De­fense gets im­pres­sive tune­up dur­ing pre­sea­son fi­nale

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Mike Singer Mike Singer: msinger@den­ver­post.com or @msinger

If Fri­day night’s pre­sea­son fi­nale against the Chicago Bulls was any in­di­ca­tion, the Den­ver Nuggets should have ab­so­lutely no trou­ble on the of­fen­sive end of the floor this sea­son.

Their starters built a dou­bledigit lead be­fore rest­ing the en­tire fourth quar­ter, and coach Mike Mal­one rode his re­serves to a 9893 win to fin­ish the pre­sea­son 4­1.

At its best, the Nuggets’ of­fense was a dizzy­ing ar­ray of passes, picks and cuts, swirling around the Bulls’ young de­fense. Were it not for a cold fourth quar­ter from the re­serves, their shoot­ing per­cent­ages (42 per­cent from the field; 30 per­cent from 3­point range) would’ve been much more im­pres­sive.

Gary Har­ris paced the Nuggets with 18 points, fol­lowed closely by Ja­mal Mur­ray (17) and Nikola Jo­kic (15). But the of­fense, with Jo­kic as its ful­crum, was never go­ing to be the prob­lem this year. The Nuggets fin­ished with the six­thbest of­fen­sive rat­ing in the NBA last sea­son and the best over­all of­fense from the All­Star break un­til the end of the sea­son.

De­spite how promis­ing the of­fense looked, Fri­day night’s dress rehearsal for the reg­u­lar sea­son was most en­cour­ag­ing for what it re­vealed on the de­fen­sive side of the floor.

Fill­ing up the lanes

Play­ing an ag­gres­sive brand of de­fense, guards Har­ris and Mur­ray kick­started their of­fense by swarm­ing the Bulls’ guards and suf­fo­cat­ing the pass­ing lanes. In to­tal, the Nuggets forced 17 turnovers, in­clud­ing 13 steals. It’s ex­actly the type of de­fen­sive per­for­mance Mal­one had hoped for head­ing into next week’s sea­son opener against the Los An­ge­les Clip­pers and their pesky back­court. Mur­ray fin­ished with five steals while Har­ris, Bar­ton and Jo­kic had two apiece. Some of those take­aways could be at­trib­uted to poor ball han­dling by Bulls guard Kris Dunn (six turnovers), but the Nuggets’ guards forced the is­sue. It led to nu­mer­ous run­outs and easy tran­si­tion buck­ets. The Bulls shot just 42 per­cent from the field, in­clud­ing 27 per­cent from three.

Typ­i­cal Joker

Jo­kic’s fi­nal line — 15 points, seven re­bounds and five as­sists — is an in­di­ca­tion of what’s to come this sea­son. Jo­kic, who fin­ished fourth in the NBA last sea­son with 10 triple­dou­bles, made it look ef­fort­less again Fri­day night. He rarely hunt­ ed for his shot, seem­ingly con­tent to fa­cil­i­tate for oth­ers. The lone blem­ish was his five turnovers, which have been a prob­lem all pre­sea­son. He’s av­er­aged nearly four per game, mostly off clunky high­screen hand­offs. He av­er­aged 2.8 turnovers last sea­son.

Ro­ta­tional an­swers

The Nuggets’ depth is an in­dis­putable strength, but it’s un­likely they want to play 10 or 11­man ro­ta­tions go­ing into the sea­son. For­ward Trey Lyles was the first man off the bench, and he later saw some min­utes with starters. Af­ter Lyles, it was Ma­son Plum­lee and Ma­lik Beasley, fol­lowed by Juan Her­nan­gomez and then Monte Mor­ris as the backup guard. The odd­man out was small for­ward Tor­rey Craig, who’d hov­ered around 20 min­utes per pre­sea­son game but didn’t see any ac­tion against the Bulls. The only so­lace for Craig is that he has had a stand­out pre­sea­son on the de­fen­sive end and Mal­one could eas­ily tab him when the matchup presents it­self.

The Nuggets are an elite of­fen­sive team that be­gan show­ing en­cour­ag­ing signs on the de­fen­sive end of the floor Fri­day. We’ll have to wait un­til Wed­nes­day’s sea­son opener at Los An­ge­les to see if that trans­lates to games that mat­ter.

Nam Y. Huh, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Nuggets guard Gary Har­ris, left, drives to the bas­ket as Bulls guard Justin Hol­i­day tries to de­fend him Fri­day in Chicago.

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