A new general manager, new coach, new system, but the Sacramento Kings pulled out win over the Nuggets anyway. The two teams both underwent major construction this off-season and the Nuggets had a chance to play spoilers tonight, but couldn't capitalize when it mattered most.
Entering the fourth quarter, Denver held a 72-70 lead and things were starting to come together. Brian Shaw's rotations allowed for 11 players to see the floor tonight and he appeared to settle into some patterns as the game wore on. Shaw chose to close out the game with Ty Lawson, Randy Foye, Evan Fournier, Darrell Arthur, and J.J. Hickson. Here is how the Nuggets' final few possessions played out:
-1:37: Down 88-86 Hickson makes a three-foot bunny.
-0:58: Tied at 88-88 Lawson misses a four-footer, Nuggets get the rebound, Lawson misses 13-foot jumper, Nuggets ball, and Lawson's shot doesn't hit the rim and a 24-second violation turnover.
-0:29: Fournier misses three-pointer, good look and an open shot.
-0:01: Lawson misses reverse layup, ball fails to draw backboard and rolls off rim.
-0:01: Foye misses three-pointer as time expires.
The Nuggets went 0-6 to close out the game, but Hickson was 2-3 in the final five minutes for 4 points and Arthur hit his only shot in the final five minutes. Lawson, Randy Foye, Andre Miller, and Fournier were a combined 0-7 in the final five minutes (0-4 for Lawson). On the defensive end, Cousins went 2-6 in the final five minutes for 4 points and Isaiah Thomas and Jason Thompson combined to go 2-2 for 4 points.
It was a rough way to start the season as the team failed to score over 90 points and didn't execute with the game on the line. Let's get to some key points.
Things that stood out:
1.) JaVale McGee started the game, but played just 10:06 as he committed four fouls. We can all have a good laugh at the irony of Shaw going with Hickson at center to close out the game over McGee and Timofey Mozgov. We've all see that story before as George Karl also closed out games with power forwards at the center spot. Was this a sign of things to come or Shaw's way of making McGee and Mozgov earn time through trust? Mozgov played pretty well, but Hickson's post defense on Cousins on the final couple possessions on him were quite good.
2.) Shaw talked after the game how he doesn't like to double team and pointed out how Arthur's help defense, of a shot he had no chance of blocking, wound up costing the Nuggets a big bucket as Jason Thompson got an easy put-back dunk to give the Kings the 90-88 lead. The Nuggets defense didn't double or switch a lot and it was good to see. Some players had a hard time getting out of old habits (even guys who were not on the team last season) as some unnecessary wandering took place out on the court.
3.) Pick-and-Roll defense: As pointed out to me on Twitter, and true to the eye, the Nuggets were asking their centers to stop the drive of the guard, on defense, in the pick-and-roll. Meaning that Mozgov would wait and catch the guard, instead of hedging and allowing the guard to go right around him. This should give Lawson, or whoever the guard is, enough time to fight through the screen and get back in front of their man. The Kings got some open looks as the guards were slow to get back in position. When the Nuggets had a power forward in the pick-and-roll coverage they were hedging hard to prevent the guard from being able to drive, this too worked with mixed results as the big is then asked to get back to his man and not double the guard with the ball. It'll take time for the guys to know their assignments and communicate correctly.
4.) Shaw elected to go with Fournier and Foye over Andre Miller. Shaw did lean on Miller for 21 minutes and Dre responded with 12 points on 6-9 shooting. Miller did play 8:45 in the fourth and was 0-2 and Shaw elected to go a different way to close out the game. The Nuggets got virtually nothing from starting small forward Anthony Randolph and Shaw was trying to find something with Fournier. The second year guard was only 2-8 on the night and had a couple costly turnovers, but Shaw's trust in him was good to see. Hopefully Fours' play will pay off down the road.
5.) The Nuggets need something at small forward. Don't be surprised to see Fournier in the starting lineup on Friday against the Blazers if Wilson Chandler is unable to play. Randolph wasn't a threat from the three point line and wasn't doing much in his 15 minutes of play. He can play spot minutes in the post, but out on the wing is not the play for Randolph.
