

John Winger: Convicted? No.

Russell Ziskey: Never convicted.

From The Jerk, when a sniper keeps missing Steve Martin, hitting cans of motor oil instead:

“He hates these cans. Stay away from the cans.”

From Vacation:

Cousin Eddie: I don’t know why they call this stuff Hamburger Helper. It does just fine by itself. I like it better than Tuna Helper, myself. Don’t you, Clark?”

Clark Griswold: “You’re the gourmet around here, Eddie.”

From Caddyshack:

Sandy: I want you to kill every gopher on the course!

Carl Spackler: Check me if I’m wrong Sandy, but if I kill all the golfers, they’re gonna lock me up and throw away the key.

Sandy: Gophers, ya great git! The gophers! The little brown furry rodents!

Carl Spackler: We can do that. We don’t even have to have a reason.


The extraordinary success of George Karl’s nameless Nuggets

The play is called 3-chest. It’s a variation on the oldest play in basketball, the pick and roll. But in this case, the pick and roll is basically a decoy to draw the defense, opening the door to a kick-out pass to an open man on the perimeter.

For most NBA teams, this would be a means of setting up an open jump shot. For the Denver Nuggets, who score more points at the rim than any team in basketball, it’s a way of opening a lane to the basket.

After Wilson Chandler put up 29 points to lead the Nuggets to their 21st consecutive home victory Wednesday night, over the four-time champion San Antonio Spurs, I asked what got him going. After all, the team had struggled through the first half, scoring only 38 points. For the Nuggets, that’s enough to order medical exams all around.

Chandler’s 19-point second-half explosion got his team going and put the Nuggets one step closer to locking up the fourth-best record in the NBA despite playing without their two leading scorers.

“Just picking the right time to go attack the rim, and coach calling a 3-chest,” Chandler replied, with his usual brevity.

The Spurs converged on the pick-and-roll action and Chandler, playing the big forward role in which he presents the most difficult matchup to the defense, caught the kick-out and took the ball to the rim in a flash.

“He has a lot of opportunity, especially when he plays four (big forward), to do what we want done — attacking to the gap, try to get to the rim,” coach George Karl said. “And I thought putting him at four very early in the third quarter was kind of how the pendulum swung.”

Without Ty Lawson or Danilo Gallinari, their two leading scorers, the Nuggets won their 54th game of the season. One more win in their last four games will make this the best regular-season Nuggets team since they joined the NBA in 1976.

It is the most remarkable coaching job of Karl’s remarkable career, which now spans four decades and 1,128 wins, sixth-most in NBA history.

“I hope we can win 57 or 58,” he said. “The team has a resilient attitude towards whatever has to happen in a game to win it.”

What the Nuggets are doing makes no sense in the context of the conventional wisdom that has been built into an NBA fortress over the past 33 years, or since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird arrived on the scene:

Stars win championships.

Johnson’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics dominated the 1980s. Michael Jordan’s Bulls dominated the ’90s, except for his two-year foray into minor league baseball, when Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets took over.

The glory was spread around in the aughts, but it was still reserved for the megastars: Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in L.A., Tim Duncan in San Antonio, Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in Miami.

The Nuggets didn’t have an all-star this season even when Lawson and Gallinari were healthy. Without them, they find themselves leaning on players who are or were coming off the bench, including Chandler and Corey Brewer, their leading scorers against the Spurs.

And yet, they keep on winning. They have the best home record in the NBA at 36-3. Their overall mark of 54-24 with four games to play trails only Miami (James, Wade), San Antonio (Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili) and Oklahoma City (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook).

“I think the team is a great example of executing the strategy and the system that the coach wants to employ,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

“I think more than any other team, they exemplify a group of guys accepting roles, whether it be minutes or their roles on the court and how they play in relation to the other players, on a consistent, game after game after game basis. He’s done a great job in keeping that together.

“In my mind, it’s hard to think of anybody who’s done a better job. And, at the same time, you don’t find quote unquote superstars on the team. He’s gotten them  to play for each other, be responsible to each other and understand that they’re better as a unit than they are with one guy doing his thing.”

Popovich ought to know. He is that rare, fortunate coach who has on his roster an unselfish, team-oriented superstar. Duncan enforces the team concept with teammates, which helps to explain the Spurs’ four titles during his career.

