The Denver Nuggets are shortchanging themselves. They went into Tuesday's game against the Philadelphia 76ers with the second-best defense in the NBA, but they haven't been turning that defense into offense: Entering Monday, they are 23rd in fast break points and 29th in pace.
Denver was slow last season, too, a function of playing through plodding point-center Nikola Jokic, but not like this. It has not consistently had the same verve on offense, and its system has bogged down far too often. Before Sunday's 105-102 loss in Brooklyn, coach Michael Malone lamented that no team in the league was taking more shots in the last four seconds of the shot clock. With almost identical personnel, they have dropped from seventh in offense to 21st.
Playing with pace "doesn't mean just run up and down and jack shots," Malone said. It means being opportunistic about running and working to get good looks early in the clock.
"We have to get into our offense a lot quicker," Malone said. "That is killing us right now."
It would be easy to say this is all on Jokic, whose production has dipped significantly amid questions about his conditioning. That would be more convincing, however, if Denver didn't have the slowest bench in the league. The Nuggets' reserves outscored opponents by 1.4 points per 100 possessions last season, and now they are being outscored by about that same margin.
"That second unit particularly is really at their best when they can defend, rebound and run and attack and play downhill," Malone said.
"Maybe we're not sprinting the floor hard enough," Barton told CBS Sports. "I don't know. It's just a weird thing right now."
The broader issue is that, in both transition and the halfcourt, the Nuggets have lacked oomph. "We just have to have a little bit more of an attack, aggressive mindset," Malone said, pointing to a play from last Friday's game in Boston. In the second quarter, guard Monte Morris set up guard Malik Beasley for what should have been an in-rhythm 3-pointer from the top of the arc.
"He catches it, he's not ready," Malone said. "What's he do? He winds up taking a one-dribble, midrange contested pull-up."
Mere hours after saying that, Malone watched Barton make a similar mistake in crunch time against the Nets:
And that was far from Denver's only regrettable possession at Barclays Center. There was also this awful shot-clock violation just before that:
And this play that went absolutely nowhere and featured Jerami Grant handling the ball at the logo with 10 on the clock:
Maybe it is not realistic for the Nuggets to push the pace and play elite defense in the regular season, especially because their scheme is more demanding than most. They have not found the right balance, though, and playing against a set defense as often as they do is not a winning formula. Denver does not need to go back to the days of trying to run its opponents to death to take advantage of its home altitude, but it does need to do more of this kind of thing, if only because it might catch the other team off-guard or create mismatches:
Malone said that, in his five years with the team, he has never benched a player for missing a shot. (It is possible that center Mason Plumlee was testing that theory with this shocking 3-point attempt.) This is the first time in his tenure that the Nuggets have real expectations, and their opponents are "circling us," he said, and trying to disrupt their rhythm. They have a responsibility to embrace those new expectations, to find a way to play with the confidence and energy they had last season. They cannot afford to stagnate.
The Wolves are wobbling
That the 10-13 Minnesota Timberwolves are still firmly in the playoff race says much more about the suddenly top-heavy Western Conference than it does about how they are playing. Minnesota has lost five in a row, and its defense has been dismal: The Wolves have given up a league-worst 124.7 points per 100 possessions during the streak. After last Friday's loss in Oklahoma City, it is understandable that all anyone wanted to talk about was Chris Paul alerting the refs to Jordan Bell's untucked jersey. That storyline, however, took the attention away from the Wolves being outscored 17-5 in overtime.
The Wolves remind me a bit of the Brooklyn Nets of the last few years. On defense, they surrender a lot of midrange jumpers, which is intentional, but a lot of them are clean looks and they don't force many turnovers. On offense, their shot profile looks awesome -- they are sixth in shots at the rim and from 3-point range, per Cleaning The Glass -- but they don't shoot particularly well. The difference is that the Nets have usually had ball-dominant point guards, from Jeremy Lin (for the brief time that he was healthy, at least) to Spencer Dinwiddie and D'Angelo Russell. Minnesota's only high-usage players are Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
It's easy to see what the Wolves want to be, how they want to play. For now, though, the personnel is shaky. They've moved Jeff Teague to the bench to give the second unit some structure, but Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver are not point guards and Wiggins isn't the most natural point forward. As much as I love how Towns and Wiggins have been empowered, it would be nice to see them next to more reliable playmakers in the backcourt and more accurate shooters on the perimeter. It would also be nice to see the team collectively put up more resistance on defense.
As the trade deadline approaches, keep an eye on Minnesota. Robert Covington, who turns 29 this month, will be of interest to good teams. Teague, 31, is in the last year of his contract, but his $19 million salary might make a deal complicated. There is a case to be made for selling high on Wiggins, even though he has appeared rejuvenated. One question to ponder: How much do the Wolves care about making the playoffs this season?
Not all big scoring nights are created equal
Ben McLemore scored 28 points and shot 8 for 17 from 3-point range against the Toronto Raptors last Thursday, and followed it up with 27 points on 10-for-15 shooting against the Phoenix Suns two days later. Not bad for a guy who was waived by the Sacramento Kings last February and joined the Rockets on a non-guaranteed training camp deal.
But let's look at some of the 3s he made:
And now for something completely different
When you think of a stretch forward, you picture a tall guy standing still on the perimeter, spacing the floor. That is not what Davis Bertans does. The 6-foot-10 Bertans runs all over the place as if he were JJ Redick or Klay Thompson. He hardly needs any daylight to get his shot off. Aspiring gunners need to watch his work with the Washington Wizards this season -- he's taking 8.6 3s a game, making 46.5 percent of them, and it feels like he'll shoot in any situation imaginable.
Bertans had a career-high 32 points on Tuesday in Charlotte, going 8 for 12 on 3s. What a ridiculous, fun player.
The big who makes me nervous
The other nine players on the court all stopped moving. Rubio, an uplifting teammate if there ever was one, can't help himself from reacting in horror for a split-second before getting back on defense.
If this were the only time Kaminsky had missed a layup like this, whatever. It happens. Rubio finished with 13 assists anyway. The play only registered as notable because I get an uneasy feeling whenever Kaminsky is trying to finish in the paint. Some examples:
Kaminsky is one of the few players in the league with a wingspan shorter than his height. He doesn't get a ton of lift around the basket, either. It's tough down there, so he needs to be crafty, and he has a nice arsenal of post moves and flip shots. On the season, though, he's shooting 56 percent at the rim, which is in the 16th percentile for a big, per Cleaning The Glass.
10 more stray thoughts: Despite Denver's uneven season, Will Barton has been a delight … The Blazers blew out the Knicks? Must be Fizdale's fault … Tyler Herro has two modes: awesome and invisible … Enough with the cryptic stuff, Jimmy Butler and Paul George -- either give us the dirt or take the high road … Please see Pat Riley talking about being overzealous pouring wine into Jimmy's "goblet" when they agreed to partner up … A totally normal, on-target pass from Rubio … Lauri Markkanen is starting to score a bit more, but something is still not right … The Sixers remain super weird, even in wins, and I still want to see more Raul Neto and Trey Burke … It might be impossible to say this without coming off as a hater, but look at Carmelo Anthony's production against teams other than the Bulls … Duncan Robinson!