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.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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