DALLAS — After the Denver Nuggets surprisingly fired George Karl and hired Brian Shaw, everybody pondered the coming limitations lightning-quick point guard Ty Lawson would encounter outside of a structure-less offense rather than the untapped possibilities of playing within one.
“I knew that everybody thought that I can’t play in a system where it’s come down and run a play,” Lawson told NBA.com on Monday night following his fourth double-double of the young season. “But I can.”
Can he ever.
“He’s an All-Star,” assessed Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, who watched Lawson slice his defense in consecutive games Saturday and Monday for 39 points and 20 assists. “He and [Tony] Parker are probably the two best paint penetration guys in basketball, and so it’s a big problem, it’s a huge problem. His speed is always in play and he’s shooting high 30s [percent] from 3. So if you lay way off of him he pulls up and shoots it.”
Fears that the 5-foot-11 speedster would be stripped of his identity and his brilliant ability to blow by defenders and attack the rim would be compromised by Shaw’s plan for a more traditional, playoff-tested approach to offense have gone unfounded. After an 0-3 start that included losses to streaking Portland and San Antonio, Denver has won three in a row, seven of 10 and moved above .500 (7-6) for the first time this season after Monday’s 110-96 win at Dallas.
“There’s obviously some differences in the way that George Karl played and the way that our team is playing, but we still want to run and try to take the first available shot,” Shaw said. “I think early on he was a little frustrated because my emphasis was on we have to play inside-out and get the ball inside and create penetration that way. But I think he’s picked and found his spots and he has a green light.”
Initially no one could be quite sure how the rookie head coach would go about implementing — and even Shaw was vague in the buildup to training camp — a more conventional, inside-out approach with a team built for speed. One assumption was that the Indiana assistant the past two seasons would try to ram the Triangle he learned in Los Angeles under Phil Jackson into the square hole that was a team that ran like thoroughbreds and didn’t boast a big-bodied, reliable low-post scorer.
“He’s cool, calm and collected,” Lawson of Shaw. “I knew he was going to try the Triangle or a variation of it and also still keep the running in our game. Late in games, that’s when we start running a lot of plays, when the shot clock’s running down, when we really need points. That’s helping us out a lot because you’re going to need that in the playoffs.”
A month into the season and Lawson is producing at career-high levels across the board: 20.7 ppg, 8.7 apg and 4.1 rpg. He’s got the coach’s green light to attack at will, but he’s also now equipped with a menu of plays to complement his impeccable freelance skills.
“We look inside first, like the first three seconds for a post-up, then it’s basically the guard’s turn,” Lawson said. “You go pick-and-roll, drag, just like Coach Karl, and if you have none of that, just get into a play real quick. And the plays — they’re unbelievable — we’ve got counters; these plays are something that I think a lot of coaches should have in their repertoire.”
Denver’s pace has actually picked up from last season, averaging 100.47 possessions per 48 minutes compared to 97.6. The Nuggets are averaging 103.6 points per 100 possessions, down a bit from last season (107.6) but still good for ninth-best in the league.
Unchanged is how Lawson makes teams pay with near-indefensible bolts to the basket. According to the new player tracking stats on NBA.com, Lawson is averaging 10.8 drives per game, second in the league behind Dallas’ Monta Ellis (11.4). And no team is averaging more points per game on drives by a player than the Nuggets on Lawson drives (13.9), a reflection of his ability to collapse defenses and dish to the open man.
“He’s always in attack mode and it’s eventually like a boxer, just punching and punching and punching non-stop,” new backcourt mate Nate Robinson said. “He just continues to punch, never gets tired, just punch, punch, punch and at the end he’s going to wear you out and wear you down, and that’s how he plays.”
The player tracking stats also reveal that Lawson ranks third behind Chris Paul and John Wall in both creating assist opportunities per game and in points created by assists per game.
“I feel like I can get in the paint on anybody and at least find somebody or get to the basket and cause confusion, cause chaos,” Lawson said. “That’s what I want to do every time I come down the court is cause chaos so where somebody has to help or I can score and get it done like that.”
Shaw’s top priority during the summer was connecting with and understanding his point guard. Rather than preach to Lawson how the offense would run, both came together with open minds about how best to run it.
“We had a lot of talks. When he first came in we talked for like an hour about what he was trying to do and I threw my ideas out there and we were just bouncing ideas of each other,” Lawson said. “Once I learn something I try to master it.”
Of having a batch of plays at his disposal, Lawson said: “It’s helping me a lot finding shooters, getting easier assists and also scoring.”
The Nuggets still aren’t whole. Center JaVale McGee is out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his shin and forward Danilo Gallinari continues to recover from ACL surgery. But slowly, a team whose general manager jumped to another team, fired its coach with more than 1,100 career victories and lost defensive-minded swingman Andre Iguodala in free agency, is coming around.
“Right now everybody’s happy,” Lawson said. “I’m happy. Everything is working out.”