Nuggets guard Smith celebrates a three-point shot in their NBA basketball game against the Timberwolves in Denver

What the Nuggets should do when the lockout ends…

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This is the next installment of PBT’s series of “What your team should do when the lockout ends.” Today it’s the Denver Nuggets. You can also read up on the LakersTimberwolves and Mavericks as we start to work our way through all 30 NBA teams.

 

Last Season: Well that was no fun, then it was kind of fun, then it was not fun, again. The Nuggets finished 50-32 which is close to a freaking miracle considering everything they went through. The first half of the season was hijacked by the Melo trade drama, and the second half was spent trying to figure out an abundance of talent without a superstar. It finished with a disappointing loss to the Thunder in which Oklahoma City ran out to a big series lead and never really looked back. It was supposed to be a huge matchup, and instead it felt empty. But the Nuggets should be proud of what they accomplished, and how they stuck together despite all the distractions, and having to figure out what was essentially a whole new team after the trade.

Changes since we last saw the Nuggets: Well, half of them are in China now. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, and Wilson Chandler all seem set to head to China without an NBA-out clause. All three are free agents, and their return to Denver was questionable-to-doubtful to begin with. But without them, there are some interesting shifts if they stay in China. Smith’s spot is actually the most expendable. Danilo Gallinari can play shooting guard for certain rotations, and Denver is almost certain to re-sign Aaron Afflalo, one of the most efficient shooters in the league, from restricted free agency. Chandler’s minutes will be soaked up by Galinari and Al Harrington if the Nuggets go big, and Harrington likewise would take the minutes of Kenyon Martin. Harrington was God-awful-to-hey-pretty-good last season (there was a lot of variation within the Nuggets season if you can’t tell). The Nuggets also tinkered a bit at the draft, trading Raymond Felton for Andre Miller and a pick which became Jordan Hamilton to go along with Kenneth Faried. The big question will be Nene who will be an unrestricted free agent. Will he return to Denver or go chase a ring? Will the Nuggets have enough room under the new cap? Will we continue to ask annoying theoretical rhetoricals?

When the lockout ends, the Nuggets need to: Spend a year evaluating. If they re-sign Nene, their window is decidedly smaller, and they need to shift accordingly. But next year’s team will be driven to discover if Ty Lawson is ready to become a star in this league, if Danilo Gallinari is ready for another step forward, if George Karl can pull a young team together and make it greater than the sum of its parts without a true superstar, and what Masai Ujiri will do with the flexibility and assets afforded him. They’re not a young team all over, they’re not a veteran team all over, but they are an exceedingly talented team all over. The future’s bright for the Nuggets, but they have to hit the ground running.

They’ve got depth, with Andre Miller backing up Lawson, Gallinari’s versatility at positions, Al Harrington as a bench scorer, rookies who can contribute immediately, and capable defenders like Chris Anderson (or at least guys that can foul). But if Nene doesn’t re-sign, everything changes. They will have a gaping hole at center they’ll have to address, and the drop-off will be significant. How they’ll hande that will determine whether next season is a rebuilding year for Denver or a continuation of trying to make lightning in a bottle come together for an unlikely championship run.

Celtics’ Al Horford blows game-winning layup against Rockets (video)

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The Celtics couldn’t have asked for a much better look on their final possession, but Al Horford missed this layup to give the Rockets a 107-106 win last night.

Maybe Isaiah Thomas should have gone to the line for getting pushed over by Montrezl Harrell, but I’m not 100% sure Harrell should’ve been called for a foul. Besides, that Thomas screen sprung Horford for the layup. I’d take my chances with that barely contested close-range shot.

Michael Beasley, Davis Bertans ejected from Bucks/Spurs for being third/fourth into altercation

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This should have been the usual NBA altercation — two guys jawing with nothing physical happening because teammates step in, everyone does their posturing, and we move along. Monday night in the Spurs eventual win over the Bucks, Greg Monroe and Dewayne Dedmon got tangled up going for a rebound, Dedmon threw a little elbow, Monroe pushed him off, and the two started the well choreographed NBA dance.

Then San Antonio’s Davis Bertans came in and shoved Monroe.

Followed by Milwaukee’s Michael Beasley coming in and shoved Bertans.

Both Beasley and Bertans were ejected for escalating the situation, and you can expect the league will hit both with a fine for being the third/fourth men in.

Three things we learned Monday: Don’t forget, the Warriors have Klay Thompson, too

Golden State Warriors' Klay Thompson follows through on a shot during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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What kind of night was it in the NBA? Russell Westbrook had his sixth straight triple-double, and everyone took it in stride like that happens as often as Family Guy reruns. Anyway, these are the three things we decided to feature instead.

1) Oh yeah, don’t forget the Golden State Warriors have Klay Thompson, too. It’s just not fair. The Indiana Pacers have not played good defense this season, they were on the second night of a back-to-back having beaten the Clippers, and they got rewarded for all this by having to face the Golden State Warriors. All that said, the Pacers did hold Stephen Curry to just 13 points, and Kevin Durant was well below his average with just 20 points.

Oh, but the Warriors still have Klay Thompson.

Klay was peeling off screens (15 possessions) and getting his chance on spot ups (eight), but once he got going it didn’t matter the Pacers put Paul George on him and defended fairly well — Thompson was 11-of-14 on contested jumpers (via NBA.com). He was hitting from almost everywhere on the court.

klay shotchart 2

The Warriors offense is a fearsome machine.