The Nuggets used to be pretty much the opposite, of course. When Carmelo Anthony was their headliner, they were the prototype of one guy doing his thing and a lot of other guys watching. It worked to a point, just as it’s working now for the Knicks, Anthony’s current team. The Nuggets made the playoffs every year. They just didn’t go very far once they got there.

It might not ever have changed if Anthony hadn’t forced his way out, yearning for the bright lights of Broadway and discouraged by the Nuggets’ apparent determination to rebuild with youth after the cast led by Anthony, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith — the Knicks’ current nucleus — managed to get out of the first round of the playoffs only once.

But Karl, who has battled willful superstars for much of his coaching career, trying to get them to play within what he calls “teamness,” embraced the opportunity to coach an ensemble cast without having to tiptoe around big egos. In the absence of Lawson and Gallinari, an emerging leader on the floor is former Olympian Andre Iguodala, who had his first triple-double of the season Wednesday night.

Talk to Iguodala about the game and he sounds a lot like Duncan. Somebody gave him a chance to crow about the Nuggets’ progress this season in matching up with the Spurs, and he declined.

“I feel like they’ve got the edge on us mentally,” he said. “They’ve been there before. They know what it takes. They’re never out of it. I think Tim Duncan has done a great job of setting the tone throughout the rest of the guys on how to play basketball. That’s something we’re going to have to continue to grow on. They’re solid, and nothing really changes from one through 14. We’re starting to get there as far as our depth goes, but we can go a little deeper when we have those blowouts and then our young guys get in and they can continue to be hungry and not just play to play, but play to improve and become a better basketball player.”

With Gallinari having blown out an anterior cruciate ligament, he’s gone until next season. That means Chandler has to fill his role on the Nuggets’ marquee after being a bit player for much of the season.

“Defensively, he can cover any position on the court,” Karl said. “He can cover one through five. We haven’t put him on point guards a lot because we give that responsibility to Andre Iguodala a lot. And his team defense is first class. He covers up. He knows when to come off his man and I think he really does a great job of running and making defensive plays. And he’s a solid to good rebounder. Tonight, when they zoned up, he made two or three cuts that got easy baskets against their zone which I think took them out of it.

“I never expected him, after the way he played early in the season and not feeling comfortable, now to become one of our top three or four players. It’s pretty impressive.”

Karl hopes Lawson will be back on the court as soon as Friday night in Dallas, but there’s no telling if or when his starting point guard’s plantar fascia issues will allow him to resume playing at his previous high level.

In the meantime, Karl continues to mix and match among the players available, from 37-year-old point guard Andre Miller to solid center Kosta Koufos, from exuberant Kenneth Faried to freakishly athletic JaVale McGee, from 20-year-old Evan Fournier to the irrepressible Brewer, once stereotyped as a one-way defensive player. Brewer took 25 shots against the Spurs — “He took about five I want to kill him for,” Karl said — and scored 28 points.

“He has no conscience,” Chandler said. “He gambles on defense, he takes bad shots, but it works.”

“Nah, I don’t have no conscience,” Brewer agreed cheerfully. “If I see the basket, I’m going to shoot it. But it works out for us.”

If you get the impression that these guys enjoy playing with one another, you’re getting the picture of what’s going on in that locker room.

Given their dominant record at home, the Nuggets are focused on earning home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs to give themselves the best chance of eradicating their hard-earned reputation for early postseason flame-outs. Wednesday’s win brought them one step closer to locking up the No. 3 seed in the West, but the job still isn’t done.

Karl has little use for the NBA’s coach of the year award, in part because he’s built the sixth-most wins in association history without ever winning it. He’s been passed over countless times for coaching flavors of the moment you may not even remember. All you need to know about the legitimacy of the award is that Hubie Brown has won it more times than Phil Jackson.

Maybe the media types who vote will stumble on to a correct verdict this year. Blind squirrels and all that. It doesn’t really matter. People inside the game understand what an extraordinary job Karl has done this season. He’s never been better.


Rockies raking, rolling in early going

So let’s review the stats after the first week of the 2013 baseball season. The Colorado Rockies rank:

— 1st in the major leagues in runs scored with 39.

