TrueHoop: Ty Lawson

Ty Lawson on the attack

December, 6, 2013
12/06/13
2:59
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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The NBA's hurt locker

March, 26, 2013
3/26/13
5:31
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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NBAE/Getty ImagesJust as their teams were hitting their strides, Marc Gasol and Ty Lawson went down.
For a while, the Memphis Grizzlies were the Western Conference’s most intriguing story. During the height of the season, they dealt their most prolific scorer (Rudy Gay) for a less selfish one (Tayshaun Prince). Following the trade, the Grizzlies cratered for a period, as a malaise infected a somber locker room. But once they incorporated Prince into their defensive schemes and worked out their rotations, the Grizzlies rallied with a fury to win 14 of 15 games.

While Memphis was experiencing its Glasnost, the Denver Nuggets cruised through their schedule like a snowmobile through powder. They ran up 15 straight wins with the NBA’s most improvisational and electric offense, paying tribute to Doug Moe’s “organized chaos” of the early-model Nuggets.

For weeks it appeared the Los Angeles Clippers were a lock to finish in the No. 3 slot, but with Memphis and Denver ripping off wins in bunches, the West’s third seed was put back into play -- and the best race for playoff positioning was under way.

Then, just as the drive for the postseason was becoming scenic, the Grizzlies lost Marc Gasol to an abdominal tear and Denver's Ty Lawson was sidelined with a heel injury. As Gasol watched in street clothes, the Grizzlies fell back to earth. The Grizzlies barely held off at home a Celtics team that hadn’t won a road game since March 6 and dropped a game in ugly fashion at Washington. With Lawson out, Denver stole a game at home against a decimated Sixers squad, squeaked by Sacramento (also in Denver) and was blown out in New Orleans.

In an instant, the screen went dark in the Western Conference just as things were getting good. The Grizzlies and Nuggets are still playing games, but at the moment when each team was hitting its stride and making a compelling case that it could play with anyone, the best talent left the scene.

Injuries are an inconvenient reality in pro basketball, and every night coaches and players stand before the media and insist that a depleted roster is no excuse for a drop-off in performance. “Nobody is 100 percent this time of year” is practically a spring sonnet in the NBA.

Consider the implications of this: At the most dramatic juncture of the season when elite players should be putting their imprints on the playoff race, they’re competing at less than full strength -- if they’re competing at all. In addition to Gasol and Lawson, Dwyane Wade and David West are missing games; Carmelo Anthony and Tony Parker have missed significant time as well.

It’s tough to draw a direct correlation between the length and workload of an NBA season and player health. Abdominal tears can occur during Game 10, and a player can suffer a heel injury during a summer workout. But when you talk to NBA players and coaches about player health, when you see more and more guys shuffling in and out of the treatment room after practices and games as the season grinds on, it’s clear that an 82-game season isn’t helping. Humans are far more likely to suffer injuries when they’re exhausted, and there’s legitimate evidence that excessive minutes hurt performance while rest improves the well-being of an athlete.

The result is that fans are also deprived of barn-burner basketball. Did you see the Memphis’ new killer lineup and its plus-13.4 point differential per 100 possessions? Or the skid marks left by the Nuggets on a nightly basis at Pepsi Center? There was hardly a trace of all that Monday night in Washington and New Orleans, respectively.

“Nobody is 100 percent this time of year” is a silly way to run a business that’s driven by star power during the latter stages of the season. In what other sector are the highest performing employees absent during the busy time of year when the success and failure of the enterprise is on the line?

It's smart to be fun

March, 11, 2013
3/11/13
11:28
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
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Ty Lawson
Sam Forencich/Getty Images
Ty Lawson and the Nuggets get more of these shots than any other team.

Whether or not you agree that the level of play in the NBA is at an all-time high, there's no question that the amount of data available to coaches and teams has never been greater.

The digitalization of scouting through services such as Synergy allows coaches and players to watch playlists of the most granular detail. If Gregg Popovich wants to tweak his team's defense on Steve Nash pick-and-rolls, he can instantly pull up a series of clips focused on instances in which Nash dribbles left after splitting the initial coverage. SportVu can help them find the optimum number of dribbles for Tony Parker over the course of a game.

All this information leaves many to wonder if the way teams play basketball will become, as Ethan Sherwood Strauss described the Houston Rockets' offense, like so much "savvy accounting." Crunch the numbers, program the players to avoid scenarios with low probability of success, repeat ad infinitum.

That's not exactly a new process; coaches have sought maximum efficiency since the day the league began. But we also want improvisation, grace and athleticism, and the worry seems to be that increased data and scouting will lead to increased control from coaches.

Instead we're seeing something a bit different. A few of the teams that have invested seriously in analytics are playing the most exciting and free basketball. Nuggets coach George Karl appeared on the Dan Patrick Show to talk about his team's thrilling, up-tempo style (via Grantland's Brett Koremenos).

Karl said that the smarter teams become, the more important it is to encourage the kind of athletic, aggressive open-court style that just so happens to be the most entertaining style of play.
Coaching has now gotten so technical and scientific and there's so much of it and there's so much video and and there are so many statistics, that basically the reality of coaching is when you play 5-on-5 basketball it's very difficult to beat the defense and the scouting reports and the preparation and the tendencies that we know teams have. So what we're trying to do is play before those things can be settled in to.

We want to play early. We want to play before the defense sets. We want to play when there's mismatches running up and down the court. And to do that it takes a little extra work on working on your spacing and working on your commitment to run and play fast. I mean very few players want to play fast because you don't get rewarded all the time. You have to run maybe 10 times to get 2 shots, maybe 15 times to get 2 shots.

It's like offensive rebounding. A lot of big guys don't like to offensive rebound because you got to go all the time to get a few reinforcements. Our big guys here have done a great job the last few years. They really do run the floor well which helps the beginning of the spacing and gets the freedom of the ball. And then the other sport aspect of it is I just watch football. They're playing quicker, they're getting faster. They don't want the defense to get set, they don't want the defense to rotate in and match up their strength against your strength.

We're kind of trying to play not against the strength of a good defensive team, and the weakest part of the defensive team is normally in transition. I watch a soccer team like Spain play and so much of what they do is they don't hold the ball. They ping the ball around and make quick decisions. And I'm sure they have great plays and great actions, but it's basically don't let the defense feel like they can zone in on you because you're making quick decisions.

Translation: The analytics tell us the best way to play is in transition, and with maximum ball movement. That is, to give the fans what they want.

That's why the Nuggets lead the league in attempts at the rim by a wide margin and score in transition more than any other team. It's also great news for NBA fans who prize creativity and athleticism.

For teams like Denver, more data equals more fun.