2) Cleveland would like to remind Toronto — and everyone else — they are the best team in the East.
The Cavaliers were on a three-game losing streak and had been playing in a malaise. The Toronto Raptors had been the hottest team in the NBA over the past couple of weeks. So when the top two teams in the East met Monday…

Cleveland won, 116-112, but it felt more comfortable than that suggests. They did it in Toronto. The Cavaliers were not sharp defensively in the first half but hung around thanks to 20 points from Kevin Love (he finished with 28), then in the third quarter the Cavs defended like champions holding Toronto to 20 points on 34.8 percent shooting. Cleveland never pulled away to make it a blowout, but they were in control. LeBron James had 34 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists, Kyrie Irving pitched in 24.

DeMar DeRozan (31 points, and carried the team for stretches) and Kyle Lowry (24) played well, but they did not have enough help. Particularly from their starting front line.

If Toronto is going to threaten Cleveland come the playoffs, Raptors GM Massi Ujiri is going to have to make a move. This team simply does not have the talent to beat Cleveland four out of seven as currently constructed. Monday was simply a reminder of the pecking order in the East when Cleveland cares about the game.

3) Jamal Murray went into Joel Embiid’s building and dropped an impressive 22, just to make an early Rookie of Year statement. It’s still too early to have a serious discussion of postseason awards. To me, any discussion before we get to the season’s halfway point is premature. Not that being premature ever stopped us, just providing some context.

Joel Embiid became the early Rookie of the Year leader with his performance this season, but Jamaal Murray won the Western Conference Rookie of the Month award for November because the Denver Nuggets’ reserve guard has shown better handles than we expected, and that’s given him room to get off the shot we knew he had.

Monday night, Murray went into Philly and dropped 22, hitting seemingly everything.

While Denver big man Jusuf Nurkic made things difficult for Embiid, who finished with 16 points on 15 shots.

This is just one game out of 82, it does not define a ROY race that is far too early to talk about seriously (especially this award, which often goes to the rookie who gets hot and more run in the second half of the season), but Murray is making his case for serious consideration. And he’s earned that thought.

James Harden’s 37 helps Rockets over Celtics 107-106

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HOUSTON (AP) — Houston’s coaching staff emphasized to the players that Boston led the league in fourth-quarter scoring.

So when they Rockets found themselves down by six entering the final frame they knew they’d have step things up to escape with a win.

Harden made sure they did that, scoring 13 of his 37 points in the fourth before Al Horford missed a shot just before the buzzer to allow the Rockets to hold on for a 107-106 victory Monday night.

“The fourth quarter we just picked up … we just wanted to lock in and get stops and offensively be aggressive,” Harden said.

The game was tied before Harden scored five straight points to make it 107-102 with less than a minute remaining. Avery Bradley made a jump shot and Harden received a flagrant 1 foul for elbowing Marcus Smart in the face. Smart made both free throws before Isaiah Thomas missed a layup.

But Houston knocked the ball out of bounds with 5.2 seconds left, giving Boston one last chance. Horford drove into the lane, but his shot rolled off the rim and Harden grabbed it to secure the victory.

“I felt good when I shot it, but it just didn’t go down,” Horford said.

Horford had 21 points and Thomas added 20 for the Celtics, who had won two straight.

It was the ninth 30-point game this season for Harden, who also had eight assists and seven rebounds.

An 8-2 run by Houston, powered by a pair of 3-pointers by Eric Gordon, cut Boston’s lead to one with about 8 1/2 minutes left. Smart made a 3-pointer for the first of seven straight points for the Celtics that made it 96-88. Smart also had a big defensive play in that stretch when he blocked a one-handed dunk attempt by Montrezl Harrell.

Houston scored eight straight points, topped off with a dunk from Harrell, to take a 102-100 lead with about 3 1/2 minutes left.

Harden raved about Harrell’s work.

“You see how he’s flying around everywhere,” Harden said. “He does a lot of different things, some things that don’t show up on the stat sheet that helped contribute to this win.”

The Celtics trailed by 12 early in the third quarter before using a 15-2 spurt to take a 68-67 lead with about 7 minutes left in the quarter. Boston made three 3-pointers in that span, capped by one from Horford. Houston missed five shots, including four 3s, and had two turnovers to help the Celtics close the gap.

“We guarded at a different level and our first unit played pretty well in the third,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “In one stretch in the fourth we turned the ball over and that was hurtful.”

The Rockets were up by three points with 2 minutes left in the first half before Smart fouled Harden on a 3-point attempt and he made all three free throws. Houston had extended the lead to seven when Smart again fouled Harden on a 3-point try and his three free throws made it 58-48 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Celtics: James Young missed the game with an illness. … Thomas received a technical for arguing a call at the end of the first half. … Bradley finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. … Smart had 13 points.

Rockets: Made 12 3-pointers to extend their NBA record of consecutive games with at least 10 3-pointers to 20. … Trevor Ariza started despite dealing with back spasms and had 15 points and eight rebounds. … Gordon finished with 19 points and made four 3-pointers to give him six straight games with at least four 3s.

PERFECT

Harden tied a franchise record for most free throws without a miss by making all 18 of his attempts on Monday night. Kevin Martin also went 18 for 18 on March 20, 2011 against Utah. He lamented committing the offensive foul on Smart late instead of drawing the foul and getting a chance to go to the line and set the record.

“Of course I wanted two free throws at the end of the game instead of a flagrant, but we won,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”

LATE PUSH

The Rockets have developed a knack for scoring late. After managing just 13 points in the fourth quarter of a 105-103 loss to Oklahoma City on Nov. 16 the Rockets have picked things up, averaging 27.9 fourth-quarter points in the last 10 games.

THEY SAID IT

Stevens on Harden: “Harden is a really good player. I don’t know what else to say. We could go through and dissect every play, but overall he is just a really good player.”