Darrell Arthur

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Nuggets hooked a big fish in Paul Millsap

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The Nuggets apparently didn’t see the exemplary move of their offseason coming.

They tried to trade Gary Harris and the No. 13 pick for Cavaliers power forward Kevin Love, but as Cleveland tells it, the Pacers backed out of the three-team trade. So, Denver traded down from No. 13 to No. 24, picking Tyler Lydon and acquiring Trey Lyles – two more power forwards to join a team that already had Juan Hernangomez, Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur.

Finally, the Nuggets signed Paul Millsap – an upgrade over every power forward already on the roster and a better fit than Love – without surrendering any assets beyond cap space. And it wasn’t as much cap space as feared. Despite talk of a max contract, Millsap settled for $90 million over three years with a team option of the final season.

That’s a quite reasonable price for a potential franchise-changer.

Millsap isn’t Denver’s franchise player. That’s Nikola Jokic. But Millsap immediately elevates the Nuggets into a likely playoff team, and they got the 32-year-old without committing long-term.

After making Jokic a full-time start in December, Denver had the NBA’s best offensive rating (113.3). Better than the Warriors. Better than the Rockets. Better than the Cavaliers. Better than everyone else.

In that span, Jokic averaged 19.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game – marks hit over a full season by only Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Billy Cunningham and Kevin Garnett. That’s four Hall of Famers and a future Hall of Famer.

Still, the Nuggets finished just 40-42, a game out of playoff position. They had the NBA’s second-worst defense, and Jokic’s deficiencies were glaring. It’s just hard to hide a weak defensive center.

Millsap might do that, though. He’s one of the NBA’s best defensive forwards and even provides some rim protection. Importantly, he also spaces the floor on the other end, allowing Denver to still take full advantage of Jokic’s advanced offensive skills.

Typical development by a young core – which also includes Jamal Murray and Gary Harris – would have pushed the Nuggets forward. Millsap allows them to keep pace in a tough Western Conference that only loaded up this offseason.

Though well worth the complication, Millsap creates a crowd at power forward Denver has yet to address. At least there are plausible patches.

Faried can play center, though re-signing restricted free agent Mason Plumlee (whose $4,588,840 qualifying offer is outstanding) would reduce the playing time available there. Hernangomez can play small forward. Lydon might not be ready to play at all.

At some point, it’d be nice to get Hernangomez more minutes at his optimal position. He’s merely trying to tread water at small forward. As a stretch four who gets after rebounds, he could be a core piece.

For now, Millsap mans the power forward spot, and the Nuggets are better for it. Opening cap space for Millsap meant losing Danilo Gallinari in free agency, but Wilson Chandler and Will Barton are capable at small forward.

Denver’s sound drafting in recent years created a clean cap sheet, with several contributors locked into rookie-scale contracts – or, in Jokic’s case, an even smaller deal. The Nuggets could afford to splurge on a veteran who’d fast-track their ascension. Kudos to them for luring one – especially without a long-term guarantee.

Offseason grade: A

Russell Westbrook wins union’s Players Voice MVP

AP Photo/Chris Szagola
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The players union released its long-anticipated long-overdue awards, and there are some doozies. First of all, I still can’t figure out what Chris Bosh – who was announced as the “host” of the Twitter-released awards – has to do with this. But let’s get to the actual winners.

Here are the major awards, with the traditional award/Players Voice equivalent:

No surprise Westbrook won both MVPs. He deserved them. Still, James Harden could’ve hoped for a split result like in 2015, when Stephen Curry won actual MVP and Harden won the players’ version.

There’s obviously slight differences in the other categories. I think Green had the best defensive season and deservedly won Defensive Player of the Year, but I also think Leonard is the NBA’s best defender and therefore deserved this honor. I would’ve picked Andre Iguodala for Best off the Bench (and Sixth Man of the Year, for what it’s worth), though that’s a minor quibble. But how on earth did Joel Embiid not win Best Rookie? He was the best rookie in years, let alone this season. I picked Brogdon for Rookie of the Year based on his overall contributions in far more playing time, but there should have been no question about the best rookie.

The union also released several awards without a corresponding NBA honor:

  • Comeback Player of the Year: Joel Embiid
  • Hardest to Guard: Russell Westbrook
  • Clutch Performer: Isaiah Thomas
  • Global Impact: LeBron James
  • Player You Secretly Wish Was On Your Team: LeBron James
  • Most Influential Veteran: Vince Carter
  • Best Dressed: Russell Westbrook
  • Best Social Media Follow: Joel Embiid
  • Coach You’d Most Like to Play For: Gregg Popovich
  • Best Home Court Advantage: Warriors

LeBron winning Player You Secretly Wish Was On Your Team has to be an implicit slap in the face to Kyrie Irving. I’m glad to see Thomas and Carter deservedly recognized.

