Posts Tagged ‘Denver Post’

Ujiri The Ultimate Chemistry Teacher

VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors are on a roll right now, winners of four straight games

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Masai Ujiri‘s front office peers around the NBA should pay close attention to the way the Toronto Raptors’ star goes about his business. While some franchise architects like to work their so-called magic with the public watching intently, Ujiri has done a masterful job (first in Denver and now in Toronto) tweaking chemistry and getting results.

In fact, Ujiri has proven himself to be the ultimate chemistry teacher these days in terms of knowing how to tweak a roster just right. The reigning NBA Executive of the Year, an honor voted on by his peers, Ujiri is making a strong push for repeat honors with the way the Raptors are playing since the Rudy Gay trade went down.

They are 9-3 and winners of eight of their last 10 games since moving Gay to Sacramento Dec. 9. It was a move designed to give the Raptors long-term flexibility and not necessarily an immediate jolt that has helped them climb all the way up to the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

But Ujiri has a way of studying a roster, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and then being fearless in his attempts to change things for the better. Since Gay was jettisoned, the Raptors have scored huge wins over the likes of Dallas and Chicago, and most recently in Oklahoma City (where they handed the West-best Thunder their first home loss of the season) and kicked off 2014 with an impressive home win over the East-best Indiana Pacers.

As much as this is about the fine work being done by Raptors coach Dwane Casey and his staff, and of course, the contributions of a roster full of grinders like DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, Greivis Vasquez and others, this is about the man who put it all together.

Ujiri just happens to have the magic touch right now. And if you don’t believe it, just look at the hard times his former team has fallen upon in his absence. The Denver Nuggets have lost eight straight games, their longest such skid since the end of the 2002-03 season. Veteran point guard Andre Miller turned the heat up even more by ripping first-year coach Brian Shaw after Wednesday’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, making matters worse in Denver while Ujiri has his new team soaring.

A boss like Ujiri keeps those dustups contained, as best can be, or at least at a minimum and away from the public. You don’t have to worry about those sorts of altercations when working conditions are at a premium. And Ujiri has freed up virtually every key rotation player on the Raptors’ roster to do what he does best after the Gay trade.

DeRozan and Lowry in particular are allowed to play more to their natural strengths on the perimeter, while Valanciunas has become more of a focal point as well. Role players like Johnson, the ridiculously underrated Vasquez, who came over from Sacramento in the trade, and young journeyman forwards Tyler Hansbrough and Patrick Patterson have become critical pieces in the Raptors’ current run.

“No one on this team is selfish; everyone accepts their roles,” Patterson told reporters after the Raptors outslugged Paul George, Roy Hibbert and the Pacers to kick off the New Year. “No one wants to get more shots, no one wants to do more of this, no one is jealous of another player … we all understand what we have to do in order to make this machine keep rolling smoothly.”

The man responsible for making sure that machine runs without a hitch, of course, is Ujiri. He understands, as well or better than most right now, that team chemistry trumps just about everything else that goes on inside a team’s fabric in this day and age. Even the Miami Heat needed a year (and a Finals defeat at the hands of a Mavericks team that had off the charts chemistry) to figure that out.

VIDEO: The Raptors took it to the Pacers, kicking off 2014 in style before the home crowd

Report: Nuggets Hire Brian Shaw

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Cross Brian Shaw‘s name off the list of available coaches on the market this summer. The Denver Nuggets have reportedly tabbed the Indiana Pacers’ assistant as the man to replace NBA Coach of the Year George Karl on the bench in Denver, according to The Denver Post.

Shaw has been rumored as a candidate for basically every opening that has popped up this season. But he finally settled on the opportunity that awaits with the Nuggets:

“I can’t express my appreciation enough,” Shaw told The Denver Post by phone Monday evening. “It’s been a grind to say the least, but I’m just very appreciative of the opportunity to lead this team. … It’s been years, 11-12 interviews I’ve gone through. And I’ve felt I’ve been prepared by the best of the best. You know, everything that’s worth something, a lot of times you have to wait for it. I feel like I’ve waited and paid my dues.

“I feel honored and privileged that (Nuggets executives) Josh (Kroenke) and Tim (Connelly) have put faith in me that I’m the guy they want to grow with going forward.”

