Overlooked is fine. Underrated? No problem. Neglected isn’t an issue with the Denver Nuggets even, because it’s a fairly easy thing to do at the moment. Coach George Karl and his bunch headed into their game Tuesday at Oklahoma City with the NBA’s second-longest active winning streak. Trouble is, that’s a distinction that’s akin to Sham’s “place” finish in the 1973 Kentucky Derby, what with the Secretariat-like Miami Heat out front chasing history.
But underestimate the Nuggets at your own peril.
Asked for the umpteenth time this week about Denver, its perceived shortcomings (no superstar to serve as “closer,” playing too fast a pace) and its prospects for reaching The 2013 Finals, Karl bristled a bit. “Definitively yes. I’m tired of the damn question,” he told a group of reporters at Chicago’s United Center Monday.
“First of all, 50 percent of all games are won at the defensive end – I think 70 percent of the games are won with your defense,” Karl said. “The go-to mentality, Ty [Lawson] has gotten good there, Gallo [Danilo Gallinari] has been very good there. Have they gotten into the echelon of a Kobe or a Lebron? I remember you all saying LeBron wasn’t a closer three years ago. Maybe two years ago.
“It’s about making basketball plays. It’s not about a guy making shots. It’s about stops, possessions and efficiency.”
The Nuggets knew they were going to be stronger in the second half of this season. They opened with 22 of their first 32 on the road and lost 14 of the roadies. Since then, though, they are 8-5 away from Pepsi Center and 29-7 overall. Their home mark is 30-3.
Denver leads the NBA in assists per game and in scoring points in the paint, a by-product of playing at the second-fastest pace. It ranks third in offensive rating (110.2) and 12th in defensive rating (105.2).
The improvement in defense can be traced to a good degree to Andre Iguodala‘s arrival. Karl stops short of calling him the best defender he’s ever coached only because he doesn’t want to “get shot” by former Seattle star Gary Payton. But Iguodala’s versatility, athletic ability and demeanor have been a huge influence.
“Any time you have a player you can put on the point guard one night, Kevin Durant the next night and probably, if he had to, [Carlos] Boozer [another night]… He can cover almost anybody on the court,” the coach said. “That’s a great luxury to have as a coach. I think his intensity, his focus is somewhat contagious to some of our younger players.”
The closer-by-committee approach, while it doesn’t five the Nuggets any one player who can reliably get to the foul line late in games, does afford them options.
How does Karl choose from game to game?
“It’s a combination of matchups, what has worked successfully as a play and what player is having a good game,” he said. “And do I want to make a decision or do I want to make a shot? If it’s a decision, you might put the ball in Andre’s hands because he’ll make the pass. I’d say Gallo, because of his size and length, to go get a shot within three seconds, you might put the ball in his hands. And Ty has gotten to be pretty good in situations where teams are giving soft pick-and-roll coverage. So it comes in different packages.
“I think that’s enough. I think it’s more than enough.”
The Nuggets players are aware of the limits being placed on them by outsiders, based on perceptions of what a Finals team should or must be. They like it about as much as Karl does.
“That’s all on how people view the game,” Iguodala said after Denver’s overtime victory against the Bulls Monday. “Sometimes fans, sometimes even players, they don’t know the game sometimes and they look at numbers or they use smoke-and-mirrors as far as who’s a top 15 player, who’s a top 20 player. I think we have guys like that on our team.
We can match up with anybody. I just think as a team we have to mature. And not feel satisfied with the regular season.”