Lastly, the union awarded a Teammate of the Year on each team:

Dirk Nowitzki won the NBA’s Teammate of the Year – which is voted on by current players after a panel of former players selects nominees – then didn’t even win for his own team here? That’s just weird.

James Harden hits layup with 2.4 seconds left to lift Rockets

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden drove the length of the floor for a layup with 2.4 seconds left to lift the Houston Rockets over the Denver Nuggets 125-124 on Monday night.

Harden had 39 points, 11 assists and was three rebounds shy of his 20th triple-double of the season. Houston outlasted Denver in a duel between the second- and third-highest scoring teams in the NBA.

Harden likely saved the game for Houston, too, when he batted down an inbounds pass to Mason Plumlee near the basket following his layup.

Will Barton gave Denver a one-point lead on a three-point play with less than a minute left. On the following possession, Harden missed a layup, but he got it back on the other end of the floor when he rebounded Jameer Nelson‘s air-ball.

Harden took the ball down the court and scored on a finger-roll layup.

In a physical matchup between two teams that lean heavily on their ability to get to the free-throw line, neither the Rockets nor Nuggets appeared happy with the officiating in the game.

Gary Harris scored a career-high 28 points for Denver by shooting 10 for 16 from the floor and making three 3s. Nikola Jokic also gave Houston problems with his size on both ends of the floor. Jokic had 22 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.

Denver led 65-62 at the half as it outrebounded the Rockets 30-13 in the first half and Houston made just 7 of 20 3-pointers. Houston’s long-range shots finally began to fall late in the third quarter, and a 3-pointer from Patrick Beverley early in the fourth gave Houston a six-point lead that energized the Toyota Center crowd.

The Rockets finished the game 17 for 38 from 3 (44.7 percent).

Eric Gordon scored 18 points off the bench for Houston, and Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela all also scored in double figures for the Rockets.

The Nuggets are fighting for a playoff spot in the West and entered holding the eighth seed, but they’re also battling injuries. Danilo Gallinari (knee) and Wilson Chandler (groin) both participated in shootaround but did not play. Nuggets coach Mike Malone is hopeful they can be ready to play when the team faces the Cavaliers in Denver on Wednesday night.

Forward Darrell Arthur (left knee soreness) did not travel with the team to Houston, and Malone did not have a timetable for his return.

TIP-INS

Nuggets: Denver outrebounded Houston 48-35 in the game but managed only 14 second-chance points to Houston’s 10. … Barton had 24 points, eight assists and seven rebounds off the bench for Denver. … Denver made 24 of 26 free throws (92.3 percent). … Houston snapped Denver’s three-game road winning streak, a stretch that dated to Feb. 23

Rockets: Houston scored 27 points off Denver’s 21 turnovers while only turning the ball over 12 times and allowing 14 points on the other end. … Gordon tied a career high with his 35th block of the season, set during his rookie year in 2008-09.

 

James Harden has 40 in triple-double, Rockets top Nuggets 109-105

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DENVER (AP) — James Harden scored 40 points and finished with a triple-double as the Houston Rockets snapped the Denver Nuggets’ four-game winning streak with a 109-105 victory Saturday night.

Harden, who shook off a hard fall in the third quarter, had 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

With his team trailing 107-105, Nuggets guard Will Barton missed a 3-pointer and a layup in the final 30 seconds.

After Barton’s errant 3-point attempt, Harden missed at the other end and Nikola Jokic corralled the rebound. But then Barton missed a layup that would have tied it with about five seconds left, and Harden drew a foul. He sank both free throws to reach 40 points for the second time in two nights.

The Nuggets missed five three throws late in the game, including two by Barton.

Nene, who played the first decade of his 14-year NBA career in Denver, had 14 points and seven rebounds for the Rockets.

Gary Harris led Denver with 17 points.

Harden scored 18 points in the third quarter, including Houston’s final 16 of the period. He capped the run with a buzzer-beating 3 that gave the Rockets an 80-74 lead.

It wasn’t all rosy for Harden, however. He hit the floor hard on his right elbow after fouling Mason Plumlee in the final minute of the third quarter. Harden sat on the floor for about 30 seconds surrounded by his concerned teammates before getting up and shaking it off.

Before finding their touch late, the Rockets misfired from long range for much of the night.

They made just one of 15 shots from beyond the arc before Ryan Anderson swished one to break a 61-all tie late in the third quarter.

Nobody other than Harden scored again for the Rockets until Eric Gordon banked in a jumper a minute into the fourth.

The Nuggets built a 56-51 halftime lead behind 13 points from Juancho Hernangomez, who replaced Danilo Gallinari (left knee) in the starting lineup. Hernangomez didn’t do much after the break, though.

Also out for Denver were Wilson Chandler (groin) and Darrell Arthur (knees).

