NBA Season Preview: Denver Nuggets

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Last season: The Nuggets continue to out-perform expectations while never really accomplishing anything of note.

They battled through all the roster turnover from one year to the next and a slew of quietly really damaging injuries to land the sixth seed last season after a hot start. Danilo Gallinari suffered two significant injuries that severely limited his ability to make the kind of impact he did at the start of the season where he looked like the best player on the team.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Faried emerged as a huge part of their future, and helped justify dumping Nene’s $13 million per year deal to get rid of an injury-riddled veteran. They brought in JaVale McGee with all his nonsense and faults, and the results were mixed. He had some genuinely electric playoff moments, but was still JaVale McGee.

They ran up against the Lakers and dug a hole. It looked over and they would quietly exit the playoffs. Instead, they battled back relentlessly and forced a game 7 against a team they were out-matched against, but didn’t have enough to get over the hump on the road. The result was the same, and the same questions lingered for Denver.

Key Departures: Arron Afflalo was the Nuggets’ best offensive weapon over the past three years, and now he’s wearing a deeper blue in Orlando. Al Harrington was a versatile scorer who put in a suprising amount of work defensively last year, and he’s also gone.

Rudy Fernandez headed home after threatening it for a half-decade, and Birdman Andersen was amnestied to make way for the future.

Key Additions: Denver snuck into the Dwight Howard trade and used their assets to grab Andre Iguodala. Iguodala gives them a hyper versatile forward who can run, rebound, pass, score, and defend at an elite level. He should fit in really well with the athleticism of Denver, and will be relied upon as the primary defensive stopper for George Karl. It cost a lot to get him but made them an overall much superior team.

They drafted Frenchman Evan Fournier in the first round and instead of sticking him overseas, have brought him over. The Nuggets already have more wings than they know what to do with, so Fournier likely won’t get many minutes this season. They also brought in Quincy Miller, who’s in a similar situation. They just have too much depth on the wings.

Anthony Randolph gives them another athletic big man to run the floor with and his ability to stretch the floor is something George Karl should get mileage out of as well.

Three keys to the Nuggets season:

1) Does speed kill the defense?: Karl has talked in the preseason about not needing to get into the elite level in traditional categories, but getting the defense overall into the good territory so that their point differential increases. There’s no plan to slow down the offense, so the question is, can you run a fast-pace team who also defends well?

To try and get it done, Karl will focus on the team’s athleticism in an attempt to pressure the ball and get into passing lanes. There will be a reliance on Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov as shot-blockers to “intimidate” defensivel, as Karl said on media day.

It’s never been a reliable method for improving defense. You usually have to grind the game down to give yourself time to set into your defensive positions and rotations, and an up and down game naturally opens the floor up for both teams. That will be the biggest challenge this season.

2.) Find shooters, or invent them. Danilo Gallinari has been snakebit the past two years. Whether it was injury, adjustment or bad luck, a normally reliable shooter tailed off the past two years. It came with an improvement in driving and drawing fouls, but the Nuggets still need him to stretch the floor.

They lack shooters, and their replacement options are unproven. Corey Brewer has historically been an awful perimeter shooter. Fournier is too green to see much court time. Ty Lawson can drill, but that would require someone else running the offense a majority of the time. He’ll get his, but they still need another option. Jordan Hamilton may be that fit. The second-year man out of Texas has great length and a reliable form. If the shooters don’t come around, the offense will still be good but not good enough.

3.) The Break’s Over, Here Comes The Takeover. Ty Lawson is going to have to take over the game at times. Andre Iguodala may be the most gifted player on the team, but Lawson has the ability to own the opponent with huge shots. That’s got be his role, and helping get Iguodala going will be a big part of it. At the same time, Lawson simply has to be the primary offensive threat and make himself into a household name. It’s a big step in front of him.

What Nuggets fans should fear: The defense can’t get a grip in the fast pace, Iguodala doesn’t make enough of an impact and no center emerges to protect the rim. McGee struggles as always and that contract becomes disastrous. There are no shooters and teams know to pack the paint and let the Nuggets shoot. Kenneth Faried hits his ceiling, none of the other players make jumps, and the team bobs along at the same level it has for two years.

How it likely works out: No reason to think Denver can’t challenge for the third seed. Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Kenneth Faried alone is a triumverate worthy of consideration in the West. When you factor their style, how well the roster is built, their depth, and the likelihood of at least a few players improving to the point of relevance, the Nuggets will once again be a fun team to watch who wins a bunch of games.

And yet still not title contenders.

Prediction: 51-31. Denver cracks 50 wins without a superstar, plays at a high level, thrills fans and league pass addicts, then loses in a tough second-round series. What is what what was is what shall be.

Ben Simmons earns triple-double, Sixers own fourth to win Game 4 vs. Heat, take 3-1 lead

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Joel Embiid’s biggest battle in Game 4 was with his mask — he hates that thing. A couple of times Saturday he tried to sneak into the game with it off, only to force Brett Brown to be the parent and threaten to bench him if he didn’t put it on immediately (winning Game 4 is not worth risking permanent eye/vision damage). Embiid was also battling his offensive game at times, still looking a little rusty.