— 1st in the major leagues in home runs with 13.

— 1st in the major leagues in total bases with 121.

— 1st in the major leagues in RBI with 38.

— 1st in the major leagues in batting average at .333.

— 1st in the major leagues in on-base percentage at .377.

— 1st in the major leagues in slugging percentage at .588.

— And, therefore, 1st in the major leagues in OPS at .945.

Well, sure, you say, when they’re healthy, they can rake. What about the pitching?

Maybe most remarkable of all, the Rocks rank fifth in the major leagues in earned-run average at 2.80 after playing three games in the top offensive park in baseball last year (Coors Field) and three in the No. 7 offensive park (Miller Park in Milwaukee).

Individually, Michael Cuddyer ranks second in the National League in batting, at .450; Troy Tulowitzki ranks fifth, at .421. Dexter Fowler ranks second in home runs, with four; Wilin Rosario is tied for third with three. Cuddyer and Tulo are tied for third in RBI with seven.

As a result, the Rocks are 5-1 and tied for first place in the National League West.

Can all this last? Of course not. In fact, the hitting numbers should begin to moderate this week as the Rockies play six games in the pitcher-friendly ballparks of San Francisco (the No. 29 offensive park in 2012) and San Diego (No. 26).

Still, through six games a year ago, the Rocks were 2-4 and already 3 1/2 games out of first place. So you’ll forgive Carlos Gonzalez, batting .360, which ranks eighth on the team, a little smile.

“The things that we’ve been working on since spring training are working,” he said after Sunday’s 9-1 victory over the Padres completed a series sweep and extended the Rocks’ winning streak to five. “Our confidence level is good. Obviously, we have a lot of games left, but it’s always good to start this way.”

What, specifically, was he referring to?

“Well, pitchers are throwing strikes,” he said. “They have that confidence. They know if they throw strikes they’re going to go deep in the game. Pitchers, all they want to do is get a ‘W.’ That’s why they pitch every four or five days. Right now, they’re throwing strikes, they believe in the guys playing defensively behind them, and we all know if they do their job we’re going to be able to score some runs and win ballgames.”

In other words, while last year’s 75-pitch limit for starters is gone, Rockies pitchers know that given the organizational data on pitching injuries, they cannot nibble around the strike zone early in the game and expect to be on the mound long enough to get credit for a victory.

In the first six games, the Rocks’ starter has pitched at least six innings five times. The highest pitch count so far is Jhoulys Chacin’s 99 on Sunday, but the starter has thrown at least 94 pitches in four of the six games.

In four spring training starts this year, Chacin gave up 15 runs and 25 hits in 16 innings, an ERA of 8.44. In two starts since the season began, he’s given up two runs and nine hits in 13 1/3 innings, an ERA of 1.35.

Following Sunday’s win, I asked him what the main difference was.

“I think my focus,” he said. “I’ve been more focused. Just don’t worry about anything and just make my pitch. That’s something I’ve really been working on with (pitching coach) Jimmy Wright. Just try to get my rhythm when I’m pitching and make my pitches down and just get ground balls.”

Indeed, 15 of the 20 outs Chacin recorded against the Padres came on ground balls. Overall, according to baseballreference.com, of the balls hit in fair territory off Chacin, 16 were on the ground and only seven in the air.

Despite the unimpressive spring numbers, first-year manager Walt Weiss never wavered in making Chacin his Opening Day starter.

“I try not to put too much stock into spring training,” Weiss said. “It’s important to get your work in and all that stuff, find a rhythm to the game, but you don’t want to put too much stock in it. I know Jhoulys; he’s a good pitcher. He’s got a great change-up. He’s another one of those guys that seems like he’s always in control of the at-bat. It never really gets too far away from him. I have confidence in his ability.”

The Rocks have emphasized various elements of pitching over the years as they’ve tried to figure out a formula suited to Coors Field. They’ve tried big breaking balls, they’ve tried power arms, they’ve tried to emphasize lateral movement over the downward breaks that can disappear at elevation. In spring training this year, they kept it simple.

