Eighth Is Enough
The Denver Nuggets, the league's latest offensive juggernaut, are trying to shoot their way into the Western Conference's final playoff spot by putting up points at a breakneck pace
Posted: Tuesday April 8, 2008 10:17AM; Updated: Tuesday April 8, 2008 10:17AM
Watch enough Denver Nuggets games this year and you will be forgiven for entertaining the thought that, if given the PT, you might be able to go for 30 in that offense.
Such is the contagious nature of scoring on the most talented and mystifying of the teams jostling for the final two spots in the Great Western Playoff Race of '08, in which each morning brings a reordered playoff seeding. To the untrained eye, Denver appears to be playing one big, frenetic game of pickup basketball: Players hurtle down the court, pull up for crazy threes and think nothing of going one-on-two, not to mention one-on-three or one-on-the-Kings, as guard Allen Iverson did last Saturday in a 118-115 loss to Sacramento, hopscotching through five defenders to score on a runner in the third quarter.
Then again, even to the trained eye the Nuggets appear to be playing pickup basketball, because, well, they essentially are. Coach George Karl encourages whoever gets the ball to push it upcourt and wants players to shoot in less than 10 seconds. Even when Karl does call plays -- which he says has been on less than 50% of possessions in some recent games -- they're often simple isolations for Iverson or Denver's other All-Star, forward Carmelo Anthony. While Karl prefers his players to (in order) get to the rim, shoot free throws or take open threes, the only shot he considers a bad one is a contested two-pointer in the first 10 seconds, and even that doesn't apply to his two stars. "They pretty much freelance," says Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan. "Everybody else plays off of [Anthony and Iverson]. You know what they're going to do, it's how do you stop them?"
For the last couple of months, few have. Since the All-Star break the Nuggets (46-31 through Sunday and in eighth place in the West) are averaging a league-best 118.8 points and shooting 50.0% from the field. In a surreal March 16 win against the Seattle SuperSonics, Denver scored 168 points, the most in the NBA since 1990. It's not just the Big Two, either: Four Nuggets, including two reserves (Linas Kleiza and J.R. Smith), have dropped 40 or more this season, and five have set or tied their career highs in scoring.
Perhaps no player embodies the unconventional, see-basket-and-shoot spirit of this year's team better than reserve forward Eduardo Nájera. A classic banger, the 6' 8", 235-pound Nájera spent the first seven years of his career setting retaining-wall screens and taking more elbows to the face than he did jump shots. So what does Karl have him doing now? Hoisting up threes, of course. Through Sunday, Nájera -- Nájera! -- was attempting nearly two three-balls a game and hitting a respectable 37.5%, despite having averaged only eight attempts per season over his career. The experiment began last fall when, after watching Nájera hit 20-footers in shooting drills, Karl told him to take a step back and start launching threes in games. Assuming his coach was "playing around," Nájera did no such thing. To his surprise, however, Karl approached him a few exhibition games later. "Hey," Karl said, "I'm still waiting for you to shoot those threes."