With Joker in hand, Nugs aces in scor­ing

Of­fense leads NBA since mid-Dec.

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Kosmider

As its wheels lifted off the run­way in Dal­las, the plane car­ry­ing the Nuggets back to Den­ver was also chart­ing a new course for a sea­son in peril.

The Mav­er­icks had just fin­ished ham­mer­ing the Nuggets 112-92 on Dec. 12, drop­ping Den­ver to 9-16. It had been an­other woe­ful night for an of­fense lan­guish­ing in the bot­tom half of the NBA. Some­thing had to change.

“We weren’t where we wanted to be,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “I said, ‘You know what? Nikola Jo­kic had an un­be­liev­able rookie sea­son as a cen­ter, not as a power for­ward. I’m go­ing to put him back at his nat­u­ral po­si­tion.’ Our sea­son changed from that point on.”

The Nuggets en­ter Sun­day’s game against New Or­leans with a 26-21 record since Jo­kic was named the start­ing cen­ter, and are hang­ing onto a slim lead in the race for the fi­nal play­off spot in the West­ern Con­fer­ence. The in­ten­tion of the lineup change was to jump-start a sput­ter­ing of­fense. Even the Nuggets at that point would have been hard-pressed to be­lieve just how dra­mat­i­cally they would im­prove.

The Nuggets are, since Dec. 15, the best of­fen­sive team in bas­ket­ball. Their of­fen­sive rating en­ter­ing the week­end of 114.2 — a mea­sure of points scored per 100 pos­ses­sions — was the best mark in the league since Dec. 12, by a wide mar­gin. James Har­den and the

Rock­ets, Steph Curry and the War­riors, LeBron James and the Cava­liers — they all are slot­ted be­low the Jo­kic-led Nuggets in the past three-plus months.

It’s an of­fense that dropped 140 points on the Pac­ers and 132 points on the War­riors — the league’s sec­ond-best de­fen­sive team — while hit­ting a then-NBA record 24 3-point­ers. And it’s an of­fense that scored 126 points Wed­nes­day night while dis­man­tling the de­fend­ing cham­pion Cava­liers.

“It’s amaz­ing what hap­pens when no­body cares who gets the credit,” Malone said af­ter the Nuggets routed Cleve­land. “You pass, you cut and ev­ery­body is shar­ing it. It’s a fun way to play and it’s con­ta­gious.”

So just how ex­actly have the Nuggets be­come so hard to guard?

Cut­ting a new plan

Gary Har­ris was about as far away from the ball as a player can be in a half-court set. Dur­ing the sec­ond half of a re­cent Nuggets vic­tory at Mil­wau­kee, Har­ris was sta­tioned at the apex of the right wing as Jo­kic caught a pass on the left low block.

Still, Har­ris knew the ball had a good chance to come his way. As Jo­kic turned his shoul­der, Har­ris could sense that his cen­ter was lin­ing up to fire a one-handed fast­ball across the court. Har­ris leaned for­ward, caught the ball in stride and breezed to the bas­ket unim­peded. The easy bas­ket came at the end of a pos­ses­sion in which the Nuggets had passed the ball nine times, with all five play­ers touch­ing it.

The Bucks ran in cir­cles dur­ing the pos­ses­sion, lost in a blur of cut­ters, quick passes and fakes.

“It all starts with The Joker,” said Har­ris, who has en­joyed a ca­reer sea­son. “Once he gets the ball in the high post or once he’s do­ing those drib­ble hand­offs, you know the kid can pass. You want to do any­thing you can just to get open.”

Cut­ting of­ten is de­signed to re­move de­fend­ers from an area as much as it is to cre­ate a pass­ing lane. With Jo­kic’s com­bi­na­tion of pin­point passes and one-stepa­head vision, though, his team­mates know there’s al­ways a good chance that the ef­fort of sprint­ing through a cut will be re­warded.