“I think they’re doing the things that we talked about this spring,” Weiss said. “Guys are less concerned about east and west and are really thinking about pitching to the bottom of the zone and putting the ball on the ground. You saw (Jon) Garland do it (Saturday) night. That’s kind of who he is, but being able to minimize damage like that with a bases-loaded, no-out situation, to give up one run, that’s really impressive. Jeff (Francis) was able to do it to a lesser extent the other day, minimize some damage. I think these guys are buying in that when you’re at the bottom of the zone and you stay in decent counts, you can be very effective.”

Oddly, the pitch count edicts from the front office that may have contributed to Jim Tracy’s resignation as manager at the end of last season have been relaxed for Weiss. Still, he hasn’t let any starter reach 100 pitches yet.

“I’m aware of it, particularly early on,” Weiss said. “And we’ve got, what, four of our starters missed a lot of time last year. So I certainly am aware of it and it’s a factor. But I haven’t had to push that button early or anything. Some of these guys have been in the 90s and I think that’s a good place to be, particularly for the guys that had some issues last year physically.”

Of the five starters, only Jorge De La Rosa, who makes his second start tonight in San Francisco, has an ERA above 3.00. Three relievers — Matt Belisle, Rafael Betancourt and Edgmer Escalona — have combined to throw 9 2/3 innings in nine appearances without giving up a run.

“And the other thing is, pretty much everybody who was out last year, they’re playing again,” CarGo pointed out. “Tulowitzki, Cuddyer, (Todd) Helton, guys who can do a lot of things offensively. We’re going to score runs. Everybody knows that. Everybody understands that this team will score runs. That’s what we’ve been doing, and the pitchers are doing a great job and that’s why we’re getting good results every day.”

Even the Rocks’ “B” lineup, which produced a 5-22 record on Sundays a year ago, is raking. Four starters — Tulowitzki, Cuddyer, Helton and Josh Rutledge — got the day off in Colorado’s first Sunday game this year. The team still produced nine runs and 15 hits, including seven hits by substitutes Eric Young Jr., (two), Jordan Pacheco (one), Reid Brignac (one) and Jonny Herrera (three).

“They’re all capable of that,” Weiss said. “A couple lineups we’ve thrown out there like that, one in Milwaukee, guys have produced. It’s a good roster. You kill two birds with one stone. You can give some guys a break and you keep the other guys involved. Regardless of who we throw out there, I think it’s a tough lineup to get through.”

It’s way too early to say much more than the Rocks have given Colorado reason for hope, but that’s a pretty good gift from a team written off before the season even began by many “experts,” both locally and nationally.

“It’s nice to get off to a good start, especially, you know, last year was a tough year,” Weiss said. “So it’s nice to put some of those demons behind us right away. We felt all spring like we have a good club. I don’t think a lot of people feel the same way on the outside, but we’re very confident in the fact that we have a good club.”


Nuggets find life after Gallo

It is in the nature of media types to be slightly more prone to hysteria in both directions than your average fan, given the modern fact of life that hysteria gets a lot more attention than moderation.

So it was that several tweeted their condolences for the Nuggets’ marvelous season the other night, all hope clearly at an end after forward Danilo Gallinari blew out an anterior cruciate ligament.

The Nuggets responded Saturday night by declaring reports of their demise premature. Playing without Gallinari and Ty Lawson, their two leading scorers, they scored more points than they have all season, 132, in a blowout of the Houston Rockets that kept them ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers in the race for the No. 3 playoff seed in the NBA’s Western Conference.

They also extended their home winning streak to 20, tying a record set in 1985.

Most remarkable was the effect on Andre Iguodala, who dominated the game at both ends, looking like an Olympian among mortals, which, of course, he was. He suffocated Rockets star James Harden, who finished with 14 points on 2-of-10 shooting. He orchestrated the offense with a game-high 14 assists. He even made jump shots, including two from long distance, on his way to 18 points. He came out with nine minutes of garbage time remaining three rebounds shy of a triple-double.

“I’ll get one,” he promised afterward. “If not in the couple of last games, I’ll get one in the playoffs.”

Coach George Karl inserted Wilson Chandler into the starting lineup for Gallo. It took a little while for the new starting group, still adjusting to Andre Miller for Lawson, to settle in. Of the 15 shots the starters took in the first quarter, the two Andres took 10. Chandler took one and failed to score. The Nuggets trailed 35-25.