Denver provides the ultimate home court

February, 19, 2013
2/19/13
3:13
PM ET
By Sunny Saini and Doug Clawson, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com

Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Nuggets play a different brand of basketball at home
The Denver Nuggets started the season 11-12 but have run off a 22-9 record since then. What changed? 17 of Denver’s first 23 games were on the road, but since then, they’ve played 19 of 31 at home.

Since the New Year, the Nuggets have the second-best record in the NBA (16-6) by reeling off 13 wins in 15 home games, including seven straight. They are currently sitting fifth in the Western conference. Tonight they host the Boston Celtics to tip off post-All-Star break action.

MUST BE THE ALTITUDE
Since 2000-01, the Nuggets have won nearly 68 percent of their home games but only 38 percent of their road games. No team has seen a higher increase in winning percentage from road to home games than the Nuggets.

HOW ARE THEY DOING IT?
At home, the Nuggets are a dynamic team that scores 110 points per 100 possessions (4th in NBA) and allows 99.5 points per 100 possessions (9th in NBA).

The Nuggets have a better offensive efficiency at home than the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers and a better defensive efficiency than the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat and New York Knicks.

During the 16-6 stretch, they are forcing 17 turnovers a game, leading to 22 points per game on offense, both of which lead the NBA over this stretch. The Nuggets ability to create turnovers and willingness to get out on the break have led to a league-high 58.7 paint points per game since January 1st.

The Nuggets are having a historic year, averaging 56.8 points per game in the paint. The last team to come close to that type of production was the 1997-98 Los Angeles Lakers with 54.1 points in the paint per game.

LAST TIME THEY MET
The Celtics won at home 118-114 (OT) on February 10, part of an 8-1 stretch for the Celtics since Rajon Rondo’s injury.

Paul Pierce had his eighth career triple double (27-14-14)

The Celtics won despite giving up a season-high 62 points in the paint (outscored by 32 in the paint).

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Paul Pierce is averaging 7.2 assists per game since the Rondo’s injury (3.8 prior).

Since January 1st, Ty Lawson is scoring 19.2 points per game while shooting 49.7 percent from the field (13.6 PPG and 40.8 FG pct prior).

Who is the fastest player with the ball?

February, 15, 2013
2/15/13
3:19
PM ET
By Mark Haubner
ESPN.com
Archive

Getty ImagesSkills, scmills. Who's the fastest guy with the ball?
Mark Haubner is the founder of The Painted Area TrueHoop Network Blog. Here's his HoopIdea to make All-Star weekend more exciting.

Are you excited for the NBA Skills Challenge coming up on Saturday night?

Of course you’re not.

Watching point guards dribble around an obstacle course at half-speed, occasionally stopping to pinpoint a rudimentary chest or bounce pass, is a pointless exercise worthy of fast-forward treatment on your DVR.

Ten editions of the Skills Challenge have proved that the event not only provides minimal entertainment value but also is irrelevant to the conversation of sports fans. Though intended to showcase the fruits of passionate, dedicated training, if anything the Skills Challenge conveys a sense of apathy, with players going through the motions in an event in which they are required to participate.

It’s time for a change.

It’s time for the Fastest Man With The Ball competition to replace the Skills Challenge on All-Star Saturday.

(Note: the idea was first floated in this corner of the internet by John Krolik of Cavs: The Blog as part of a 2009 TrueHoop Network roundtable on improving All-Star Weekend, and deserves a re-airing in the HoopIdea era.)

“Who is the fastest man with the ball?” is a question that you’ll periodically hear on NBA broadcasts. It’s a topic that’s fun for fans to debate, and it’s a crown that players might actually aspire to compete for and hold.

The specifics of the rules can be up for debate. Let’s say players start on the baseline and go down and back the full court, needing to make a layup each time, before finishing with a sprint back to half court, for a total of about 70 meters with the ball. Perhaps two baskets could be set up at each end of the court for some head-to-head competition. There might need to be something like a minimum number of dribbles to prevent players from simply throwing the ball ahead and sprinting after it.

Feel free to tweak away at these ideas all you like. I’m sure we can come up with something reasonable. The key is agreeing on the premise of finding a way to measure top speed with the ball, something that would resonate with fans from casual to hard-core much more than navigating the Skills Challenge labyrinth.

Who would win the 2013 Fastest Man With The Ball competition? My guess is that the odds-on favorites would be John Wall and Ty Lawson.

Who else would be in my ideal eight-man field? Well, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo would be no-brainers if they weren’t injured. Without them, I’ll put Tony Parker, Monta Ellis, Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison on my list as definites, and I have Eric Bledsoe just edging out Nate Robinson in the freak-of-nature category.

And yeah, I’m saving one last spot for LeBron James, just because I’d love to see what would happen.

Here's the best part: While the Skills Challenge doesn't really tell us who the most skilled player in the NBA is, the Fastest Man With The Ball would result in a meaningful title that could be debated and discussed all season.

I know I’d be eager to watch and see the results, and that’s a lot more than I can say about the Skills Challenge. It’s time to try something different.

Playoffs might be a long shot for the Lakers

January, 12, 2013
1/12/13
2:21
AM ET
By Ryan Feldman
ESPN Stats & Information
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Noah Graham/Getty ImagesThe Lakers have lost a season-high six straight games.
It might be time to panic in Los Angeles -– well, at least for Lakers fans.

The Lakers now have lost six straight games, their longest losing streak since March 2007. They’re within striking distance of their franchise-record 10-game losing streak in April 1994.

It’s now very realistic that the Lakers might not make the playoffs.

This is the 10th time in franchise history the Lakers have started 15-21 or worse through 36 games. Of the previous nine times, they never finished .500 or better. The last time they started 15-21 or worse and made the playoffs was 1966-67.

In the past five seasons, the worst win percentage for a Western Conference playoff team was .545 last season by the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz. In an 82-game season, that would be 45 wins.

In order for the Lakers to reach 45 wins, they would need to finish with a 30-16 record.

How realistic is that? Only two teams have ever finished a season with at least 45 wins after starting 15-21 or worse, according to the Elias Sports Bureau -- the 2004-05 Denver Nuggets and 2009-10 Milwaukee Bucks.

What’s wrong with the Lakers?

Since Mike D’Antoni took over on Nov. 20, the Lakers have been the sixth-worst team in terms of defensive efficiency.

This has much to do with playing at the second-highest pace under D’Antoni.

They were the eighth-best defensive team in their first 10 games of the season while playing at the ninth-highest pace.