“We’re undermanned once again, but a great opportunity for all those other guys,” coach Michael Malone said before tip-off. “A great opportunity for guys like Juancho and Jamal (Murray) to go out there and compete for 48 and see where we are.”

At the end of the night, the Nuggets found themselves just 1 1/2 games in front of Portland for the final playoff berth in the Western Conference. The Trail Blazers won in Atlanta, 113-97.

TIP-INS

Rockets: Were coming off a 128-112 loss at New Orleans on Friday night. Houston’s last visit to Denver also came 24 hours after the Rockets had played, but that time they built a 42-33 first-quarter lead on their way to a 128-110 win on Dec. 2. … Houston missed 10 consecutive shots from behind the arc during one stretch.

Nuggets: Play at Houston on Monday night for their second home-and-home of the season. They split their other one with Phoenix back in January. … Jokic took a seat after picking up his fourth foul with 10:17 left in the third quarter. Three of the fouls came on offense.

 

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Three things we learned Monday: Nuggets serve Warriors slice of “humble cupcake”

Associated Press
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It’s Monday, and you have other important things to do — such as follow the exploits of the “Trumpagator” — so you may not have been focused on the NBA. We’ve got your back, here are the big takeaways from a night in the NBA.

1) Nuggets serve Warriors slice of “humble cupcake.” This is the NBA — if you don’t take an opponent seriously, you will get humbled. Everybody in the NBA can ball. As an example, let’s say you are the best team in the NBA — fresh off an emotional thrashing of a rival in Oklahoma City and wearing cupcake shirts — and you roll into Denver to take on a Nuggets team without Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay or just acquired Mason Plumlee. Easy win, right?

Wrong.

Denver could not miss from the outside Monday night, tying an NBA record with 24 made threes, on their way to thrashing the Warriors 132-110. Don’t come ready to play in the NBA, you get beat.

Denver’s star Nikola Jokic had his second career triple-double with 17 points, 21 rebounds, and 12 assists. Juan Hernangomez had a career-high 27 points including hitting six threes. When I say Denver couldn’t miss from the outside, look at their shot chart.

Nuggets shotchart

Let’s not be silly and say this could portend something if these two teams meet in the playoffs (as of now this would be the first-round matchup). This was a one-off. Golden State is the better team, Monday night Denver was the hotter one. The win also speaks to why Denver may be good enough to hold on to that final playoff slot, and serves as a reminder you can’t just roll the ball out there and expect to get a win in the NBA.

2) The model of consistency, Spurs win Monday secures 20th straight winning season. San Antonio has had its ugly losses this season, too (see Sunday against the Knicks), but there has been no better model of consistency in the NBA than the Spurs.

With a 110-106 win over the Pacers on Monday, the Spurs improved to 42-13, ensuring the franchise’s 20th straight winning season. The last time the Spurs had a losing season (1997) gas cost $1.22, a movie ticket was $5, Tiger Woods won his first Masters, and the Notorious B.I.G. was shot. And remember, they had seven winning seasons in a row before that one, they only fell off the map in 1996-97 due to injuries to David Robinson and others (the Spurs ended up with the No. 1 pick out of that terrible season and drafted Tim Duncan).

It’s amazing how consistent this franchise is, and while Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford deserve all the credit they get, that kind of consistency starts at the ownership level. There is not a better run organization in sports.

3) Charlotte loses again, this time to Sixers, and it’s stunning to see how far this team has fallen. When the calendar flipped to 2017, the Charlotte Hornets were 19-15, with a pedestrian offense carried by Kemba Walker and a top 10 NBA defense.

Since then the Hornets have gone 5-16, with a pedestrian defense overall and an offense that is bottom 10 – it Kemba Walker against the world.

Nicolas Batum tried to motivate the team by guaranteeing a win Monday night against the Sixers. It worked to motivate a team — Philadephia. The Sixers — playing without Joel Embiid (injury) or Jahlil Okafor (holding him out due to serious trade talks) — outworked the Hornets on the glass, and the Sixers won 105-99.

It must be something in the water in Charlotte, first the Panthers under perform and now the Hornets. Charlotte has a decent roster, a good coach, we thought the loss of Jeremy Lin and the depth might have this team take a small step back from last season, but not just drop off a cliff. This team simply should not be as bad as it has been the past couple months, even with the injury to Cody Zeller. Yet here we are. The Hornets are not physical enough, and while other teams — like the Sixers — are coming together the Hornets are not improving and seem to be pulling apart. It’s hard to picture this team making the playoffs at this point (they are just 1.5 games out of the eight seed, but the way the Hornets are playing does not portend a turnaround).

GM Rich Cho, owner Michael Jordan, and coach Steve Clifford need to have a real tough postmortem after this season and figure out how to get this roster moving forward. There is too much talent in Charlotte for this team to be this bad.