Shaw, 47, spent the past two seasons as the associate head coach under Frank Vogel with the Pacers. He spent six season as an assistant to Phil Jackson with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson discussed Shaw on Episode 122 of the Hang Time Podcast last week and suggested that it was only a matter of time before Shaw found the right spot.

Shaw takes over a Nuggets team that won 57 games and was 38-3 at home last season and boasted not only Karl as coach of the Year, but Masai Ujiri as the league’s Executive of the Year. Ujiri left for the Toronto Raptors after the Nuggets’ were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Golden State Warriors. Karl was fired earlier this month.

Perhaps most interesting with Shaw’s hiring is what sort of system he will employ with a roster built for an up-tempo attack and his background with the triangle that the Lakers used to win five titles under Jackson. He made it clear to The Post that whatever system he runs will be all his own:

“Although I played in the triangle and coached the triangle, I also played in a lot of systems, so that’s not something I’m looking to bring to the Nuggets and try to implement,” Shaw said.”I’m going to look at a lot of film of things the team did well, running was one of them. And I’ll continue to build on things they did well and get more of a feel for the personnel and what I think will be conducive to everybody’s ability.”

Nuggets Eyeing Grizzlies, No. 4 Spot?


HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Give the Denver Nuggets credit for being realists.

They’re not going to spend the next two months chasing the pipe dream of chewing up the San Antonio Spurs’ eight-game cushion and winning the Western Conference’s top spot in the playoff chase.

Instead of trying to do the impossible, the Nuggets have set their sights on the very realistic goal of passing up the Memphis Grizzlies for the fourth spot behind the Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers. Nuggets coach George Karl is the man responsible for this pragmatic approach. His team has won five straight games and is in a great groove right now.

But Karl knows that this is not the time for great (and generally supersized expectations). As Karl explained to Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post, focusing on the team directly in front of them is the best plan of action for his team:

The Nuggets’ goal is singular and sincere. With 22 games left, they want to surpass Memphis in the standings and grab the fourth playoff seed in the Western Conference.

It’s likely that Nuggets vs. Grizzlies will be the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup in the West’s first round of the postseason, but home-court advantage is up for grabs.

After their 108-82 victory Sunday at Orlando, the fourth-place Grizzlies are 39-19.

“I think it’s going to take at least 51 to 52 wins to get to No. 4,” said coach George Karl, whose Nuggets are 38-22 heading into Monday’s home game against Atlanta. “It might take more.

“But I’d probably take 52 and take our chances. And I’d like the tiebreaker with Memphis. I’d take 52 and the tiebreaker.”

The Nuggets are aware of the Ides of March. Memphis comes to Denver for a March 15 matchup, the final regular-season meeting of the teams. Denver leads the season series 2-1.

The Nuggets, the NBA’s third-youngest team, have only nine more road games. They have 13 left at home, where they are 25-3.

Twelve of their 22 remaining games are against current playoff teams, the toughest stretch coming when Denver hosts the Carmelo Anthony-led New York Knicks on March 13 and the Grizzlies two days later, followed by road games against the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder on March 18 and 19.

“This team is not afraid to play the best teams. In fact, they like to play the best teams,” said Karl, whose Nuggets knocked off the Thunder 105-103 in a Friday thriller at the Pepsi Center. “I think the team is understanding that the playoffs aren’t that far away.

“Right now we’re in a good place to make another step. We need to tighten our defense up and not have mental lapses and continue to grow.”

This is a refreshing dose of sensibility at a time of year when players, coaches, teams and their fans are big on making bold proclamations about what they have in store for the final weeks of the regular season and into the playoffs.

The Nuggets have figured out exactly who and what they are and play like it on a nightly basis. If they catch you at their home, the Pepsi Center, they’ll run you out of the building.

So it should surprise no one that Karl has his team locked in on earning home-court advantage for a first-round series.

Their prospects in that first-round series between the No. 4 and No. 5 seed changes dramatically if they are have (or don’t have) possession of home court.

Opportunistic Nuggets Strike Gold

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — A rugged early-season schedule and the lack of a true go-to-guy could have been their downfall. It had the potential to render all of that preseason fawning over the Denver Nuggets a waste of time, if these Nuggets weren’t made of the rugged materials at their core.

They played a staggering 17 of their first 24 games on the road, away from the friendly and high altitude confines of the Pepsi Center, going 12-12 during that stretch to stay afloat just long enough to get to the place where they are now. And that place is smack in the middle of a stretch that sees them playing 12 of 14 games at home with a chance to make some serious noise in the Western Conference standings.

