NEW ORLEANS (AP)—Denver coach George Karl widened his eyes and grinned as if he couldn’t believe the question.
He’s been hearing for several years now that his Nuggets couldn’t win without scoring a ton of points, and suddenly people wanted to know why his club had been so effective in slowing down Hornets All-Star point guard Chris Paul.
“Our offensive-minded team that doesn’t play defense?” Karl asked.
Karl can afford to be in a joking mood. The Nuggets have a 2-0 lead in their first-round playoff series with the Hornets, having won each of the first two games by double digits heading into Saturday afternoon’s Game 3 in New Orleans.
In all seriousness, though, Denver does indeed love defense now, Karl insists.
“I think we’ve shown some people we’re pretty good defensively,” Karl said. “I tell the guys all the time, win games with defensive plays.”
When it comes to defending Paul, the key is having several players who not only don’t fear guarding him, but embrace it, Karl said. In Denver’s case, there are three in Dahntay Jones, Anthony Carter and Chauncey Billups.
“Not many guys get fired up to cover” Paul, Karl said. “Dahntay gets fired up to cover him, A.C. gets fired up to cover him and Chauncey wants his piece of him, too. So I’ve got three guys that want to cover him, rather than have that fear of covering him. And they know they all don’t have to play 35 minutes on him. They’re only going to play 15 or 20.”
The Hornets’ offense revolves around pick-and-rolls run primarily by Paul, a master of choosing when to set up teammates or create his own shot. Throughout this season, he has dominated games, but not yet in this series.
After Game 2, Hornets All-Star forward David West said New Orleans’ offense may have become too predictable.
Hornets coach Byron Scott figured West was just blowing off steam.
“This is playoff basketball. Everybody has a real good idea of what you’re going to do on both ends of the floor,” Scott said. “When you get a little frustrated you say some things that, after you look at it, you wish you didn’t say or didn’t really mean.”
Martin, who has been guarding West in the low post, said there may be some truth to West’s complaint about the Hornets’ offense because of how much Paul has the ball.
“If you have somebody who has the ball in his hands 85 to 90 percent of the time, yeah,” Martin said. “You got a guy in Chris Paul who does an excellent job finding guys and looking for shots for himself, but he has the ball in his hands a lot.”
West said the Hornets remain confident they have the ability to bounce back, but added it will require more than fine-tuning from their first two lopsided losses.
“It was more of a systematic beating that we took because they won every quarter,” West said. “It just kept compounding. … When Chauncey goes on a 6-0 run by himself, we’ve got to be strong enough to respond with something on the other end.”
The Hornets also need to take better care of the ball. They’ve had 34 turnovers through the first two games, which only enhances Denver’s ability to pile up fast-break points.
Paul had nine of those turnovers, but said he and the team were upbeat after getting Thursday off and getting back to practice on Friday.
“We’re good. I’m good. We’re ready to go,” said Paul, who spent Friday afternoon at the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic watching his former Wake Forest classmate, Webb Simpson. “I just think the turnovers were a major factor and we’ve got to try not to beat ourselves.”
The Hornets may wish they could pick up the pace, something that suits Paul’s up-tempo style. The problem, Scott said, is that the Hornets do not have enough offensive depth to play that way with a team like Denver for an entire game.
Part of the problem is that center Tyron Chandler is playing with an injured left ankle. The other problem is the Hornets’ bench. The reserves have contributed little, so Scott said he will have to limit the number of players he uses on Saturday to seven or eight.
That means the Hornets likely will have to slow the tempo and try to win with defense.
“We’ve got top take away layups. If we can keep them on the perimeter shooting jump shots that are contested, we’ll live with that. They’re going to make a bunch of them, but they’re going to miss their share as well,” Scott said. “We can’t let them have the midrange jump shot, open 3s and layups, because if you give them all three, you’re going to lose the game.”