The Lakers have had trouble defending opposing teams' best players. During their six-game losing streak, the Lakers have allowed star players to score well above their season scoring averages:

• 76ers: Jrue Holiday scored 26 (averages 18.3 points per game)
• Clippers: Chris Paul scored 30 (averages 17.0 ppg)
• Nuggets: Ty Lawson scored 21 (averages 14.1 ppg)
• Rockets: James Harden scored 31 (averages 26.5 ppg)
• Spurs: Tony Parker scored 24 (averages 19.2 ppg)
• Thunder: Kevin Durant scored 42 (averages 28.1 ppg)

Injuries don’t help the situation. But turning the Lakers' season around likely will have to start with much-improved defense.

Improving on the defensive end and winning more games could be much easier if the Lakers can slow down their pace.

The Lakers have had a pace of 100 or more possessions in each of their past four games -– all losses, of course. The Lakers now have a 7-16 record this season in games with a pace of at least 96 possessions, but they’re 8-5 when the pace is 95 or slower.

Conversation starters for 2012-13

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
10:41
AM ET
By Kevin Arnovitz and Beckley Mason
ESPN.com

Getty ImagesMoving the needle in 2012-13: Andre Iguodala, LeBron James and Blake Griffin.

1. Will the Nuggets finally reward their army of boosters?

Beckley Mason: Oh man, I don’t wager money on the NBA, but let’s just say I emptied my vanity coffers investing preseason plaudits on this team. I’m worried that I’m so excited about how fun this team will be, I have overestimated how much it will actually win. The Nuggets represent the open style of team play I wish was more common in the league, getting the best possible shots -- layups and 3-pointers -- all game.

But I have also been encouraged by the preseason.

The early offense is clicking. Andre Iguodala, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried have been as advertised in the open court, and Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer look ready to make unexpected contributions. For guys like John Hollinger and Kevin Pelton, both of whom have Denver finishing second in the Western Conference, there’s clearly something here. As usual, the Nuggets project as a juggernaut top-three offense, but this season they’ll have the personnel to play defense in the half court.

Kevin Arnovitz: Aside from the stylistic appeal, where does this collective love for Denver come from? Is it a sincere belief the Nuggets have the necessary tools to mount a guerrilla war in the West and take down the likes of the Thunder or the Lakers or just a desire to see a verdict rendered once and for all that Carmelo Anthony is a bad guy?

I also wonder if the post-Melo Nuggets haven’t become a symbol for those who were repelled by the Anthony saga two years ago. In the era of the superteam, romantics want the Nuggets to prove that a team of non-superstars can compete for an NBA title through sheer effort, athleticism and creativity. A lot of basketball junkies want to live in a world where the 2004 Pistons aren’t a historical outlier and Anthony is the fool. The Nuggets represent their best hope.

Mason: Unlike those Pistons, the Nuggets are a rare case of a superstar-less team that wins without a superstar. Two different models. The question is …

2. What do you do in the NBA if you can’t recruit a superstar?

Arnovitz: The Moneyball principle was never about putting data ahead of scouting. It was about identifying an undervalued commodity in a sport and finding bargains in players who bring that commodity to a roster.

Individual defense -- loosely defined -- is probably that undervalued commodity at the moment, largely because we have a hard time defining it statistically. Players have traditionally been paid based on their offensive stats. You can jump up and down about this guy being a top-five defender (think Tony Allen) and that defense is 50 percent of the game, but we rarely see defensive specialists score the kind of contracts one-way offensive players like Monta Ellis do.

That’s what made Houston’s three-year, $25.2 million deal for Omer Asik so interesting. That’s a significant investment in a guy who most people around the league would regard as a one-way defensive player. Some thought it was an outlandish offer, but would anyone raise an eyebrow if a top-20 offensive player landed the same contract?

Mason: Let's just say Asik has a better chance of being worth $8 million a year than Charlie Villanueva.

Arnovitz: Sure, and if you’re a team that can’t get meetings with the LeBrons of the world and can’t realistically find your way onto the wish list of the truly elite offensive free agents, your best course of action might be to stock your roster with the best value defenders in the league, aspire to be a top-three defense and play it out from there.


Drew Hallowell/NBAE/Getty ImagesTom Thibodeau: Defense first.
Mason: I agree, particularly because it takes a certain ingenuity to be a truly great offensive player. That’s just not the case on the defensive end, where position, intelligence and effort are the hallmarks of excellence.

I’d argue it’s easier to teach a player to be a great defender than it is to teach a player to be a dominant offensive force, which means coaching is key. Is there anything a young athletic team -- and aren’t all young teams athletic? -- can benefit from more than a great defensive mind?

Tom Thibodeau’s success in Chicago is an example of the impact a great defensive system can have, but what about Scott Skiles’ work with the 2009-10 Bucks? That team worked incredibly hard and, anchored by guys like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Andrew Bogut, had the league’s second-best defense. Even with a rookie point guard and Bogut out with an injury for the playoffs, Milwaukee came within a game of reaching the second round -- all on a serious budget (if you don’t count an injured Michael Redd’s $17 million contract).

Arnovitz: Here’s a question for the defensive savants ...

3. How can anyone match up with LeBron James and three or four shooters?

Mason: Thibodeau has been a master of aggravating big scorers in big series, but this might be the NBA’s unsolvable riddle between the lines. James’ new comfort as a scorer with his back to the basket has made him even better at commanding space near the paint. His most underrated skill is his ability to, with the flick of a wrist, throw a basketball 40 feet on a frozen rope to an open shooter. He throws passes so hard, and with such little warning to the defense, that he forces defenses to stay closer to shooters than any other player while simultaneously overwhelming any individual defender in front of him. Barring a player who can tangle with James in pick-and-rolls and one-on-ones on the block, I’m not sure there is a reliable way to defend the Heat with actual defense.

You have to defend them with your offense. Keep the turnovers low, take good shots and either pound the offensive glass or send at least four men back on every shot. James really kills in transition when defensive help is hard to organize, and he loves to receive a drag screen in the middle of the court and blast past the defense to the rim.

In terms of actual defense, no one bothers James as much as Chicago. Having two bigs -- Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah -- who can handle James in a switch at the end of the shot clock is vital to that success.

Arnovitz: Erik Spoelstra is cracking that code. Getting LeBron to buy into this role was probably the biggest coaching achievement in the NBA last season.

So much of the innovation in coaching today is assignment-based rather than the sculpting of a coherent system for your team. It’s about getting LeBron to buy in as a multitasking power forward, figuring out how to horse-whisper Carmelo into a similar role with the Knicks or crafting an offense for a team that has virtually no reliable outside shooting.

The great system coaches are an endangered species. Phil Jackson is back on his ranch, like Lyndon Johnson after vacating the White House. Although Ty Corbin has preserved much of what flourished over the past quarter-decade in Utah, Jerry Sloan is gone too. Mike D’Antoni is in exodus. Stan Van Gundy tailored a provisional system around Dwight Howard. Even a guy like Eddie Jordan was not successful but certainly ambitious.

