New look Nuggets up to their old tricks

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The streaking Nuggets are 10-6, good enough for sixth in the West. Weren't they supposed to fall apart?

TORONTO -- Masai Ujiri is standing outside the visitors locker room at the Air Canada Centre. It's halftime, and his new club is facing his old one. The Raptors general manager is chatting with Denver Nuggets scout Jared Jeffries, and you wish you could interrupt. You'd like to ask what he thinks about George Karl calling Andre Iguodala a mole on ESPN.

Lots has changed for Denver since last season's first-round exit at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, the series in which then-Nugget, now-Warrior Iguodala averaged 18 points, eight rebounds and five assists per game and served as Denver's best defensive player by a mile. Despite winning 57 games, the franchise altered its course. In June, Ujiri's replacement, Tim Connelly, hired Karl's replacement, first-time head coach Brian Shaw. There was no replacing Iguodala.

Some predicted that the new Nuggets would plummet out of the playoff picture. A month ago, that seemed like the correct call in the crowded Western Conference. Point guard Ty Lawson was frustrated with the offense, unsure how to be aggressive in Shaw's system. Denver went 2-5 in the preseason, then started the regular season 1-4, looking like a team without an identity.

"Early on when we were losing, we were like, ‘What the hell?'" said forward Darrell Arthur. "Man, we didn't know what was going on. Those wins were hard to come by."

Now 16 games in, the Nuggets know who they are and how they need to play. With a 112-98 win in Toronto on Sunday, they've won six straight and nine of their last 11. To call Shaw's tweaks a drastic change in style would be vastly overstating it.

"They were accustomed to playing a certain way last year and I came in talking about stressing playing inside-out, being better in our half-court execution, and those are areas that we still continue to work on," Shaw said. "Because we stressed it so much early on, especially in training camp, I think it was interpreted that we were just going to try to slow the ball down. And that's not the case."

Denver's been the league's third-fastest team, something Shaw said he's completely comfortable with. Over the last three weeks, the Nuggets have ranked third on offensive efficiency and 11th in defensive efficiency. They're piling up points in the paint and can't be stopped in transition.

While Shaw still wants his team to improve on defense and be prepared to play at any pace, Denver is overwhelming teams with speed. Just like last year.

"Right now I think we can beat any team in the league, the way we're playing," Lawson said.

Lawson in particular has put pressure on opposing defenses. He's averaged 20.6 points, 8.2 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game, all career highs. Ditching his habit of starting seasons slowly, the point guard exceeded the standard he set in the second half of last year. It's hard to believe this is the same guy who was struggling with some added structure.

"Anything new, you're going to have an adjustment period," Lawson said. "Preseason and probably the first couple games was my adjustment period. Now I'm just rolling with it. I love it."

Shaw said that aside from Lawson he doesn't know what he's going to get from each individual player from night to night. He has them talking about a "tag-team mentality" and is aware that any of them can step up. Lawson's the only Nugget averaging more than 27.5 minutes per game and Shaw has used an 11-man rotation all year long. The bench scored 72 points on Sunday, the most against the Raptors in franchise history.

Arthur, who finished with 14 points on 7-for-7 shooting, said simply "that's crazy" when he heard the number. A few minutes later, those same words came out of Lawson's mouth, followed by a rhetorical question.

"What bench in the league do you know that can just erupt for 72?" Lawson said. "I think that we have the best bench in the league and it's a luxury for us."

Denver's bench has only been outscored twice this season. Three reserves -- Andre Miller, Nate Robinson and Timofey Mozgov -- played the entire fourth quarter in Toronto. The Nuggets shot 13-for-15 in the period, including 7-for-8 shooting from Robinson.

The point guard scored 18 of his 23 points in the fourth, including back-to-back threes to put the game out of reach. We've all seen this sort of stuff from Robinson before, and it never gets old if you're on his side. Just ask Denver forward Wilson Chandler, who spent his first two and a half years in the league with Robinson as a member of the New York Knicks.

"To me it should be, like, normal," Chandler said. "I've seen him explode a lot of times. It seems like I'll be used to it, but it's still kind of amazing."

The Nuggets closed out the win with an unconventional, super-small lineup featuring Robinson, Lawson and Miller. It was the second straight game in which Shaw went to it in the fourth quarter, if any more evidence was needed that the coach is not a pound-it-into-the-post traditionalist. You could imagine Karl doing the same thing.

After all the upheaval in Denver over the summer, the Nuggets have stuck with what worked: running, sharing the ball and deploying their depth. That's why they're so confident, that's why they're so clearly clicking.

"We pretty much know our roles," Robinson said. "Some teams take forever to get there."

Statistical support provided by NBA.com.

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