ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Denver Nuggets

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Last season: The Nuggets finished the regular season with the best home record in the league, and a franchise best 57 wins, good for the three seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Then, they were bounced out of the first round by the Golden State Warriors in six games.

George Karl won Coach of the Year honors, then was fired when he pushed for a contract extension this summer. Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri won Executive of the Year, before leaving to join the Raptors organization.

Signature highlight from last season: There were a couple of freakishly athletic JaVale McGee plays we could have chosen, as well as some circus shots from Danilo Gallinari. But this game-winner at the buzzer from Ty Lawson over the Thunder fit more snugly, thanks to the way that victory summed up what last season’s Nuggets were all about.

Wilson Chandler did the damage offensively in that one, dropping in 35 points off the bench. Meanwhile, only one of Denver’s starters topped double digits in scoring. The Nuggets had multiple, sometimes random guys that would beat you on any given night, and that’s what made them such a challenge to deal with over the course of the season.

Key player changes: Denver didn’t do anything drastic to improve its roster this summr, but the team also didn;t make the mistake of overpaying its most high-profile free agent, either.

  • IN: Randy Foye was acquired from the Jazz as part of the three-team deal that sent Andre Iguodala to the Warriors in a sign-and-trade. Darrell Arthur was acquired via trade in exchange for Kosta Koufos. J.J. Hickson was signed to a multi-year deal in free agency, as was former Bulls spark plug Nate Robinson.
  • OUT: The aforementioned Iguodala and Koufos, along with Corey Brewer, who signed a free agent deal with the Timberwolves.

Keys to the Nuggets’ season:

1) The development of JaVale McGee: As scary as it may seem, the Nuggets actually have quite a bit riding on how quickly JaVale McGee can evolve into a more consistently productive player. The reason Kosta Koufos was traded for Darrell Arthur was not because Koufos wasn’t good, it’s that his reliable play made him the logical choice for minutes over the hit-or-miss (or worse) McGee.

The athleticism has always been there, but the basketball IQ has not. If new head coach Brian Shaw can reach and teach McGee, the Nuggets will have a valuable weapon that could change the complexion of the team’s defense.

2)Making the new pieces fit: The loss of Iguodala may not seem of dire importance, considering the amount of balance the Nuggets played with a season ago. He was tied for third on the team in points per game with Wilson Chandler, and Corey Brewer and Kenneth Faried weren’t that far behind.

But Iguodala was perhaps the team’s most versatile player, especially considering what he was able to do defensively on a nightly basis. His threat of scoring opened things up for his teammates, and while there are other guys on the team capable of picking up that slack, the overall team dynamic will be tested with the new faces on the roster being molded together by a new, first-time head coach in Brian Shaw.

3)The health of Danilo Gallinari: As much as Denver relied on a variety of players over the course of the season, it was proven as soon as the playoffs began just how much they needed Danilo Gallinari’s ability to get buckets.

Gallinari’s season was ended prematurely in April due to an ACL injury, and he’ll miss at least the first month of the season, if not a little bit more. As Denver is finding its way without him, it’ll be like starting over again once they add his scoring back into the lineup, and that process could set the team back initially, depending on how long it takes Gallo to get fully back up to speed.

Why you should watch: Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, and JaVale McGee are all special talents at their position. Brian Shaw will be interesting as a first year head coach, and if there’s a substantial drop-off from last year’s success, the team is a prime candidate to implode given all of the changes made by the front office.

Prediction: 47-35. Playoffs, probably. But with the top six teams in the West all but locked in and with all of the changes in Denver, those last two spots are officially up for grabs.

Rockets 50, Timberwolves 20: Most dominant playoff quarter in shot-clock era (video)

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James Harden missed a floater and clapped in frustration. The Rockets’ third quarter in Game 4 against the Timberwolves didn’t get off to a great start. Harden’s shooting had underwhelmed since Game 2.

Then, Harden and Houston broke out of the funk – in a big way.