Rick Adelman might be the lone graybeard, systems coach left. The rest of the league has moved to a predictable half-court game. The high pick-and-roll is the new iso, and why not? It stretches the defense across the floor for quick point guards who can devour most coverages and dance into the paint.

4. Is most of the cool innovation happening on defense, while NBA offenses are simplifying?

Mason: Thibodeau, Spoelstra and Dwane Casey are young coaches developing creative, principle-based systems for their defenses, which supports that.

The offensive piece we can trace back 20 years, when the NBA began to change the rules in ways that opened up the court and encouraged perimeter-based play. Coaches have come along with systems that can better account for the dangers presented by a quick point guard and three shooters, but we may be stuck with the spread pick-and-roll’s ubiquity until the next round of rule changes.

Still, I sense there is a crop of coaches toiling with terrible teams that will one day number among the NBA’s most visionary. Monty Williams has a record as a strong defensive coach and might have the most creative pick-and-roll schemes in the league. Rick Carlisle is one of the most flexible minds in the game. No one coaches to personnel as well, and his strange roster in Dallas augurs well for those who like to see a hoops genius pushed to his creative limits. I’m also intrigued by Terry Stotts, a Carlisle disciple. Who knows what he has in Portland? If his development chops are legit, that’s another interesting team that will fall well short of contending.


Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
DeMarcus Cousins: Beast or burden?
Arnovitz: Development is another one of the great unknowns in basketball, and here’s a head-scratcher of a case study:

5. If DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t evolve into a beast, whose fault is that?

Mason: I’ve seen Cousins play in person only once, and it wasn’t even in an NBA game. It was at the Goodman League versus Drew League exhibition in Baltimore during the 2011 lockout, a game that pitted NBA players from the Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles areas against each other.

The game was a microcosm of Cousins’ NBA career. He made jumpers and sharp passes, he bullied JaVale McGee and dunked all over him, and there was a moment when he picked James Harden’s pocket and gathered up the loose ball on the run, keeping his dribble at knee height. His skill and dexterity, at that incredible size, was jarring.

He also failed to finish the game. He argued with his exhibition coach (whoever that was) about playing time and touches, was constantly annoyed with the ref and let the event’s emcee, who dubbed Cousins “Bad Attitude,” get under his skin.

Cousins makes you shake your head for reasons both good and bad, and we have to attribute some of that weirdness to Cousins himself. But doesn’t it feel like the Sacramento franchise hasn’t been doing him any favors?

Arnovitz: This is one of my favorite counterfactuals: What if Cousins were drafted by the San Antonio Spurs? You can try it with any young player who has come through the league. Are we absolutely certain Adam Morrison or Michael Olowokandi couldn’t have put together decent NBA careers had they landed with more resourceful or nurturing organizations? An apprentice can thrive if the workshop is conducive to good training and his mentor rocks (see Lawson, Ty).

Fundamentally, these teams are workplaces, and more professional offices tend to get the best of their team. Individual strengths are fostered; shortcomings are neutralized.

If you’re lucky, you get to work at a place like this. Cousins hasn’t been lucky. So he can either succumb to the worst instincts of his environment or take it a personal imperative to defy them.

Mason: Player development is such a tricky issue because so much happens behind the scenes. But maybe the Internet’s leading Clipperologist can help answer this one ...

6. What does Blake Griffin have in store for the world, and what does the world have in store for Blake?

Arnovitz: I’ve been trying to figure out what to take away from Griffin’s drop this year in #NBARank. Last season, Griffin beat his rookie shooting and efficiency numbers, yet there was constant sniping about his shortcomings. Much of that criticism was legitimate but disproportionate, driven in some part by a certain strain of antipathy.

Yes, his defense needs to be faster and smarter, but it’s not as if Kevin Love and Zach Randolph are winning games as defenders. When Dirk Nowitzki and Lamar Odom came into the league, they had few instincts defensively. But the Mavs have been significantly better defensively with Dirk on the floor the past few seasons, and Odom established himself as a strong, versatile -- even aggressive -- defender before he started taking on weight like a loading dock.

I sense most of the Blake-lashers know that, which means the charges are a little excessive.

Still, a lot of rational people's hoop sensibilities are offended by Griffin’s on-court persona. Many of them love playing the game, but Griffin wouldn’t be a guy they’d enjoy sharing the court with. At least that’s my interpretation.

Beck, it’s fair to say you’re one of those people, isn’t it? You asked Blake last season to cool it with the “WWE heel routine.” Over the summer, did you harvest any affection for Blake? If not, what’s wrong with playing the heel for a few hours a week?

Mason: One of the primary criticisms of Griffin’s play is that he is just a dunking machine. But if you were to design a power forward, you could do much worse than a machine that did a lot of dunking. Griffin led the NBA in dunks last season by a wide margin, which means he did a better job of getting the highest percentage shot in the league than anyone else. That’s a really good thing no matter how you slice it.

As you wrote, I still have a hard time squaring the guy who is pitch perfect as a book club sensei and the one who gets a preseason technical foul for going after an ostensibly innocent Paul Millsap. Blake stays mean-mugging at opponents and refs, but except for in the instances where it keeps him from getting back on defense, I can live with it -- and even smile at it.

I’m actually bullish on Blake going into this season. He has looked just as freaky explosive and deft around the rim as ever in the preseason, and his passing is world class at the power forward position.

Look, Griffin is going to learn to shoot and play better defense, but it will be a careerlong project. Because Griffin’s flaws are so glaring -- he doesn’t just miss free throws, he air-balls them -- they can seem to counterbalance all the good stuff he does. But that’s ludicrous. He is only 23, and every part of his game is on the upswing. His lower ranking this season was probably a reaction to being overrated after his first season and not an accurate representation of where his game is headed.

Nuggets super subs lead by example

May, 2, 2012
5/02/12
2:29
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
Corey Brewer
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Corey Brewer shows what the Nuggets can do when they push the ball.

The Lakers patiently worked the ball to Andrew Bynum, who had established position deep in the post. He took a dribble, rotated his massive shoulders to the baseline and lofted a feathery right-handed jump hook that just rimmed out.

A split second later, Ty Lawson was laying the ball in over a frantic, backpedaling defender.

The six-second exchange during the first quarter of Game 2 encapsulates the dramatic clash in styles these two teams present. The Lakers are going to pound away on the undersized Nuggets inside, and Denver’s only hope is to speed up the game by racing the ball up the court at every opportunity.

Its best opportunity to do that will come against the Lakers’ second unit, which has trouble controlling the pace when either Bynum or Gasol goes to the bench.