I asked Chandler afterward if he felt as though he needed to adjust his game when he moved in with the starters.

“Yeah, probably a little less shots and more defense,” he said. “That’s not a big deal.”

In fact, that’s the skill Karl cited in selecting Chandler to take Gallo’s place in the starting lineup. He said before the game that the Nuggets’ identity will have to skew further to the defensive end without Gallo.

In quarters two through four, Chandler scored 21 points, finishing second only to Corey Brewer’s 22 off the bench among seven Nuggets in double figures. Without their two leading scorers, the Nuggets set season highs in points, assists (40), fast break points (35) and made field goals (54).

I asked Iguodala the same question about adjustments to his game in the absence of Gallinari and Lawson, to whom he has largely deferred at the offensive end this season, and for apparently good reason, given his difficulty making jump shots. He’s shooting .441 from the floor this season, 18 percentage points below his career average, and .308 from three-point territory, 20 points below his average.

“I’ve tried to do that all year: How can I fit in and be the most effective I can be without taking from the other guys, really making them better?” he said.

“And I felt like I’ve been able to do that, whether it shows up on the stat sheet or not. But when we have guys go down, you change some things up to try to make up for the loss, not by myself, but by making the other guys better — getting a few extra assists, a few extra points, a few extra rebounds. So it kind of worked out tonight. Going forward, we’re going to have to continue to do that as a unit.”

It’s probably a good idea not to go from manic depression over Gallinari’s injury to manic elation over a single performance in its wake. The Rockets were playing the second night of a back-to-back coming in from the west coast, the circumstance that provoked San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich’s scheduling protest four years ago in which he sat his three best players in Denver (and still nearly won). It’s extremely rare that the visitor wins in that situation. Iguodala was well aware.

“They got in really late last night, so I’m pretty sure they were kind of tired, and the altitude always seems to work in our favor, so all those things kind of play a factor in the game,” he said.

In the absence of Lawson (and third-string point guard Julyan Stone), 20-year-old rookie Evan Fournier has moved into the playing rotation, nominally as Miller’s backup at point guard. He’s really more of an off guard, but he and Iguodala provide enough ball-handling to allow the 37-year-old Miller adequate rest.

In fact, Fournier provides the closest thing to Gallinari’s offensive style, bringing a similar European skill set in a smaller package. He had 17 points Saturday. After scoring no more than 10 in any of the Nuggets’ first 73 games, he is averaging 14.3 in the four games he has served as Miller’s relief. It is beginning to look as if general manager Masai Ujiri has mined the uncertain lower portion of the NBA draft’s first round for another hidden gem. Kenneth Faried was the 22nd pick in 2011. Fournier was No. 20 last year.

In the absence of Gallinari, 23-year-old Anthony Randolph moved into the playing rotation, essentially replacing Chandler in the bench crew.

“I just like his defense,” Karl explained. “The first thing I wrote in my notes this morning was, ‘We can’t be a goof-around defensive team anymore.’ I’m not saying we’re going to be worse offensively, but our defense now has got to create offense. We have too many quarters that we kind of cruise-control our defense on the court when we’re shooting well and we’re scoring well, moving it well. I don’t think we can do that.”

Randolph rewarded Karl with seven rebounds and four steals (as well as 14 points) in 22 minutes. No Nugget had more than seven boards, but eleven of them contributed to a total of 46. Iguodala and Miller combined for 26 of the 40 assists.

“Dre Miller and I, we played together in Philly, and we had a few games like that, where we both had double-figure assists,” Iguodala said. “You’ve just got two guys who know how to find the open man, know how to move the ball a little bit. We’re trying to make the passing contagious because when we’re moving that ball and it’s not sticking, we’re really a good team, and George Karl, he’ll back that up.”

Karl admits he’s nervous about losing one of the best shooters, in Gallinari, from a team for which shooting — especially from long distance and the free-throw line — is the most obvious weakness.

“There’s no question it can’t be one guy,” he said before the game. “We can’t do that. Gallo is Gallo and everybody has his personality. I think because we’ve played a lot of different rotations and a lot of different ways, the comfort zone of finding a rhythm is what we need to do in the next six games. I think it’s do-able, but, you know, there could be a game or two that it might not look very good.”