The Nuggets are 10-4 since their schedule evened out and are winners of five straight after a Sunday’s victory over the Golden State Warriors. At 23-16, Denver is looking more and more like the team some pundits believed to be a challenger to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Northwest Division and the Western Conference.

There is still plenty of work to do, of course. Even with this recent climb, they are still looking from the outside on the top four in the West. But they’re in a position now to battle the Memphis Grizzlies and Warriors for that fourth spot.

One of the biggest reasons they are in this position is their penchant for playing their best basketball in the fourth quarter of games that could go either way, as Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post explains:

Suddenly, the fourth quarter has become the Nuggets’ quarter.

Whether they slosh through the first three quarters or play well from the start and find themselves in a tight contest, the fourth has been the separation quarter for this team, trying to hit its stride this month.

The Nuggets outscored Golden State 37-18 in the fourth quarter Sunday night to make a tough game look like an easy 116-105 win at the Pepsi Center. It was the Nuggets’ season-high fifth straight win.

So what’s different in the fourth quarter?

“Urgency and desperation and professional pride,” Nuggets coach George Karl said.

The Nuggets turn up the defense and shift the offense into overdrive in the final period. During this five-game winning streak, they’ve outscored their opponents 151-102 in the fourth, an average of 30.2 points to 20.4.

“I feel like we’re most focused in the fourth quarter for some reason,” center JaVale McGee said. “I don’t know why. I feel like we take the first half for granted, but we really go hard in the fourth quarter.”

In addition to the surge, the Nuggets appear to have struck gold on another front. Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari are turning into the sort of 1-2 punch that you need to grind out games, guys who power the attack when need be. They combined for 41 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds against the Warriors.

It doesn’t hurt to get 22 points from your bench in the fourth, as they did Sunday. But the guys who make the Nuggets go on a nightly basis have to do their part to create an opportunity for the bench to handle their business.

But with a core group that also includes HT fave Kenneth “The Manimal” Faried, the versatile and dangerous Andre Iguodala and crafty veterans like Andre Miller and the underrated Corey Brewer, the Nuggets have the pieces to keep their current run going for a while.

With nine of their next 11 games at home, opportunity is banging on the door for the Nuggets.

Nuggets Rookie Faried Makes His Case

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Let the case of Nuggets big man Kenneth Faried be a lesson to all NBA rookies fortunate enough to be drafted by a playoff-caliber team that doesn’t need him in the starting lineup from the first day of training camp.

Faried was in the shadows at the start of this season, unsure of his role and whether or not he would spend his season with the Nuggets or with their D-League affiliate. If you weren’t careful, you’d have forgotten he was even on the roster the first few weeks of the season. Faried played in just three games through the end of January.

Since then, however, the man known as “Manimal” since his college days, has been one of the most consistently outstanding rookies in the league. (That would explain his lofty perch on my main man Drew Packham‘s Rookie Ladder.)

It’s obvious Faried didn’t fret when he wasn’t in the rotation. He kept his head down, kept working and earned the respect of Nuggets coach George Karl and his teammates with his non-stop energy and effort and a relentless approach that fans anywhere should appreciate.

Now he’s playing crucial, late-game minutes for the Nuggets, a team in thick of the playoff chase in the Western Conference.


The Curious Case Of The Melo-Free Nuggets

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Raise your hand if you saw the Denver Nuggets doing all that they have after the Carmelo Anthony deal finally went down.

Go ahead, tell us you knew they’d thrive without Anthony and Chauncey Billups. Show us the sheet of paper you tucked away that said the Nuggets would go 8-2 in the first 10 games post-Melo, would be thumping opponents by 13.2 points and hanging on tight to that No. 5 seed in the Western Conference playoff chase.

We didn’t think so.

Even the Nuggets have been a bit surprised at how they’ve managed the separation anxiety from the player that was the face of the franchise the past seven seasons.

“I just think there’s more enthusiasm, more energy, more things strategically,” Nuggets coach George Karl told reporters after Monday night’s win in New Orleans, when the Nuggets drained 17 3-pointers in a 114-103 win.

So much changes after a seven-month pressure of wondering what was going to happen with Anthony is released. The Nuggets are playing with the sort of stress-free energy that personifies March Madness, as fans near the hideout here will get to see tonight when the Nuggets face the Hawks at Philips Arena.