Enter Andre Miller, Al Harrington and Corey Brewer.

These three substitutes have been on the court for most of Denver’s best moments and are setting a great example for how they and their teammates can make this series more competitive.

Miller is about as slow as NBA point guards come, but he understands something very important: no one is faster than the ball. Miller's vision is world class, and he has an uncanny ability to delicately float the ball up court, over the defense and into the hands of his playmakers.

Without the relatively plodding Laker big men clogging up the paint, the Nuggets’ streaking wings have found success attacking the rim.

None more so than Brewer, who seems to have a perfect grasp on the Nuggets’ gameplan. On defense, Brewer has been a disruptive force, all flailing limbs and scrambling, quick feet. Even when he gets caught out of position, it seems to be in a way that creates the type of unsettled situations that benefit Denver. And as soon as a shot goes up, Brewer takes off up court, sprinting down the sidelines before the ball even reaches the rim.

Brewer’s aggressive work in the open court earned him five transition layup attempts in Game 2, a few on the type of over-the-shoulder passes that made him look like a wide receiver running a fly pattern past a flat-footed safety. Miller was the quarterback.

The Lakers have won both games, but the Nuggets have outscored Lakers with Brewer and Miller together on the floor. And when the Nuggets add a big man with 3-point shooting ability like Harrington, they’ve done even better. Harrington can jog into an open 3 as a trailer on the fast break, or offer crucial spacing in the Nuggets’ dribble-drive attack.

The Miller-Brewer-Harrington combination has outscored the Lakers by 16 points and is the only three-man Nuggets combination that has a positive plus/minus in extended court time.

So though Los Angeles has dominated the series thus far, the Nuggets have shown they know how to counteract the Lakers' size.

And luckily, Miller, Brewer and Harrington aren’t the only Denver players that have the requisite skill sets. In fact, they share many qualities with the Nuggets who start the game.

After a shaky start to Game 1, Lawson has shown more confidence advancing the ball quickly with the pass or dribble. Arron Afflalo has plenty of athleticism to beat the Lakers up court and finish plays when he gets there. Danilo Gallinari is a career 37 percent 3-point shooter who can slide to the power forward position.

The pieces are in place. As the Nuggets head to the friendly confines of Denver’s Pepsi Center, they must hope their young starters can take a few cues from their effective, veteran substitutes.

Statistical support provided by NBA.com.

The star-crossed Clippers and Timberwolves

January, 20, 2012
1/20/12
12:28
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
The Sam Cassell-for-Marko Jaric trade in 2005 set into motion a series of bizarre and historic events.

Almost seven years ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers swung a trade on a sleepy August day.

The Clippers sent combo guard Marko Jaric and Lionel Chalmers to Minnesota in exchange for 35-year-old point guard Sam Cassell and a Timberwolves first-round draft pick that was lottery protected for the next six years.

And so began an odd relationship between two teams whose fortunes became inextricably linked. For the next several years, the Wolves and Clips mysteriously ran into each other everywhere and got trapped in the same elevator more than once. Cassell retired nearly three years ago and joined Flip Saunders' coaching staff in Washington. Jaric married model Adriana Lima and was last seen in a Montepaschi Siena uniform. Yet that trade still has enormous implications today, as the teams prepare for a Friday night matchup at Staples Center that will be nationally televised on ESPN -- something that would've been unthinkable even a year ago.

Cassell led the Clippers to their most successful season in history in 2005-06, when his mouthy leadership took the team within a Raja Bell 3-pointer of the Western Conference finals. The Timberwolves won 33, 32, 22, 24, 15 and 17 games respectively over the next six seasons and, for a stretch, somehow displaced the Clippers in the Crapola Sweepstakes as the NBA's most ridiculed franchise, even after the Clippers fell back to earth.

The Clippers had historically stood as the team most likely to botch the NBA draft, but the Timberwolves were nipping at their heels. For a while, the Brandon Roy-for-Randy Foye trade dogged the Wolves. Then, in the 2009 draft, the Timberwolves were mocked for choosing three point guards in the first round -- Jonny Flynn, Ricky Rubio and Ty Lawson -- Flynn and Rubio back-to-back at No. 5 and No. 6. Rubio's first reaction when Minnesota picked him? "It's cold there." The Timberwolves kept Flynn while trading Lawson, chosen at No. 18, to Denver (as instructed by the Nuggets as part of a trade). Today, Flynn rides the pine in Houston, while Lawson is running point for an impressive team in Denver.

How did the Timberwolves score the pick for Rubio? They fetched Mike Miller from Memphis in an eight-player deal featuring O.J. Mayo and Kevin Love, but included Jaric. The Timberwolves eventually sent Miller, along with Foye, to the Wizards for the pick that became Rubio. Foye, of course, is now in his second season with the Clippers.

Before the Timberwolves cornered the market on first-round point guards in 2009, the Clippers took Blake Griffin at No. 1. While Griffin was the obvious choice for the Clippers, it's easy to forget that Rubio was leading many draft boards during the winter and spring of 2009, and there was a reasonable minority that felt he was the finest prospect in the draft. Sacramento was the odds-on favorite to win the first pick before the lottery betrayed the Kings, and many observers had the Kings selecting Rubio if they landed atop the board. Had the Clippers not had Baron Davis locked into an extended deal, Rubio might be in L.A.

After the Clippers selected Griffin, they began the process of rebuilding. In the two seasons following the 2009 draft, they recruited half the Timberwolves' roster. Craig Smith, a former second-round pick of the Timberwolves, became a fan favorite in Los Angeles, while Ricky Davis became a fan unfavorite. Sebastian Telfair, who came over with Smith in a deal for Quentin Richardson, served as Davis' backup for 39 games (before landing back with the Timberwolves a season later). Needing to fill out their depth on the wing in the summer of 2010, the Clippers signed Foye and Ryan Gomes to modest multiyear deals.

Lingering above all this is what became known in Los Angeles as simply "The Minnesota Pick" -- the one the Clippers acquired along with Cassell in 2005. The worse things got for the Timberwolves, the more excited Clippers fans and execs became at the prospect that the misery in Minnesota would outlive the lottery protection on the pick. If the Timberwolves could continue to be awful for just a couple more seasons, the Clippers could conceivably have a top pick in 2012! When Rubio opted to remain in Europe for two seasons, that possibility went from remote to real.

"The Minnesota Pick" ultimately became a centerpiece of the most fateful trade in Clippers history just a few weeks ago, when the team reeled in Chris Paul from New Orleans. The pick was the one asset that set the Clippers apart from other suitors, and the Hornets were adamant about its inclusion in any deal.

