What needs to change in the playoffs...

Since the Nuggets aren't playing until Sunday, we have ample time to analyze the state of the team entering the postseason, their opponent (the Hornets) and possible future opponents (oh, who are we kidding, the Spurs are beating the Mavericks hands down). So I thought I'd kick off Denver Stiffs' playoff coverage by looking internally at what the Nuggets themselves need to do better. After all, even our beloved 54-win Nuggets could use some improvement if they're to win their first opening round series since 1994. In fact, excluding the Grizzlies and Bobcats, the Nuggets currently have the longest streak going of having not won a playoff series. Even the Clippers have won a playoff series since the Nuggets last won one...fittingly, against the Nuggets.

So how are we going to get out of the first round this year? Here's how...

...Carmelo Anthony's first shot and every third shot must be a drive.
Melo is a bruising, unstoppable force when he takes the ball to the hole. If only Melo knew it. This is something we've all harped on since Melo's arrival in Denver, but enough's enough already. He did it again last night when his first shot attempt was a 15-foot pull up brick en route to 15 more pull up bricks. I don't know what head coach George Karl tells Melo before each game, but starting today he should be begging, bribing and demanding that Melo's first shot attempt be a drive right down the gut of the Hornets' defense.

And beyond that first shot attempt, every third Melo shot attempt must be a drive to the basket. Melo continuously shooting jumpers is equivalent to the Broncos only running pass plays and never running the ball. Just like in football, you have to keep the defense honest.

...J.R. Smith's first shot and every third shot must be a drive.
Re-read everything I just wrote about Carmelo Anthony and replace his name with J.R.'s and replace "15-foot pull up brick" with "three-point shot attempt." We were all thrilled with J.R.'s franchise record breaking three-point display on Monday night, but the playoffs isn't NBA All-Star Saturday Night. The Nuggets will need a disciplined, focused J.R. keeping the opposition on its toes the whole time and bewildered by what he might do next.

...Stop whining with the refs.
As loyal Denver Stiffs reader "joelsopinion" astutely pointed out in commenting on my previous post, the refs will not call ticky tack fouls in the playoffs. Rather than expect a foul call, the Nuggets inside players should practice making shots while getting fouled but not getting the call. Also, because the Nuggets have been notorious whiners and Karl refuses to work the refs (see more on that below) until late in games, the Nuggets will be at a disadvantage with calls from the get-go. In my opinion, the Nuggets are past the point of no return with the refs. So no more complaining; just man up and deal with it.

...No more finger rolls and flip shots around the basket from Nene.
Is it just me, or has Nene lately been missing a lot of finger rolls and flip shots around the rim when he would probably be better off dunking the ball or going for a standard bank shot layup? It's like he's taking cues from the Marcus Camby school of "How Not to Play Big Man Offense." Unless Nene is doing a Moses Malone impersonation (Moses was famous for purposely missing layups to pad his rebound stats), it's time for him to make the easy bucket the first time and not watch it circle the rim and roll off.

...Take care of the ball. Please.
The Nuggets propensity to turn the ball over (fourth in the league in turnovers and highest among all Western Conference playoff teams) has been much discussed lately and I don't need to beat a dead horse here. They just need to find the right medium between forcing the action without being careless.

...Enough with the AC-to-Birdman inbounds dunk play.
I think it was the last Utah game (although I don't know for sure) when Anthony Carter made an amazing inbounds pass to Chris Andersen for a ferocious dunk while the defense was napping. They've tried to replicate the play about four times since, and each attempt has gotten subsequently worse with Birdman almost getting killed on the last two attempts. This whole ordeal reminds me of a guy who uses a lame pickup line that actually got a girl into the sack with him when he was in college 12 years ago, and then uses the same line over and over and over again but is unable to replicate the success. Both in basketball and your dating life, you need more than one inbound play!

...Put forth a set rotation.
I was debating with the In Denver Times' Chris Tomasson regarding what the Nuggets playoff rotation should be. His (valid) point was that most successful playoff teams play just eight guys substantial minutes, nine tops. So I did some rough math. If you figure there are 48 in-game minutes per position, I'd like to see Karl play Carmelo Anthony 40 of the 48 small forward minutes, with the other eight going to Renaldo Balkman. Kenyon Martin should play about 35 power forward minutes a game, with the other 13 minutes being split between Balkman (three) and Chris Andersen (10). Nene should play 38 center minutes if he can stay out of foul trouble, with Andersen getting the other 10. Chauncey Billups should play 40 point guard minutes, with Anthony Carter getting just eight. And Dahntay Jones should continue to start and play about 11 total shooting guard minutes, with J.R. Smith getting the other 37. So for 240 available minutes in an NBA game, the playing time would be broken down as follows...

40 - Carmelo Anthony
40 - Chauncey Billups
38 - Nene
37 - J.R. Smith
35 - Kenyon Martin
20 - Chris Andersen
11 - Renaldo Balkman
11 - Dahntay Jones
8 - Anthony Carter

Where's Linas Kleiza, you ask? Kleiza's erratic play and lack of defensive ability should relegate him to emergency reserve status for the playoffs - i.e. if Melo finds himself in foul trouble early or the Nuggets are completely starved for offense, Kleiza should get some playing time. But as tough as this is to say, Kleiza's inconsistent performance this season has played him out of the Nuggets set rotation.

...Don't lose the "everyone thinks we're going to suck" mindset.
I'm going to get into this in more detail when we analyze Karl because he has a lot to do with this. But simply put, the Nuggets play much better when no one thinks they have a chance and much worse when they're expected to win. Remember the regular season when the Nuggets were barnstorming their way to the two-seed and everyone was talking conference finals? Suddenly the wheels came off, they dropped eight of 11 (including multiple losses to sub-.500 teams) and the word on the street was that the Nuggets were done. Then, when everyone was counting them out again, they came storming back to reclaim their position as the conference's second best team (record-wise, at least). That week when they almost went 3-0 at Phoenix, New Orleans and Dallas was further proof of this. I almost wish they could switch their seeding number with the Hornets (although not the home/road games), because the Nuggets play looser, with better energy and much tougher when they take on the roll of the underdog.

...George Karl must stand up.
Karl's had plenty of time to relax all season. By my accounting, he's stood up for a total of 492 in-game minutes (not including timeouts, that's six minutes times 82 fourth quarters...and that's being generous considering that Karl only stands up during the fourth quarter in tight games). I can't complain because he's done a hell of a job this season and is deserving of Coach of the Year consideration. But as noted in this blog's coverage of the NBA Finals last June, Doc Rivers gave us a textbook example of how to work the refs in games. Not only does working the refs get better calls for your team, but it shows that you have your players' back and, perhaps just as importantly, it gets the hometown crowd really fired up. As great as Nuggets fans are, Pepsi Center can get quiet quickly and a fired up coach can actually up the energy in the arena.

And there you have it. Just a few minor tweaks here and there, and the Nuggets should be bound for the second round. If only it was this easy...

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