Other than the first quarter, it didn’t look bad in the first game since Gallinari’s season ended. More than ever, it will need to be an ensemble effort. But in the absence of their two leading scorers, Iguodala demonstrated he’s capable of conducting the orchestra.


Yorvit Torrealba as an omen

At the far end of the Rockies’ clubhouse, where a cacophony of laughter and allegation roll around a wall and out of the showers, sits a familiar figure. Yorvit Torrealba is back.

And, in the very early going, the Rocks are winning again.

Torrealba’s previous four-year stint in Colorado encompassed the two best seasons in franchise history — the 90-win campaign in 2007 that catapulted the Rocks to the World Series and the 92-win season in 2009 that took them to another promising postseason berth, this one aborted by Huston Street’s allergy to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Chris Iannetta, the catcher of the future at the time, was supposed to be the starting catcher both years. In ’07, Iannetta hit .218 and Torrealba ultimately took over, playing in 113 games to Iannetta’s 67 and starting all four games in the World Series loss to Boston.

In ’09, Iannetta nominally kept the starting job, appearing in 93 games to Torrealba’s 64, but Torrealba out-hit him by 63 points (.291 to .228).

His emergence in ’07 earned him his biggest contract to that point, a two-year, $6.75 million deal. But when he sought a similar deal following the ’09 season, the Rocks thought that was too much for a backup — Iannetta was still the nominal starter, although he would lose the job again, this time to Miguel Olivo, in 2010.

The negotiations lasted so long that when the Rocks finally abandoned them and signed Olivo to a one-year, $2 million deal to replace him, Torrealba was left scrambling for a job. Ultimately, he signed a one-year, $750,000 offer from the lowly San Diego Padres. Expected to do little, the Padres surprisingly won 90 games, earning Torrealba the contract he had sought a year before from the Rocks — a two-year, $6.25 million deal from the Texas Rangers.

In his first year there, he matched his career-high for games played with 113 and the Rangers went to the World Series. Last year, Torrealba’s batting average slumped from .273 in 2011 to .236. Mike Napoli, who had split time between catching, first base and designated hitter in ’11, took over as the main catcher and Torrealba was released in August. He was picked up briefly by the Blue Jays, then traded to the Brewers, but didn’t play much for either. At the end of last season, he was again a free agent.

In the meantime, the Rockies had finally lost patience with the Iannetta waiting game, trading him to the Angels for pitcher Tyler Chatwood following the 2011 season. They were also less than enamored with Olivo and let him walk following a single season.

Ramon Hernandez was their next veteran signal-caller, signed along with two other veterans — Michael Cuddyer and Marco Scutaro — in the misguided belief Colorado would contend in 2012. A starter for years, Hernandez required the kind of money the Rocks had refused to pay Torrealba. They gave him a two-year, $6.4 million contract.

But at least two things became clear as the Rocks’ 2012 season imploded:

— Despite being young, raw and defensively awful as a rookie, Wilin Rosario was an offensive force and the Rocks’ latest catcher of the future if he could only learn to catch and call a game.

— At 35, Hernandez was injury-prone, in rapid decline and didn’t seem all that interested in mentoring Rosario.

Re-enter Torrealba, whom the Rocks signed to a one-year contract that would pay him $1 million if he could make the team out of spring training. Management hoped Torrealba’s extroverted personality would make him a better mentor. They also remembered the effect that personality had in the clubhouse, and realized it had been missing since he left.

At the end of spring training, Torrealba made the team and Hernandez was designated for assignment. Hoping not to have to eat all of Hernandez’s $3.2 million salary for 2013, the Rocks tried to find a trade.

Today, they finally did, shipping Hernandez to the Dodgers, who could use some insurance for A.J. Ellis, in exchange for pitcher Aaron Harang “and cash considerations.” If this saves money for the Rocks — which would be the only reason to make the deal since they immediately designated Harang for assignment as well — the Dodgers must be eating most of Harang’s contract, which called for a $7 million salary this year. After all, he’s already included in their record $216 million payroll. The Rocks are now looking for a trade for him, too.

In any case, Torrealba is back, Rosario has looked better behind the plate in this season’s small sample so far, and the Rocks have won three of their first four games.