On Friday night, Paul -- hamstring permitting -- will face off against Rubio in a contest between two of the most telegenic teams in the league. Individual matchups are often overrated, but Paul on Rubio -- and Rubio on Paul -- has a marquee quality to it. In a league dominated by point guards who earn their livings on the attack, Paul and Rubio are throwbacks to a time when vision trumped speed. Prefer a big-man brand of basketball? Keep your eyes on the low block, where Griffin and Love will wrestle for supremacy.

The Timberwolves have been rewarded for their patience, the Clippers for their craftiness. Now two teams that have been tethered together in the Western Conference dungeon for the better part of a decade will get to show off their shiny new toys.

Friday Bullets

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
4:32
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Nuggets stay alive as Thunder miss late

April, 26, 2011
4/26/11
3:00
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
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The Denver Nuggets avoided elimination Monday thanks to Ty Lawson's 13 fourth-quarter points and two missed Russell Westbrook three-pointers in the final 10 seconds.

The Thunder franchise, which was looking for its first four-game sweep of a seven-game series since 1996, got 30 points from Westbrook and 31 from Kevin Durant. It was the second time this series that both players scored at least 30 points in the same game.

While Lawson contributed a playoff career-high 27 points, including 9-for-9 from the free throw line, the Nuggets bench also outscored the Thunder's bench 30-19.

Yet Westbrook's two missed shots late in the game added to a common pattern seen in the 2011 playoffs. In the final 10 seconds of a game, teams tied or trailing by three or fewer points now are 1-for-13 from the floor. That 7.1 field-goal percentage is the worst so far in the last four postseasons. During the 2009 playoffs, teams in the above situation made nearly 35 percent of their shots.

Westbrook ended up shooting 0-for-7 from three-point range, and took 30 shots from the floor. He joined Carmelo Anthony as the only players to take 30 shots in a game this postseason. That's also the most field goal attempts by a Thunder/SuperSonics player in a postseason game in the past 20 seasons.

Westbrook shot just 4-of-15 from 15+ feet Monday, including 0-for-5 in the fourth quarter. During the regular season, he made 35.4 percent of his shots from that range.

Balanced Nuggets continue to roll

March, 31, 2011
3/31/11
12:57
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
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The Denver Nuggets won their fourth straight game Wednesday night as Ty Lawson led six Nuggets in double figures with 20 points. The win bumped the Nuggets to 13-4 since trading Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the New York Knicks on February 22, the first day after the All-Star break. Denver, in seventh place in the Western Conference at the All-Star break, has quietly climbed to fifth and is arguably playing its best post-break basketball since 2005, when the Nuggets led all teams with a 25-4 record in the second half of the season.

One key to the Nuggets second-half surge has been their ability to protect their home court. Denver is 9-0 at the Pepsi Center after the All-Star break and is outscoring its opponents by 19.7 points per game over that span. Earlier this month, the Nuggets became the first team in NBA history to record three straight home wins by 30 more or points.

They have now topped the 100-point mark in each of their last seven games at home (all wins). The only other teams to win seven straight home games while reaching triple digits in each this season are the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Hosting a 1st Round playoff series is not out of the question for the Nuggets, who trail the Oklahoma City Thunder by five games with eight games remaining in the race for the four-seed out West. Denver would need some help from Oklahoma City to catch the Thunder, but head-to-head matchups against Kevin Durant and crew on April 5 and April 8 could make things interesting.

Elsewhere in the NBA on Wednesday:

• The Atlanta Hawks knocked off the Orlando Magic by three in a meeting between teams likely to meet in the 1st Round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Hawks finish the season 3-1 vs the Magic, the first time they’ve won the season series vs Orlando since 2006-07.

• The Miami Heat beat the Washington Wizards 123-107 to stay two-and-a-half games behind the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference. The Heat are now 14-4 when playing on zero days’ rest this season. Only the Los Angeles Lakers (10-2) have a better record on no days’ rest.

• Carmelo Anthony scored 39 points to lead the Knicks past the New Jersey Nets. It was Anthony’s third straight game with at least 35 points. That’s tied with LaMarcus Aldridge and Monta Ellis for the longest streak of 35-point games in the NBA this season. It’s also tied for Anthony’s longest streak of 35-point games in his career.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have lost a franchise single-season record 22 straight road games following their loss to the Boston Celtics. Overall, Cleveland is 1-28 since November 30, and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it’s the first time in franchise history the Cavaliers have lost 28 of 29 games within one season. The Cavaliers have also dropped 18 straight games, which is six shy of the franchise record.

Speaking of streaks…

The Los Angeles Lakers won their 17th straight game vs the Utah Jazz at Staples Center (including the playoffs). The Lakers' last loss against the Jazz at home was January 1, 2006. Tuesday’s 29-point route of Utah was the Lakers' eighth 20-point win this season, tied for second-most in the NBA with the Celtics (both trail Miami Heat, nine).

Elsewhere in the NBA…

• The Dallas Mavericks had not one, but two players score 25 points off the bench in their win over the Los Angeles Clippers (Jason Terry scored 28 and Jose Juan Barea added 25). Dallas is the first team this season to have two players score at least 25 points off the bench in the same game, and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, this was also the first time in franchise history that Dallas accomplished this feat.

• Tyson Chandler finished 5-for-5 from the field and 11-for-11 from the free throw line. Chandler joins two Lakers, Matt Barnes and Pau Gasol, as the only three players this season to go perfect from the field and line (minimum five attempts).

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only two other NBA players in the last 50 years were 5-for-5 or better from the field and 10-for-10 or better from the foul line in a regular-season game: Kelly Tripucka (8-for-8 and 11-for-11) for the Jazz in 1987 and Buck Williams (5-for-5 and 14-for-14) for the Portland Trail Blazers in 1991.

• The Denver Nuggets had five players in double figures by halftime in their 120-109 win over the Washington Wizards: Nene and Chauncey Billups (15 each), Ty Lawson (12), Arron Afflalo (11) and Carmelo Anthony (10). They’re only the third team this season that had five players with at least 10 points at halftime.

Carmelo Anthony
Anthony
Anthony finished with a team-high 23 points, giving him a career average of 26.9 points per game at the Verizon Center.

The Elias Sports Bureau tells us that Anthony has the second-highest average for any visiting player (minimum five games), behind LeBron James (28.0), and just ahead of Karl Malone (26.7).

The killer plays the Nuggets won't run

April, 28, 2010
4/28/10
12:34
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Denver Nuggets
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
Who decides what the Nuggets do on offense?

DENVER -- The Denver Nuggets have a secret arsenal of nearly unstoppable plays. There's only one hitch headed into Game 5:

Acting head coach Adrian Dantley isn't sure he can get his team to run them.

