PHOENIX – With no ordained star power available, the Denver Nuggets have embraced the group approach in their struggle for NBA glory.
This inspired-by-circumstance strategy inspired one national magazine to anoint the Nuggets as Western Conference favorites to reach the Finals.
It still seems farfetched, but things have been pretty swell in Denver lately. The Nuggets endured a slow beginning to this allegedly-promising season and hauled a four-game winning streak into U.S. Airways Center for Monday night’s date with the Phoenix Suns. The Nuggets shot 54 percent from the floor, had five players reach double digits, scored 100 points … and lost.
The Suns, who – due to circumstance – have borrowed the Nuggets’ by-committee template and finished their eighth game of the season at 4-4 by having seven players score 10 or more points.
“If everybody plays like that,” Suns point guard Goran Dragic said while surveying his team’s locker room, “it’s a lot easier.”
If everybody approached each work shift with Dragic’s relentless enthusiasm, the Suns’ group approach might have a shot at a playoff ticket.
As it stands, the Nuggets’ circumstances – acquiring a chunk of the New York Knicks’ supporting cast because star forward Carmelo Anthony was preparing to bail on Denver – created a Noah’s Ark-style roster. Coach George Karl no longer has any so-called stars, but does seem to have two pretty decent players at almost every position.
The Suns didn’t have an in-his-prime star to convert into critic-approved assets, so – in the aftermath of parting with Steve Nash – they’ve had to cobble together a few solid players into a competitive squad.
They may remain unable to eclipse the Nuggets (and others) in this season’s playoff chase, but the Suns did demonstrate how a committee can thrive by doing the little things.
These included burping up only six turnovers against Denver’s defensive pressure and collecting 15 offensive rebounds. That’s how a team can lose the marksmanship battle by 9 percentage points and still win by 10.
For Suns coach Alvin Gentry, taking down the Nuggets is pretty gratifying.
“We’ve obviously struggled with that team the last couple of years,” Gentry said. “It was a good win against a good, quality team.”
The catalyst was Dragic, who bagged 10 points to keep Phoenix in the game during a typically-sideways first quarter. The Dragon finished with a game-high 21 points (making 7 of 12 shots) and 7 assists. But perhaps more important was his stellar defense against the elusive Ty Lawson. Lawson scored a dozen points and handed out 8 dimes, but 10 of those points occurred with Dragic on the bench during the second quarter.
“It’s not just the point guards,” Dragic said in reference to keeping Lawson relatively in check. “Our big guys did a great job. They were getting up in pick-and-roll and he (Lawson) couldn’t penetrate to the basket or get good shots.”
Between Dragic’s scoring bursts early and late, the Suns received timely contributions from several sources. Shannon Brown contributed another 19 points, giving the Suns an 8-point shot in the arm during the fourth quarter.
Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat each scored a dozen points, but combined to miss 14 of 23 shots. Jared Dudley added 15, Markieff Morris supplied Phoenix with his best game of the young season (13 points) and Michael Beasley rallied for 16.
With 6-foot-6 Nuggets stopper Andre Iguodala assigned to guard the 6-9 Beasley, the Suns ran a couple of first-quarter sets designed to get the big lefty some paint touches. But a soft approach to finishing produced a 2-for-9 performance in that period.
It was nice to see Beasley going to the rim, but equally disturbing to watch him avoid playing to contact.
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” Beasley, who was awarded two free-throw attempts the entire game, said. “Lately I’ve been shooting too many jump shots, not getting to the line, not putting any pressure on the opponent.”
OK, so the guy wasn’t quit there in the first quarter, but he did make 5 of his last 6 shots. It didn’t get him on the floor in the fourth quarter, but the committee had Beasley covered.
“The more we play with each other, the more we learn about each other and the better we get,” Beasley said.
There’s more learning to be had as this week rolls on. Between Friday’s potentially interesting rumble with the Lakers in Los Angeles, the Suns will play the Chicago Bulls here on Wednesday and return from L.A. to play the Miami Heat at USAC on Saturday.
The group will need to continue pulling in the same direction.