More importantly, Embiid was also battling the Heat in the paint — when he was in the game Miami struggled to get good looks inside, allowing Sixers defenders to more aggressively challenge shooters on the wings.

That — and Ben Simmons’ triple-double — sparked a comeback from 12 late in the third as the Sixers held on to take Game 4 106-102, and that gives Philly a commanding 3-1 series lead heading back to the City of Brotherly Love for Game 5.

Simmons is the first rookie since Magic Johnson in 1980 to post a triple-double in the playoffs, with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

This was the nail in the coffin of the Heat’s season — if the Sixers turn the ball over 26 times, shoot 7-of-31 from three and still win on the road, the Heat are overmatched.

For much of the game, Miami did not look overmatched in the least and this looked like a game they could win.

Miami brought the defense in this game, and they did it by getting physical and using their length to force turnovers — through three quarters the Sixers had turned the ball over on 28.2 percent of their possessions, more than one in four trips down the court. Miami also did a better job contesting threes in this game, and the Sixers struggled from there all game (22.6 percent from deep).

The physicality led to a chippy game.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

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Miami led by a dozen late in the third, but Philadelphia closed the third on a run and carried over to the fourth, a 14-0 run that put the Heat in front as they found their defense. Ersan Ilyasova was key in that stretch with a driving and-one and the next time down the court a three, two plays that changed the momentum of the game.

All series long, the Sixers have been the better team down the stretch — which is unexpected for a young team taking on a more veteran squad. Now that we’re four games in, this is a thing.

In Game 4, the Sixers kept running “horns” sets and the Heat seemed to have no answers. Then late with the game on the line Miami had a couple of terrible defensive breakdowns, one allowing Simmons a clear path to the basket without help rotations that led to a dunk, and the other was Hassan Whiteside not going out to challenge J.J. Redick in the corner and letting him have a clean look (Redick’s foot was on the line so the expected three was a two, but still).

Meanwhile, Joel Embiid owned the paint on defense. When he sat for a little fourth quarter rest, Brett Brown went to the “Ben Simmons and shooters” lineup that was so effective through the final eight games of the season for them when Embiid was out, and that worked. The Sixers kept executing and getting the shots they wanted, the Heat kept hoping Dwyane Wade would bail them out again. He couldn’t, despite a strong 25 point game. Miami also shot itself in the foot going 13-of-25 from the free throw line for the game.

Redick had 24 for the Sixers, while Embiid had 14 points and 12 rebounds. Goran Dragic had 20 points for Miami, and James Johnson added 15.

Tempers flare in chippy Game 4 between Heat, Sixers

Associated Press
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Miami is a physical defensive team, and in Game 4 at home Saturday they cranked that up. The Heat also are a handsy team they clutch, grab, hold, and get away with what they can (that isn’t new to this playoff series).

The Sixers are getting weary of it, and in a game with plenty of double technicals thanks to the referees trying to keep control. The game bubbled over a little midway through the second quarter when Robert Covington made sure Goran Dragic didn’t get off a shot after a foul.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

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Ben Simmons also leaned into Wade on a screen and pancaked him. But drew a foul.

😅

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Miami had the lead after three, but the Sixers have owned the games late this series. It’s going to go down to the wire.

Advantage Utah? Jazz’s Derrick Favors “100 percent” back

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — When Derrick Favors can find ways to impose his will, good things happen for the Utah Jazz.

Favors has been quietly, albeit effectively, getting it done against the Oklahoma City Thunder, playing in the shadows of Utah rookie of the year candidate Donovan Mitchell and Jazz center Rudy Gobert.

But a healthy Favors is making an impact.

The Jazz have returned to Utah with the series tied 1-1, thanks in no small part to Favors. He tallied career playoff highs of 20 points and 16 rebounds in Utah’s 102-95 road win on Wednesday.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder will start Favors at power forward alongside Gobert beginning with Game 3 on Saturday. But he will also utilize him as a backup center to spell Gobert. Favors has done his part to make playing alongside Gobert work by extending his shooting range to improve offensive spacing. He has also made himself an effective roller.

“He’s always been a good pick-and-roll player, regardless of `position,”‘ Snyder said. “We’ve never really thought of him as one position or the other. We’ve thought of him as a basketball player and tried to have him understand his strengths and then play to his strengths.”

Indeed. In the first two playoff games against the Thunder, Favors is averaging 13.5 points on 52 percent shooting and 10.5 rebounds.

It is exactly the type of impact Favors envisioned making when fighting to reclaim his body from knee and back injuries that afflicted him for the better part of two seasons.

“I’m back to being 100 percent,” Favors said. “Back healthy. Back moving the way I know I can move and playing the way I know I can play. It’s a big advantage for us.”

