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Can Denver Nuggets' Starless, Up-Tempo Play Sustain Postseason Success?

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Can Denver Nuggets' Starless, Up-Tempo Play Sustain Postseason Success?
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

After a 107-100 victory in Game 5 for the Denver Nuggets over the Golden State Warriors, George Karl's team lives to fight another day. 

However, considering that the Nuggets have had their struggles as the No. 3 seed in the first round against a team they beat three of four times in the regular season, can the fast-break style of play without a superstar work in the playoffs?

On one hand, Denver is in its third postseason since the departure of Carmelo Anthony and still hasn't made it past the first round.

On the other hand, the front office has done a great job reconstructing this team, and the 2012-13 Nuggets had their best regular season in franchise history.

There isn't a problem with the philosophy.

 

Fast Tempo Is What Makes Denver Good and Unique

The Nuggets get up-and-down the court faster than anyone with their 19.8 fast-break points per game. More importantly though, Denver is the fifth-most efficient team on offense with a 1.063 rating.

What's the main reason for this? To put it simply, the 57.5 points in the paint. Essentially, the Nuggets maximize their opportunities for easy baskets and momentum-changing dunks.

In the series against the Warriors, those numbers haven't changed too dramatically. In the three games Denver lost, it had a 1.064 offensive-efficiency rating and took a slight dip in transition to 16.3 fast-break points.

The reason for the slight decline is that Golden State is making 51.1 percent of its shots in the series. When the Denver defense isn't getting its rebounds, whether it's because of poor defense or Stephen Curry is shooting out of his mind, it's tougher to be effective in the full court and run on the opponent. 

Furthermore, with Denver's depth, the fast-pace game should help over a seven-game series. In Game 5, four of the Warriors' starters played 40-plus minutes and turned the ball over 17 times. 

With Kenneth Faried looking more like his normal self after the ankle injury (via the Denver Post, h/t Steve von Horn of SB Nation), and JaVale McGee producing solid minutes on both ends in his first game as a starter this year, the Nuggets now have a better chance of imposing their height advantage.

This puts a lot of stress on the perimeter shooting of the Warriors.

 

Why the Nuggets Have Struggled Against the Warriors

Naturally, Denver is going to give up more points per game because of its up-tempo style. However, the Nuggets have the 11th best defensive-efficiency rating at 1.018. 

In the three losses versus the Warriors, Denver's rating was 1.162. That was recently the worst three-game stretch for any team in the NBA (per TeamRankings.com).

The biggest defensive issue has been on the perimeter and particularly in the pick-and-roll. Aside from going against arguably the best shooter in basketball who was having one of his best nights in Game 2, this video shows how easy it was for Stephen Curry to get an open look or get into the lane before kicking it out to the wide-open shooter.

Another problem on the other end of the court is Golden State's matchup zone. When the Nuggets got rolling at times in Game 5 offensively, Mark Jackson put out the fire by daring Denver to shoot over the defense. 

The Warriors had 14-2 and 15-2 runs in the second half of Game 5 and almost came back to win the game and close out the series. Ty Lawson was basically left on his own when Andre Iguodala was on the bench in those stretches.

Issues have also come up for Corey Brewer shooting the ball, particularly when he went 1-of-11 from the field and 0-of-5 from three-point range Tuesday night. 

This shot chart from NBA.com shows how many bricks Brewer has fired in the series outside the paint, with the exception of the right wing.

Shot Chart via NBA.com

Danilo Gallinari would really help solve this problem. According to 82games.com, Gallinari was the second-best player on the Nuggets in terms of plus-minus. 

The biggest downfall for the Nuggets on offense is that they can get stagnant with isolation in the half court. Gallinari not only helped this through penetration, but he was a terrific option to kick the ball out to for a three-pointer. Gallinari shot 37.3 percent from deep and led the Nuggets with 5.1 three-point attempts per game.

 

A Superstar Isn't a Fix

The Nuggets may not have someone that is classified as a superstar, but that doesn't take away how many good players they have playing the necessary roles.

Of the eight players on Denver who played at least 18 minutes per game, all of their PER's are 14.8 or higher. The production is there, but rather than having a big name added and eliminating other players' minutes, another smaller piece or two would be beneficial.

More specifically, Denver could use someone that plays solid defense on the perimeter, like what Thabo Sefolosha does for Oklahoma City or Tony Allen for Memphis. Iggy has been this guy for the Nuggets, but with how many minutes he plays and other duties he has to the team, Denver could use someone who is more purely defensive-minded to help him.

The other boost the Nuggets could use is a three-point shooter that can make over 40 percent of his attempts. Denver was tied for 25th in the regular season in three-point percentage at 34.3.

As far as having a clutch shooter, the Nuggets don't have a specified go-to person. However, according to NBA.com, with the exception of Miami, Denver was the best team in the clutch in plus-minus for the 2012-13 season (clutch for this is defined as inside two minutes with a five-point differential or less).

Denver's Big Men Are the Key to Beating Golden State

George Karl has used three different starting lineups in the first five games of the series. It looks like he found the right combination in Game 5.

The Nuggets big men were a disappointment through the first four games. Here were the averages for the three Denver post players: Kenneth Faried (nine ppg, seven rpg), JaVale McGee (six ppg, 3.25 rpg, 0.5 blk) and Kosta Koufos (two ppg, 3.25 rpg).

They also didn't help defensively by giving up 46 points in the paint per game.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

In Game 5, Faried got the start at the 4 while McGee made his first start of the entire year at the 5. As a result, Faried had a double-double, McGee posted 10 points and eight rebounds and Koufos had six points and five rebounds in just 15 minutes. 

The three post players also combined for five blocks and held Golden State to just 24 points in the paint.

It's quite simple. There's no David Lee in the lineup and now that Denver is healthy outside of Danilo Gallinari and has the correct starting lineup for the series, there is no reason why the Nuggets can't dominate inside.

 

Conclusion

The answer is yes. The Denver Nuggets can win in the playoffs long term with their fast play and without one specific star.

There's a reason why Denver set a franchise-record of 57 wins and 38 victories at home. Plus, the Nuggets didn't have a losing record against any of the Western Conference playoff teams during the regular season.

While George Karl is 19-34 with the Nuggets in playoff games before this season, he's only had home-court advantage three out of eight times in the first round. That playoff record doesn't mean Karl can't win in the postseason, especially since he lost to the Lakers when they made the NBA Finals in 2008 and won the title in 2009. 

Karl has a great strategy. Now that he has a set of players and a deep roster to execute it, they need to overcome the tough first-round matchup of the gritty Warriors and play to their potential.

Denver is well alive and still in this wide-open race in the Western Conference.

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