The Rockets outscored Minnesota 50-20 in the third quarter of their 119-100 victory last night, giving Houston a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. The 30-point margin in the third quarter was tied for the most lopsided playoff quarter in the shot-clock era:

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Harden singlehandedly outscored the Timberwolves himself, 23-20. Paul added 15.

The Rockets shot 5-of-10 on 2-pointers, 9-of-13 on 3-pointers and 13-of-13 on free throws. Houston committed no turnovers and offensively rebounded a third of its misses.

It was incredible output, even for the NBA’s best offense.

The Rockets’ 50 points were second-most in a playoff quarter – and the most in a victory – in the shot-clock era. The leaderboard:

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As expected, Wesley Matthews says he will pick up $18.6 million option with Mavericks

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Wesley Matthews still has value as an NBA player.

However, he doesn’t have $18.6 million in value on the open market right now — especially in what will be a tight market this summer — so he’s going to take the cash on the table. Matthews is going to opt into the $18.6 million in the final year of his contract (the final season of a four-year, $70 million deal), he told Dwain Price of the Mavericks’ official website.

He said he will pick up that option and return and play next season with the Mavs.

“Obviously that’s something that hasn’t been on my mind,” Matthews said. “That’s what you have an agent for and agencies for.

“Like I said, I don’t plan on being anywhere else. And now it’s just focusing on getting back healthy, which I am now, and getting on this court.”

Matthews missed the final 16 games of last season with a stress fracture in his right fibula, and played in just 63 games total. He has been cleared to resume basketball activities now and is back on his workout routine.

Matthews biggest value has been on the defensive end, where he has been good on the wing for Dallas. Offensively, he averaged 12.7 points per game last season, shooting an improved 38.1 percent from three and with a true shooting percentage right around the league average at 54.1. He’s been solid in Dallas, a glue guy and a veteran example for young players such as Dennis Smith Jr., although they paid him that contract to be more than just solid.

Matthews name came up in trade rumors last deadline, and now that he has an expiring deal you can expect his name to come up again this summer and into next season (if he’s not moved). He’s an interesting trade piece who could help a lot of playoff-bound teams, something the Mavericks are not likely to be.

Draymond Green is texting Joel Embiid advice during playoffs

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In Game 1 of their series, the Philadelphia 76ers — without Joel Embiid — blew the doors off the Miami Heat, winning by 27. It’s the kind of game that can lead a young team to overconfidence.

That’s when Draymond Green texted Joel Embiid some words of advice, reports Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“Draymond texted me after the first game when we blew Miami out,” Embiid recalled Monday. “He basically told me that it’s not going to be the same in Game 2. They came back and they won that game.”

Green was right, but it’s one of the harder things for young players to understand, how much the ground can shift game-to-game in the playoffs. For the first four games especially, matchups and strategies will change night-to-night, and around Game 5 that tends to settle down and become more about execution (and talent).

For the Sixers, everything in their series changed with the return of Joel Embiid. Unhappily wearing a mask, Embiid’s defensive presence in the paint slows the Heat attack and allows things like Philly’s Game 4 comeback win on the road. Now Embiid’s about to make his home playoff debut in Game 5 Tuesday night, with a chance to close out the series.

“The atmosphere was amazing, it was insane,” Embiid said of the home crowd in Games 1 and 2. “After going to Miami, I felt like nothing compared to it. … We’ve been almost perfect [at home] since the beginning of the year. It just shows you how much we need them. Especially myself, I play better in that type of environment. I need the fans to get into it and push me. That makes me elevate my game.”

Beyond the first round, in an East where the expected best teams — Toronto and Cleveland — have looked vulnerable, the door is open.

“A lot of people say that we have a bright future, but I think our time is now,” Embiid said. “We have a pretty good chance. We have a special team, a lot of great guys. I don’t think we need anybody else. We’ve just got to work with what we have, and we have a special team. I feel like we have a pretty good chance to go far.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.