There’s no question having Favors at full strength has improved Utah’s ability to counter a Thunder team featuring the potent trio of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. The veteran forward/center offers versatility on both ends of the court honed through playing multiple positions as circumstances dictate.

Crashing the boards definitely tops the list when checking off Favors’ strengths. He ranks second on the Jazz roster in rebounding behind Gobert with 7.2 rebounds per game.

When Favors is active on the glass, it can change the direction of a game for Utah. In Game 2 against Oklahoma City, he grabbed eight offensive rebounds through the first 2 1/2 quarters. By contrast, the Thunder totaled six offensive boards as a team in the same stretch.

“His length and his strength allow him to get his hands on balls,” Snyder said. “He’s got such good hands that even when he keeps the ball alive, usually something good happens.”

Favors’ willingness to go full throttle around the basket has turned him into a reliable complimentary player on offense. He rolls to the basket with consistency and, more often than not, it pays off for him.

It has turned Favors into a legitimate offensive presence again. He averaged 9.5 points on 48.7 percent shooting while limited to 50 games a year ago. This season, Favors is scoring 12.3 points per game while shooting 56.3 percent from the floor.

“Other teams and other opponents, they look and see I’m 6-foot-10 and think I’m a 5 man or whatever, so they try to take advantage of it,” Favors said. “It just feels good to be able to go out there and move the way that I know that I can move and be able to play the way I know that I can play and teams can’t take advantage of it.”

Favors is focused on staying aggressive as the series with the Thunder shifts to Utah. He is having fun playing basketball again and wants to make sure Oklahoma City continues to feel his presence on both ends of the court.

His teammates certainly do and they understand what a difference it can potentially make as the Jazz battle to keep going in the postseason.

“He’s been like that all year,” Mitchell said, “but he’s definitely turned it up with what he can do.”

 

Heat have work cut out vs. surging Sixers

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MIAMI (AP) — Philadelphia 76ers reserve guard Justin Anderson scored six points on Thursday, but he played a major role nonetheless in a 128-108 playoff win over the Miami Heat.

It was Anderson who worked on the psyche of teammate Joel Embiid, the 76ers’ All-Star center who returned after missing 10 straight games because of a concussion and left-eye injury.

“Justin was hyping me up on the bench, telling me I’m one of the best players in the league and that I have to take over,” said Embiid, who wore a mask during the game. “I liked that.”

Embiid, with that added boost of confidence, produced 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks in 30 minutes. He missed his first five shots from the floor and then made five of his next six, including three 3-pointers.

In addition, Embiid made 10 of 15 free throws, wrapping up his highly successful NBA playoff debut.

On Saturday afternoon, the teams will meet again at AmericanAirlines Arena in a first-round series the Heat trails 2-1.

Certainly, the Heat will try to corral Embiid, but Miami gave its own star center, Hassan Whiteside, just 13 minutes on Thursday, in part because of foul trouble.

Whiteside produced just five points, two rebounds and one block. He made his only shots from the field, but his four fouls helped to keep him off the court.

“I want to get more minutes,” said Whiteside, who led the NBA with 3.7 blocks in 2015-2016 and with 14.1 rebounds last season. “Even with the fouls, I could’ve been out there. I would not have fouled out.”

This season, Whiteside is averaging 14.0 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. But, on average, his minutes per game are down seven minutes from last season and even more in the playoffs.

Whiteside said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra “wants me to just be in a corner and set picks.”

Spoelstra, meanwhile, said “it’s part of my job to figure out how he can get to his strengths and make an impact on defense and rebounding.”

Aside from the two centers, the other big story line in this series revolves around the 76ers, a young team that won 18 of its past 19 games. After years of horrendous records amid a major teardown and rebuild effort, the 76ers have looked like the best team in the league during the past month.

They didn’t just beat the Heat on Thursday — they ran them over, making 18 of 34 3-pointers (52.9 percent). They also shot 50.6 percent overall and were plus-eight on rebounds and plus-14 on paint points.

Ben Simmons, the 76ers’ star point guard, nearly had a triple-double with 19 points, a game-high 12 rebounds and seven assists.

JJ Redick, one of the top shooters in the league, scored just 10 points, but 76ers teammates Dario Saric and Marco Belinelli each scored 21 points and each hit four 3-pointers to help the offense flow.

Miami was led by 23 points and eight assists from point guard Goran Dragic. Heat reserve forward Justise Winslow scored a season-high 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. But Miami’s top three shooting guards — Tyler Johnson, Dwyane Wade and Wayne Ellington — combined for just 21 points.

The game’s biggest factor was Embiid, who had been listed as unlikely to play until Thursday afternoon, when he was cleared by doctors.

Embiid had a 7-0 run in the fourth quarter, which continued a trend. In Philadelphia’s two wins in this series, they have outscored the Heat by 31 and 21 points, respectively.

Anderson said Embiid has been a team player throughout.

“One of the things (Embiid) told me during (Thursday’s) game was to tell Coach that he didn’t want any plays run for him,” Anderson said. “He just wanted to play within the scheme.”