Sunday, October 30, 2016

Nate's Eight: Denver Nuggets Nikola Jokic ready to lead

Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA Today Sports


The Denver Nuggets have started the 2016-17 season in the exact same fashion as 2015-16. Take game one on the road (Houston last season, New Orleans this season) and blow game two in the home opener (Timberwolves last season, Blazers this season). A 2-0 start could have created a little buzz, especially with a win over the lovable Blazers, but it wasn't to be on the same night the Nuggets retired Dikembe Mutombo's No. 55.





Fortunately for the Nuggets, this season's home opener was promising and exciting and not a snooze-fest like the 95-78 drubbing at the hands of, then rookie, Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timber-pups. But in both openers, the Nuggets were susceptible to the best player on the floor. Towns lit Denver up for 28 points last year; and last night it was Damian Lillard punishing all-takers for 37 points (including the game winning floater over a helpless Kenneth Faried).

After watching the first two games a few thoughts have been running through my mind. Let's review them in Nate's Eight:

1.) Nikola Jokic is ready to take over and lead. With Denver trailing 62-54 headed into the third quarter, the gap was widening as the Blazers took a commanding 70-59 lead at the 9:34 mark as, you guessed it, Lillard scored yet again.

The frustration was building with Jokic as he became visibly frustrated on multiple blown opportunities by his teammates to either stop penetration on the defensive end or poor shots and turnovers on the offensive end. Enough was enough for Jokic.

The second year big man decided to impose his will on the game and the team followed his lead. He was creating turnovers, grabbing rebounds, scoring and setting up teammates (even if those assist opportunities were missed shots). Jokic exploded in the second half and finished with team-highs in points with 23, rebounds with 17, steals with four and unfortunately fouls with five.

The lesson from this game is that Michael Malone and the team needs to have Jokic as a focal point and that has not been the case with the starting lineup. Jokic has sacrificed touches to Jusuf Nurkic, which is fine, and has taken on tougher defensive assignments as the starting power forward. It feels like a matter of time, but Denver's best foot forward is with Jokic as the focal point of this team.

2.) Gary Harris' perimeter defense will be a much needed addition when he returns from injury. All reports have Harris returning to the team soon and his presence will be felt. Emmanuel Mudiay, Will Barton, Jamal Murray and Jameer Nelson were all abused by Lillard and C.J. McCollum (23 points, second on the team).

Watching Lillard and McCollum drive unimpeded time-and-again for layups and floaters made this blogger yearn for Harris' busy hands. Harris proved to be a defensive ace at not allow his man to have free passes to the hoop. There were multiple times in NOLA and vs. the Blazers where I found myself thinking, "Man, Harris might have created a turnover there..." Get well soon.

3.) Nurkic is practically unguardable on the block. The only thing that stops Nurkic on the block is his rushed shots and missed layups. The big story this off-season was Nurkic's weight loss, but he's still so damn big that he's a load for any defender and if he follows the advice from the sideline (you can hear coaches or teammates calling for him to take his time) he can and will score at will.

4.) Kenneth Faried is finally in his perfect role. No, I'm not talking about defending Lillard one-on-one with the game on the line... bad joke/too soon. Faried has always been a pleasure to watch and now that he's coming off the bench, his energy can truly effect the game in a positive manner. Sometimes the second unit can look lethargic, but with Faried anchoring it that is impossible. He just plays the game at a different level as most players and it has been nice to see him accepting his role thus far. Does Faried command 30 minutes a night? That's a conversation for later in the season...

5.) Jamal Murray will find his way. His 0-4 start to the season is not very fun for anyone, but Murray's time will come. Sharing the floor with veterans like Nelson, Wilson Chandler, and Faried is both a good and bad thing for the Canadian rookie. While playing alongside a veteran lineup can be beneficial for a rookie's "smarts" it's also hard to find shots while playing with three guys who also really like to score the ball. Murray has looked lost on the offensive end as he finds himself standing in the corner and floating around the perimeter, and he has a ton of defensive issues.

At some point he will find his comfort zone and hopefully some catch-and-shoot opportunities will present themselves. Nelson is responsible for getting his teammates involved in the game, and he must look to help build Murray's confidence, but ultimately it's up to the rookie to get himself involved... especially in other aspects of the game to prove his value to his teammates.

6.) Mudiay is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dribbling is a key aspect of the point guard position and sometimes Mudiay looks like a novice handling the ball and that's not a good thing, at all. In a one-on-one breakaway against Lillard, Mudiay was racing down the floor, Dame dove in to attack the dribble, Mudiay tried to go behind the back, and lost control of the ball. That's what you'd expect from most power forwards leading the break, not from your point guard.

Mudiay can be maddening and then he can be brilliant, like he was for much of the second half vs. the Blazers. He finished with 21 points and was a major contributor to Denver's 34-19 third quarter smash, but he's still finding his way with consistency. As head coach Michael Malone said last season, the turnovers are a sign of creativity, so you can't hate them all, but the unforced errors are the ones that drive you bonkers.

Mudiay can be special though, he had a slip pass in a pick-and-roll to Faried that made you, "Oohhhh" and "Aweee" at his vision. Rooting for Mudiay is easy to do and one has to hope he can be the point guard this team needs.

7.) Malone's rotations will take time. There was a lot of griping about Malone's rotations last season and they look to continue this season. Coaches will tinker with lineups at the beginning of the season and Malone is doing just that, it'll be interesting to see how he settles in. It's hard to blame Malone for trying to close games with Faried at center, that lineup was successful for Malone and super success for George Karl's 57 win team. But there may be better options than Faried, and we may see Malone try them out soon.

8.) Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler still pair well together. It's great to see both guys back on the floor for Denver and it's even better to see them share the court. Malone has played them alongside each other a little bit this season, and we'll see how he uses them moving forward.

Denver hasn't needed to rely on Gallo's isolation ability yet and that's a good sign. Gallo seems ready to play within the team, and Chandler has always been a good team player. While both like to get their shots, they are both smart enough and versatile enough to mold their games to multiple styles.

There is a bit of a changing of the guard going on in Denver as Mudiay, Jokic and Nurkic look to lead the way for this team and that's exactly what we should be seeing.




Box Score vs. Blazers



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