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.

About Dave Krieger

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

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