Player notes: Full box score here
Lawson: team high 20 points and 8 assists in 35 minutes. Ty looked most comfortable when he was out running, but he also showed off his jumper. Overall a rough game shooting for Ty as he was 5-15, but he was 8-8 at the foul line and 2-4 from deep. His issues were more of driving in traffic where he missed a few shots and was fouled on a couple non-calls. He missed the "easy for him" layup at the end that could have sent the game to overtime, but without Lawson, the Nuggets are not even in this game.
Miller: Good first half for Dre as he got the offense moving and handled some of the scoring load early. His defense wasn't half bad and he wasn't overused at the end of the game, even though he didn't really have it in the fourth and Shaw finally had to pull him. He looked pained to not be out there for the final couple possessions when they showed him on the bench.
Robinson: Total non-factor in this game. He didn't look to take the ball to the rack where he can finish or make one of his pretty drop-passes. The 0-5 performance is something you have to live with Robinson and his bench scoring ability.
Foye: This is pretty much what you're going to get from the vet as he scored 12 points and hit 2-5 threes. He'll have some games where he shoots better from deep and can help win some games, but he'll be fairly consistent with this type of performance.
Fournier: As pointed out above, he was trusted in key situations and that's good. He didn't come through tonight though as he missed his biggest shot, a three that would have given the Nuggets a 91-90 lead. I did like his game a lot though, not afraid to take the ball to the rack or pull the trigger on shots. As he gains confidence, his game will grow.
Randolph: He's just not a small forward. Not a threat to shoot the three, not hard-nosed enough to stay with aggressive threes (luckily the Kings don't have one of 'em), and not willing to take the ball to the rack on a consistent basis. He can play some spot minutes inside at the four, but Denver has enough guys there.
Hickson: Strong performance in the clutch. He was asked to defend the best big and then score on him on the other end. He finished with 12 points and 9 rebounds and was Shaw's most trusted big man. He was Denver's best player down the stretch.
Faried: He played just 14:58 and was hard to tell if he made any kind of a difference or was a deterrent. Another guy used to the run-and-gun and the Nuggets tried to find him on a few transition spots, but no success. His rebounding was there, but we just didn't see enough of him tonight to know what he will be able to do in this new system.
Arthur: He played 18:23 and 11:60 of those minutes came in the fourth quarter. Not sure why Shaw suddenly went with Arthur, but it didn't really pay off. He gambled on defense and it didn't work, but he did hit a nice jumper down the stretch. Probably an average game of Arthur's and something we'll see a lot this season from the reserve.
McGee: He just fouled too much. Not impressed with his shot selection, but on just five attempts there wasn't a lot to praise or complain about. If McGee is going to take 15-footers then the team is going to need to get after the offensive glass as he isn't going to nail those at a high rate right off the bat. Interesting that Shaw didn't trust him enough at the end to bring him in to help out Hickson on the defensive end, but that could have just resulted in free throws for Cousins; who knows.
Mozgov: He showed his usual physical play, but was only whistled for two fouls in 19:31. Surprising that Shaw didn't use him at all in the final quarter. He showed good scoring ability around the rim and away from the paint with 10 points and 2-2 from the foul line. Moz did mishandle a couple passes, but he was good for Denver and his +4 wasn't an accident.
The team will be back at it Friday for the home opener against the Blazers.
Final Thought: Karl's Nuggets would have ran the Kings out of their own building. This game is exactly what people mean when the say the Nuggets will sacrifice some wins for style of play. The team played into the Kings' hands by getting into a post-war with Cousins, but we are told it will pay off down the road. Some encouraging things tonight for sure and the style may not take as long to take hold as I thought, on both ends.
I liked the approach to defense with not doubling or switching. I liked the movement on offense without the ball and the movement of the ball without the dribble. Some execution will come and more shots will be made that were missed tonight. It'll be a process.