Eighth Is Enough (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday April 8, 2008 10:17AM; Updated: Tuesday April 8, 2008 10:17AM
Indeed, these days Karl seems to be doing his best Don Nelson impersonation. Witness the near manic giddiness he summons when talking offense. "It's about the power of explosion, the power of going on a 20-2 run and [the opponent] can do nothing about it," Karl said after a recent practice, eyebrows dancing up and down. "When we're rolling, I don't care if it's San Antonio, Detroit, whoever. When we're hot, it doesn't matter." In recent weeks the Nuggets have outrun and outgunned the run-and-gunners, beating both the Suns and the Warriors in scoreathons (scoregies?). "It's fun," says Kleiza, who had 41 in a January win over the Utah Jazz. "Coach Karl gives us freedom and expects us not to be knuckleheads."
Speaking of knuckleheads, until recently the 22-year-old Smith was the embodiment of every negative NBA stereotype: the young, hubristic player straight out of high school who gave himself a ridiculous nickname (Young Rich) and felt his skills exempted him from normal responsibilities like, you know, playing defense and listening to his coach. But Smith is bursting with raw talent; he's the rare player who could capably compete in both the slam dunk contest and the three-point shootout. And while it's too early to say Smith has reformed, Karl's message is getting through, if slowly. Smith's minutes -- and his production -- have increased as he's begun looking to pass (at least occasionally), playing defense (or at least a reasonable facsimile) and taking better care of the ball. Since the All-Star break, he has averaged 15.6 points and 2.6 three-pointers on 48.8% shooting.
Of course, Smith could revert to his old self next week, and the same goes for the Nuggets. Up until the last month or so, Denver was consistently inconsistent, overpowering teams one night and playing lackadaisically the next. Just as the Nuggets' hot shooting is contagious, so too is their missing, of both jumpers and defensive assignments, something Iverson refers to as "our slippage." Too often Denver's rotations don't rotate, and its double teams turn into leak-outs. In last Saturday's loss to the Kings, the Nuggets allowed layups off made baskets, repeatedly didn't box out and gambled on ill-advised steals. "We spend more energy offensively and take a rest defensively when it should be the other way around," says Nájera. "That's the difference with a team like San Antonio or Detroit. They hardly ever make mistakes defensively and give you easy buckets."
Back when Karl was a defense-first coach, this would have driven him crazy. Now, despite the fact that Denver's locker room rather comically boasts a sign that reads DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS and includes the team's rankings in opponents' scoring (28th), field goal percentage (12th) and assists (30th), Karl is resigned to his club's style of play. "I still like defense more than offense," he says, "but when four of your top six players are offensive players, that's what you do."
So Karl and his Nuggets head down the stretch and, they hope, into the playoffs with a simple mission: Outscore the other team. "I know at times it looks bad," says Karl, "but at times it's explosive as hell."
Just so long as it doesn't blow up in their faces.
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