That's because the Nuggets see themselves as a certain kind of basketball team with an anti-system. Mike D'Antoni has 7-seconds-or-less. Phil Jackson has The Triangle. Jerry Sloan has The Flex. And Dantley has inherited from George Karl what he's referred to more than once as "random basketball."

What does "random basketball" mean? That's Dantley's description of how the Nuggets perceive themselves offensively -- a team that flourishes by pounding you with dominant one-on-one play in the half court and with breakneck transition buckets. Dantley isn't the only one to make that general characterization. When asked about the Nuggets' woeful assist total of 13 following Game 4, Chauncey Billups conceded, "We aren't really a high-assist team. That's not how our offense is made."

It's true that Denver runs a more individualistic half-court offense than Utah does and, as Carmelo Anthony pointed out today, that plan of attack has served them well for several seasons. In fact, Denver isn't exactly struggling offensively in this series. The Nuggets' offensive efficiency of 110.9 points per 100 possessions is an improvement on their regular season efficiency of 108.7. But after walloping the Jazz in Game 1 of the series, the Nuggets have posted a more modest efficiency rating of 104.7.

A stubborn devotion to "random basketball" is one of the reasons Denver's offense has fallen off since Game 1, and there's something obtuse about the Nuggets' unwillingness to construct coherent possessions in the half court against Utah. When the Nuggets choose to run deliberate sets, they're shredding the Jazz -- particularly on the pick-and-roll.

To illustrate, let's go back to Game 2. The Nuggets are coming off an emphatic 126-113 win. Fesenko has taken over as Utah's starting center after Mehmet Okur was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon in Game 1. The vibe is that the Jazz are done. Denver comes out of the opening jump with three straight Carmelo Anthony-Nene pick-and-rolls, and all of them produce points:

  • Anthony gets the ball above the right elbow where he gets a little screen from Nene. It's not a Kendrick Perkins-grade screen, but it buys Anthony space away from C.J. Miles to dribble right and begin his attack. Anthony elevates for a jumper at 17 feet, draws the foul on Miles and drains two free throws.
  • This play could've been ripped from the Phoenix Suns playbook. Another screen for Anthony from Nene at precisely the same spot. This time, Anthony puts the ball on the deck, drives right and dishes to Arron Afflalo in the right corner. Afflalo drives right by Wes Matthews into the paint. Fesenko is the last line of defense here. When he commits, Nene cuts behind him. Afflalo hits Nene on the move to the rim for an easy lay-in.
  • This possession is just cruel and prompted me to write in my game notes, "UTA can't defend this." Same pick-and-roll with Anthony as the ball-hander at the same spot. This is Nene's best screen of the three and draws the switch the Nuggets are salivating for: Fesenko backpedaling against a driving Anthony in open space. When Anthony, who is driving right, sees that the bulk of the Jazz help defenders are on that side of the floor, he switches left, then finishes untouched at the basket. This is the moment I truly believed the series was over.

According to Synergy Sports, the Nuggets have choreographed a pick-and-roll -- then hit the roll man -- 17 times in this series. The results:

  • Nine made baskets
  • Six trips to the free throw line
  • Two missed shot attempts

That's an 88.2 percent success rate.

Those 17 possessions in sequence is an impressive reel of video. Ball-handlers/passers include Billups, Anthony, Ty Lawson and J.R. Smith. All the Nuggets bigs are represented among the roll men. Whatever the scenario, the Nuggets score on 15 of the 17 opportunities, which leaves you with one question:

Why are the Nuggets running this action only four times per game?

One explanation might be that Jazz defenders are effectively trapping the ball-handler, making a pass through the double-team treacherous. But that's clearly not the Jazz's strategy when defending the pick-and-roll, even when Anthony is the ball-handler -- which brings us to another interesting bit of data:

Anthony has been the ball-handler on nine pick-and-roll sets. On those nine possessions, he's 7-for-7 from the field, with two turnovers.

Overall, only four teams this postseason are doing better work off the pick-and-roll, but with the exception of the Lakers and Utah (the two most orthodox systems in the bracket), no team is running them less frequently than the Nuggets. Instead, Denver is relying on isolations, post-ups and spot-ups, where they're generating ho-hum results -- less than one point per possession.

I asked Dantley about the success Denver had running the pick-and-roll and why the team wasn't deploying them more readily.

"We looked over our offensive stats and we definitely score more on our pick-and-rolls," Dantley said.

Then why doesn't he call for them more often over the course of the game?

"That's the way we play," Dantley said. "We've had more success right now with the pick-and-roll, more than 'random,' but our basketball team is known as a 'random' basketball team."

At some point, doesn't a team have to recognize what works? And whatever the identity of the team might be, shouldn't the team conform to what's working?

"That's what we've told them," Dantley said. "Whether they do it every time, that's a different story. Statistically, we tell them every game, 'Hey, run the pick-and-roll. Run drags. We've had success with that more than "random" basketball.'"

Given that success, will that be the plan Wednesday night in Game 5?

"I'm agreeing with you," Dantley said. "Statistically, we've had success on pick-on-rolls. We've told them that. We want them to do that tomorrow. Hopefully they do it. But, the last five years, we do more 'random' than we do pick-and-roll."

Dantley's comments suggest that there's a serious disconnect between acting head coach and the team's on-court personnel. It's not unusual for a team to fail its coach as a sin of omission. Both Jerry Sloan and Dantley are certain to tell their players to crash the boards tomorrow night, but one of their two teams will do a subpar job. That coach will be disappointed and very possibly angry. But that's much different than a coach laying out a very specific set of strategic imperatives, and the players on the floor not heeding those instructions. If you take Dantley's remarks at face value, he's implying this is what's been happening with the Nuggets, and he has no assurances that dynamic won't continue in Game 5.

What's holding the Nuggets back?

April, 21, 2010
4/21/10
3:49
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
What are the Nuggets going to do about this guy?

SALT LAKE CITY -- When Jazz center Mehmet Okur collapsed to the floor on Saturday night in Game 1 of Utah's series with Denver, the prevailing sentiment -- even among those with the highest reverence for what the Jazz do -- was that Utah was cooked. Already without Andrei Kirilenko in a series that demands an elite perimeter defender, the Jazz would now have to start an untested 23-year-old project at center and hope for the best. When the Jazz squeaked out a win in Game 2 at Denver, the improbable outcome produced a lot of head-scratching. How did the Nuggets lose on their home floor to a short-handed skeleton crew like the Jazz? You can attribute the improbability of the Jazz's victory in Game 2 to a number of factors, but the long and short of it is this:

The Nuggets are a very suspect defensive squad. That's been true all season and for the first two games of this series.