“He’s go­ing to put it in a spot where only you can get it,” Har­ris said. “You know when you cut you bet­ter be look­ing and be ready for it. Then we do a good job find­ing play­ers off those cuts or, if we’re not at the rim, be­ing able to find other play­ers. We do a good job just pass­ing the ball in gen­eral.”

The cuts force de­fenses to make choices. The Nuggets en­tered Fri­day night’s game at In­di­ana third in the NBA since the lineup change with an as­sist per­cent­age of 64.3, a mea­sure of the num­ber of field goals made by a team that are as­sisted. Many of those as­sists re­sult from all the cut­ting, which can lead to open shots even when the cut­ter isn’t re­ceiv­ing the pass.

Take a third-quar­ter play in Wed­nes­day’s vic­tory over the Cava­liers. In a play the Nuggets use to cre­ate mis­matches, Jo­kic drib­bled the ball at the top of the key. He turned his body to­ward Wil­son Chan­dler, who was at the top of the left wing and guarded by LeBron James. As Jo­kic stepped to­ward Chan­dler, the for­ward cut sharply to­ward the bas­ket. James stayed with Chan­dler, but J.R. Smith, who was guard­ing Gary Har­ris in the corner, dropped down to pro­vide help if Jo­kic passed to the cut­ting Chan­dler.

That left Jo­kic with an easy chest pass to a wide-open Har­ris for a 3-pointer. It was a break­down by Smith, but it came be­cause of the dan­ger the Nuggets pose with their con­stant move­ment.

“When you play with Jo­kic and Ma­son (Plum­lee), these guys who can pass, it’s re­ally easy,” rookie for­ward Juan­cho Her­nan­gomez said. “All the play­ers can move and shoot and that’s re­ally good for us. Ev­ery player en­joys this of­fense when we go like that.”

Dan­ger­ous at long range

With mostly the same ros­ter, the Nuggets were 26th in the NBA last sea­son in 3-point ef­fi­ciency at 33.8 per­cent. This sea­son, Den­ver en­tered the week­end tied for fifth at 37.4 per­cent.

Har­ris has been a big part of the im­prove­ment. The third-year guard from Michi­gan State is shoot­ing 43.2 per­cent from 3point range, which ranks fifth in the NBA. Har­ris shot just 35.4 per­cent last sea­son. Jameer Nel­son (37.9 per­cent) is hav­ing his best 3point shoot­ing sea­son since 2011. Danilo Gal­li­nari (38.3 per­cent) has never shot bet­ter in a full sea­son. Will Bar­ton (37.5 per­cent) is shoot­ing more than two per­cent­age points bet­ter from 3-point range than at any other point in his ca­reer. The list goes on. More move­ment, more cut­ting and Jo­kic’s pres­ence are all con­tribut­ing to bet­ter looks. One play that of­ten springs open 3-point shoot­ers is the drib­ble hand­off. It starts as Jo­kic drib­bles the ball to­ward a team­mate sta­tioned in the corner or on the wing. As that player runs to­ward the ball, his de­fender has a choice to make. If he over­plays the ball, the Nuggets player could run past Jo­kic and have an easy cut to the bas­ket. When the player’s de­fender stays un­der the hand­off — which dou­bles as a screen — that player can sim­ply take the ball from Jo­kic and fire the 3-pointer.

Once again, it’s the threat of all the mov­ing, cut­ting and pass­ing that has put de­fenses, well, on the de­fen­sive.

“A few years ago there was a (film) called the ‘Beau­ti­ful Game,’ and it was about San An­to­nio,” Malone said. “It re­ally was beau­ti­ful to watch. The ball move­ment, the un­selfish­ness. The ball was never held. Those are the things we preach all the time, and the thing that has be­come ap­par­ent since the lineup change is that it’s con­ta­gious. It’s fun to play and we’re all in­volved. That is beau­ti­ful to watch.”

John Leyba, Den­ver Post file

The Nuggets en­ter Sun­day’s game with a 26-21 record since Nikola Jo­kic was named the start­ing cen­ter.

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