“So far, so good,” Torrealba told me following Friday’s home opener, a 5-2 win over the Padres. “It’s been awesome. I’m very happy to be back here. A lot of good memories in here. The best years of my career so far has been with this team. It’s a great feeling.

“I didn’t even want to leave in the beginning and when I got a chance to come back like I did this year, I didn’t hesitate to sign a contract and come back, try to make the team out of spring training, and I did, so I’m happy to be here.”

I asked him about his new role as a mentor to a younger player.

“They tell me flat out,” he said. “I mean, I know what my role is since I signed here. That doesn’t mean that I won’t be playing much, that just means I’m going to try to help as much as I can, and so far, so good. I mean, he’s a young, talented guy. Not only offensively, but I’m seeing defensively he’s getting way better. He showed the last couple games. I’m just in the dugout watching everything he does and then I try to help him. So far, so good on blocking balls, calling games. It’s good to see the guy already progress like you would want him to.”

When you ask him about Rosario, Torrealba sounds as much like a coach as a fellow player.

“He showed last year he can hit at this level. I’m seeing every year for him he’s going to feel more comfortable at the plate. But behind the plate I don’t think he was feeling too comfortable. I watched some tapes of him last year and then a lot of stuff I hear from the different guys, different coaches. That’s what we’ve been working on — blocking balls, especially. I guess that was a big issue for him last year. Like I said, this year, so far, so good.

“And at the same time I’m pushing him to talk to the pitcher, get to know the pitcher, where they can be on the same page. Instead of just trying to call the game, he can just actually talk to the pitcher and figure out what they want to do together as a team, as a battery. So far, so good, like I said. It’s not only winning the couple games that we won, I think overall he look really good behind the plate.”

It doesn’t seem that long since Torrealba was here last, but in modern media time, it’s been forever. If you believe most of the national analysts, the Rocks are who they were last year — terrible. One ESPN analyst predicted they would lose more than 100 games.

“I see a talented ball club, but to me last year they put so much pressure on themselves when Tulo went down, when CarGo was out for a little bit, when Ramon Hernandez was catching and went down, they started putting pressure on themselves,” Torrealba said.

“To me, and this is something they said from the first day of spring training, it’s all about having fun. That’s one of the things a lot of guys watch me already in the dugout talking stuff, talking crap to the guys, just keeping it loose. I think with the talent that we have in here, if we can all play loose and play comfortable, we’re going to win a lot of games.”

I asked him if he thought his personality was part of why the Rocks wanted him back.

“Probably,” he said. “Probably, yes. I think the best three years they have as an organization, I was part of it.”

A lot has changed in the Rockies clubhouse since 2009, of course. The starting lineup that year included Iannetta, Clint Barmes, Ian Stewart, Seth Smith and Brad Hawpe. Only Troy Tulowitzki, Dexter Fowler and Todd Helton remain, although Carlos Gonzalez, at 23, was in his first year with the club.

The ’09 pitching rotation included Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Marquis, Jason Hammel and Aaron Cook. Only Jorge De La Rosa remains. In the bullpen, the only holdovers are Matt Belisle and Rafael Betancourt.

So I asked Torrealba if all those new faces create a different clubhouse atmosphere.

“It’s about the same to me,” he said. “A lot of new faces, but they’re all nice guys. I remember 2007 and 2009, all the guys we have, they nice guys. Even in hard times, it’s easy for me to go up there and have fun and play around and joke around and keep everybody loose. And the same with this team this year. Even if there is a lot of young guys, still, it feels like there is the same thing in 2009, same thing in 2007, when it comes to attitude.”

I mentioned the national predictions of a last-place finish, losing more than 100 games. I asked Torrealba how good he thought the 2013 Rocks could be.

“I tell you what — we’re definitely better than losing 100 games in a year,” he said with a smile. “I like the fact that a lot of people think that way because through my career, personally, I love to prove people wrong. I think I did it all my life almost, all my career. Talking about myself, in 2007 I wasn’t even a starting catcher and ended up playing every day. 2009, same way. 2010, when I was with the Padres, they said we were going to be in last place and we were one game short of making it to the playoffs.

“So they can say whatever they want to say. I mean, I really see my teammates and myself as a good ball club, talented ball club. If we just keep playing the way we’re playing, a lot of people are going to be surprised.”