Among playoff teams in both conferences, only Phoenix gave up more points per 100 possessions in the regular season. The Nuggets have some very bad habits -- ball-watching, needless gambling and a tendency to allow Utah's defenders to move off the ball to the rim. Yesterday, the Nuggets promised to get more physical with the Jazz, but bodily presence doesn't seem to be the issue on the defensive end nearly so much as court awareness. Video of the first two games of the series reveals that the Nuggets make a lot of bad choices. They're consistently one step behind a Jazz offense that loves to make defenses pay for iffy decisions and overcommitment. You see a lot of confusion and miscommunication on Denver's part, and there isn't a team in the league that understands how to exploit a harried defense better than Utah.

No answer for Deron Williams
Carmelo Anthony's 42-point performance on Saturday night was the dominant theme between Games 1 and 2. Utah's young wing defenders were pressed to respond: What were they going to do to contain Anthony? Denver won't keep Williams from racking up points and assists any more than Utah will be able to stop Anthony from scoring. But just as the Jazz were able to make Anthony a less efficient producer in Game 2, Denver must figure out how they're going to slow Williams as both scorer and playmaker.

Williams has scored 59 points in the first two games of the series and he's done much of that damage in early offense situations. He's using his speed to take Chauncey Billups and Arron Afflalo off the dribble and his strength to beat Lawson off the bounce. There's not a lot the Nuggets' guards can do to keep Williams from bullying his way to the hole, but it's incumbent on Denver's back line to get down the floor and in position to close that seam. Right now, the Nuggets' inability to do that is costing their backcourt defenders a bunch of fouls, and allowing Williams to make a living at the stripe, where he's notched 25 of his 59 points.

In addition to breaking down Denver's defense off the dribble, Williams is succeeding as a jump shooter. He's getting a surprising number of clean looks from the floor because Denver isn't reading screens by Utah's big men. Afflalo, in particular, has repeatedly yielded open space to Williams by either not anticipating or running beneath screens up top. If that's not enough, the Jazz are regularly running plays with Williams as a primary post option. Yikes! They're particularly successful with this when Lawson is in the game, but Williams has tested Billups down low as well.

Dealing with Williams will continue to be a tricky exercise for the Nuggets. First and foremost, they have to be prepared for him to attack. But they can't afford to be burned by his ability to make plays off a collapsing defense either. Denver did a fairly good job of containing Williams the Scorer in the fourth quarter of Game 2 -- but that opened up all kinds of opportunities for Williams the Facilitator to beat them.

Utah's cutters are having a field day
Carlos Boozer aptly describes one of the central tenets of Utah's offensive philosophy. "If somebody has the ball, don't just stand there and let you defender help out on the guy who has the ball -- cut and make them be occupied." Boozer said. "Option A and B defenders are always going to be there, so you have to go to C, D and E."


C, D and E have been killing Denver during the first two games. Much of that damage originates from the pick-and-roll that Williams executes so fluently. Once that high action with Boozer or Paul Millsap challenges the Nuggets' defense, swaths of open space are opening up for the supporting cast. Denver's other defenders are so desperate to stop a penetrating Williams or a rolling Boozer/Millsap, that they forget about, say, C.J. Miles. On consecutive Jazz possessions in the final four minutes of Game 2, Anthony leaves C.J. Miles on the wing to shade on Williams off a pick-and-roll -- and twice Miles dives to the rim completely unmanned for an easy seal and slam off a pass from Williams.

"It was just pick-and-rolls and C.J. made good reads," Williams said. "It was a Ronnie Brewer read ... He used to run that baseline. It was just a good adjustment by C.J. I try to tell those guys that a lot of the tension is on me, so when you see the back of a guy's head, just cut to the basket. I'll find you."

Boozer's "C, D and E" declaration might be a little too generous, because on many occasions Denver has done a lousy job of covering Option A. Take the possession at the 2:40 mark of the fourth quarter on Monday night with the Jazz trailing by three. Williams brings the ball downcourt and executes the oldest play in the book, a simple UCLA cut that completely baffles Denver. He dishes the ball off to Kyle Korver on the left wing, then dives to the basket, rubbing Chauncey Billups off Paul Millsap at the left elbow. With ease, Williams dives beneath Kenyon Martin, where Korver delivers him an easy lob pass for a layup.

Until Denver's defenders consider that Utah can read defenses better than any unit in the NBA, they're going to continue to get burned by the Jazz's counters.

Nugget defenders are doing a poor job off the ball
Some credit is due to Williams' capacity to command the full attention of all five defenders when the ball is in his hands, but good NBA defenses know how to multitask. Denver's doesn't.


In Game 2, there weren't bigger beneficiaries of these lapses than Korver and Miles. Both were able to find open looks on Utah's basic flex action that frees up the Jazz wingmen for jumpers. More times than not, Denver simply falls asleep off the ball. Korver went 5-for-7 from the field on Monday night. Though his big 3-pointer to vault the Jazz into the lead is the most YouTubable moment of the series, we shouldn't forget about his sequence of three huge jumpers in the final 1:15 of the third quarter that helps turn back a strong run by Denver.

"On the down screens, they were chasing me in Game 1," Korver said. "In the second game, they were cutting over the top, so I was just flaring out to the corner. It's just a matter of reading how they're going to guard me."

With the aid of strong screens from Utah's big men, Korver is able to pop out to open space on the perimeter. Korver's release is so quick that even a slight delay by a defender getting around those picks is fatal. If you want to understand how Jerry Sloan can get away with putting a lineup on the floor of Ronnie Price, Kyle Korver, Othyus Jeffers, Paul Millsap and Kosta Koufos, it's because each of these guys knows his function in such a scheme. In the case of the last of Korver's three jumpers, Koufos plays the role of traffic cone on the left block. First Jeffers curls and clears, then Korver runs Afflalo directly into Koufos before Price delivers the ball on target to Korver for the shot.

Everything in its right place.

Denver is allowing these sorts of actions to go off without a hitch on possession after possession, even though the Jazz have few players outside Williams who can beat them in isolation. Crafty defensive squads force Utah to play one-on-one basketball, but so far the Nuggets haven't.

From afar, the Nuggets appear to be favorites over the Jazz going forward, and nothing about Denver's Game 2 meltdown changes that. Yet the closer you look at the early results of the series, the more apparent it is that until the Nuggets makes a conscious effort to defend, the Jazz are very much alive, irrespective of how many healthy bodies are on their roster. Utah's system was designed to maximize efficiency against an easily confused defense. Denver hasn't demonstrated that it has the wherewithal to match Utah's guile.

It's possible the Nuggets can ride their offense to a series victory without putting in the work on the defensive end. But do they really want to take that chance?

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