Heading into Tuesday night’s Game 5 against the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets coach George Karl was facing the more damning end of a 3-1 series. His team appeared to be lacking confidence, several of his players were either out or working through injuries, and there were all sorts of whispers talking up the idea that Karl had been badly outcoached by his counterpart in Mark Jackson thus far.
Mainly because George Karl had been badly outcoached by Mark Jackson.
Things turned rather quickly on Tuesday night. Karl adjusted, dropping rookie shooting guard Evan Fournier from the starting lineup and starting mercurial big man JaVale McGee — a clear indication that Karl knew that the Warriors were better prepared to run a small-ball lineup than his Nuggets were. With stops finally leading to transition opportunities, the Nuggets poured in 50 points in the paint, kept the Warriors at arm’s length for most of the game, and eventually won 107-100.
The Warriors were immediately rankled. Andrew Bogut gave center/forward Kenneth Faried a two-handed shove that could (and probably should) result in a fine. Jackson complained to both the TNT crew and reporters following the Game 5 loss about Denver’s aggressive play — pointing specifically to one possession in the second quarter that saw the Nuggets run Warriors star guard Stephen Curry through a series of screens, with two bumps for every player passed.
This, apparently, is the sort of performance the Nuggets front office has been chasing for years, especially in the wake of the 2011 trade that sent All-Star Carmelo Anthony to New York.
In a must-read feature for ESPN from last week, Ramona Shelburne delves into Denver general manager Masai Ujiri’s line of thinking, as he put together a star-less roster built around the ethos that gave the Karl-coached Seattle SuperSonics a 64-win team in 1996.
Ujiri studied Karl's great Seattle teams from the mid-1990s. The type of players he got the most out of. The types who didn't fit. The way he liked to play.
"The most impressive thing is his system," Ujiri said. "The way he coaches allows players to be very successful. Role players, star players, all kinds of players -- they all did well for him.
"When I came here [Nuggets owner] Josh Kroenke told me that, if Carmelo left, the type of players we wanted to bring in were young and energetic, who would fit with his system."
It was a conscious choice to aggregate talent and essentially shun the star-centric system. To prioritize speed, depth, athleticism, defensive ability and hustle over play-making and scoring talent.
Or, as Karl puts it, ''Why don't we just go get really good players and try to make 'em great?"
Of course, as Shelburne noted, that sort of comfort and confidence was decades in the making. From her piece:
To understand just how much Karl has evolved, you have to wrap your head around what he did during the four years he spent in exile after the Warriors fired him.
While he waited for an opportunity in the NBA, he coached the Albany Patroons of the CBA and Real Madrid of the Euroleague. Whenever he could, he went back to the people he had worked with in Cleveland and Golden State and asked for their honest opinion of him.
"I was trying to learn how I wanted to coach," he said. "The first couple of years I was coaching like Don Nelson and then I was coaching like Hubie Brown and then I was coaching like Larry Brown. I didn't have my identity."
Finally, in his last season coaching Real Madrid, Karl said he "had the guts to do what I wanted to do."
This doesn’t mean Karl is still without detractors. George gets it from both sides of the fence.
Longtime NBAniks have wondered all season if a fast-paced crew (Denver was second in the NBA in possessions this season) without a star (or even a potential All-Star, if we’re honest) could be anything more than a regular season curio. A 17-15 start, while working mostly on the road, seemed to add fuel to that argument. The Nuggets won 40 of their next 50 games, though, and looked as dominant as any team in the NBA over that stretch.
Just as this circus was about to hit the postseason, though, the team was forced to deal with three significant injuries. Danilo Gallinari was lost for the season with an ACL tear, and both Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson have struggled at times while attempting to return from late-season ankle and heel injuries. Just as it was all supposed to come together, cruelly, Karl was pushed into fielding a makeshift lineup to take on the inspired Warriors.
The other side of the fence blames Karl for sticking too long with young guard Fournier, and for trusting veteran Andre Miller with the ball for long and lacking stretches. That criticism sustained on Tuesday, as Miller came through with his third straight rough performance, as the Warriors made their second-half run with Miller running the show. Karl’s commitment to Corey Brewer in spite of his poor defense in this series (Brewer is a good athlete who often makes bad decisions) and iffy shooting (he’s missed 40 of 60 shots in the postseason) has also been called into question.
As Shelburne’s feature noted, Karl appears far from bothered by any of this. A two-time cancer survivor, the Nuggets coach is in his best shape in years, and finally behind the controls of a team he’s genuinely enjoying coaching. And, possibly for the first time in his NBA career, Karl is working with a simpatico GM that sees the coach as the true star of his team.
Here’s what Karl told Shelburne last week, as his Grand Star-less Experiment readied its postseason turn:
"This team is fun to coach," he said. "I don't think many coaches use the word 'fun' to describe their teams."
Not many fans get to use the word “fun” to describe their favorite teams, either.
Despite all the roughhousing, the Warriors and Nuggets are two of those teams. It’s both a boon and somewhat unfortunate that they’re playing one another, and eventually knocking the other fun team out of the playoffs. All we can ask is for a Game 7.