After a 1-4 start that included four blowout losses and speculation that head coach Jeff Bzdelik might lose his job, Boykins and the Nuggets had to shorten their sights Thursday night as they took on the world champion Pistons. The idea? To win one game and not worry about what the season might bring.
After two days of practice in which Bzdelik harped on playing with passion, rebounding and defending, the Nuggets finally showed why they were regarded so highly in a number of preseason predictions by beating Detroit 117-109.
Denver's problems sneaked up on a lot of the so-called "experts," myself included. After a 43-win season, the Nuggets signed All-Star forward Kenyon Martin to a seven-year, $92 million contract and it appeared the team was ready to take another step in its climb up the Western Conference. But with their awful start, several issues have become apparent.
First of all, the Nuggets can't shoot straight. Denver shot just 37 percent in its first five games, and their best marksman, Voshon Lenard, has been lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
Second, both big men (Marcus Camby and Nene) played big minutes at crunch time for the Nuggets last season, spreading the floor and making sound decisions to give Carmelo Anthony room to operate. But now, the Nuggets suddenly boast just one solid shooter (Earl Boykins) and a front line that struggles to score in the half court.
As athletic and quick as Martin is, he is not a back-to-the-basket performer, nor is he a jump shooter. Camby is an excellent defender but he isn't much of an offensive threat. The result has been poor offensive execution and a difficulty in scoring enough points to win.
Boykins had a huge night Thursday, scoring a career-high 32 points and repeatedly knocking down big shots, but he's the only reliable threat now on the perimeter. But the area where the Nuggets really excelled last season was in the open floor, where they fed off of steals and blocks (they finished in the top five in both categories) and led the NBA in fast-break points.
Bzdelik's team struggled to run in its first five games, and he blamed a defense that was not attacking and forcing mistakes. Thursday's game was different, as an active and passionate Nuggets squad forced 23 Detroit turnovers to score 25 fast-break points.
Perhaps the best sign from the victory over Detroit was the play of Anthony.
After a difficult summer in which he was relegated to the bench by USA coach Larry Brown during the Olympics, Anthony was chastised by many for his pouting nature during the Games. He described his experience in Athens as "miserable" and his behavior tarnished his reputation by not appreciating the opportunity he had been given.
Moreover, Anthony showed up to training camp out of shape and played very poorly the first five games, settling for long jumpers and neglecting to attack the basket as he did last season. On Thursday, he showed a national television audience why he was such an explosive player as a rookie. He scored on the break, attacked the rim and got to the foul line while playing with joy and passion. He came through with a huge performance and a game-high 34 points in a game Denver desperately needed to win.
For the Nuggets to continue to bounce back from their poor start, they must make a concerted effort to push the ball and play aggressively. They'll have to block shots and force turnovers in order to generate offense, and they'll have to find someone besides Boykins to knock down perimeter shots.
Most of all, the Nuggets have to get great play from their star, Anthony. He must respond to the early-season adversity by focusing on simply playing hard and playing with passion.
If the Nuggets can do those things, they have a chance to reach Boykin's lofty goal of winning a top-four seed in the West. If they don't, it will be a long winter in Denver.