Good, bad, and ugly: It has not been pretty, but Denver is 7-1

Denver Nuggets forward Juancho Hernangomez (41) warms up before the game against the Houston Rockets at the Pepsi Center.
Feb 25, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Juancho Hernangomez (41) warms up before the game against the Houston Rockets at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets went into Thursday night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 6-1 record which marked their best start since the 1985-86 season. Denver’s offense has not been humming like expected, the defense has been up and down each game, and the wins had been coming in a ugly way.

Still, what matters most is the wins were coming.

On Thursday night Denver got their most convincing win of the season in a 110-91 beating against the Cavaliers and now the Nuggets are now off to a 7-1 start to the season — the best start in over 40 years. With that, I give you the good, bad and ugly.

The Good – Second unit, second quarter

Denver’s starters came out sluggish. It was the second night of a back-to-back and the Nuggets were lacking motivation early in the game. That is when Denver looked to their second unit to pick them up and they stepped up once again. After trailing by 12 points heading into the second quarter it was the Nuggets reserves that gave them the lead back at 39-38 with just over three minutes remaining in the second quarter and Denver did not look back from that point forward.

The second quarter was when the Nuggets finally started getting things going, not only on offense, but on defense as well. While the starters looked lethargic to start, the second unit came in and quickly gained momentum. 15 points was all that the Nuggets could manage to put up in the first quarter, but immediately put together one of Denver’s best quarters of the season thereafter. Denver put up 35 points in the quarter and limited the Cavaliers to just 15 points. Denver went on a 30-9 run at one point and did not allow Cleveland’s offense to score a field goal for over four minutes.

The standout for the second unit was Juancho Hernangomez.

Hernangomez registered his first DNP-CD of the season in Wednesday night’s game against the Chicago Bulls, but he responded by having one of his best games of the season Thursday against the Cavaliers. He was a +18 on the night as he impacted the game as soon as he entered in the second quarter. He provided the spark that Denver desperately needed and finished with a game-high 23 points on 6-10 shooting from the field. He not only made an argument for more minutes, but showed that he can be a consistent contributor in the rotation.

The Bad – Another rough start

I’m unsure if fans have caught on yet, but the Cavaliers are not the team that they have been for the past few years. LeBron James, the franchise-leader in points, rebounds, steals and assists, is now on the Los Angeles Lakers. On top of that, their all-star power forward Kevin Love is out for another few weeks with a toe injury. Even with all of those negatives, in the opening quarter it looked as if the Cavaliers were the better team and could win the game.

Cleveland came out and appeared to want it more as Denver started out flat. Denver played in a hard-fought overtime game Wednesday night against the Bulls so fatigue definitely played its part, but that was no excuse for the type of effort that was given in the first 12 minutes of the game.

A lack of energy and effort has been one of the biggest areas of concern for the Nuggets all season long and an issue that Malone said that Denver would have to fix heading into the season. They allowed the Cavaliers to go on a 7-0 run early in the game and their struggles continued for the rest of the frame. Denver shot only 6-17 from the field and 1-6 from beyond the arc to end the first quarter. Denver trailed by double-digits heading into the second quarter where the second unit ended up saving the day.

Far too often the second unit has been the group to get Denver back in games instead of maintaining and extending a lead. It is great to know that Denver can rely on their second unit, but that should not be the go-to option as often as it has for Denver early in this season. The starters have to find a way to come out with more energy; especially on the offensive end. Allowing the opposing team to continue to start with a lead is a trend that Denver must end.

The Ugly – Craig starting

It is difficult to tell a coach that there should be changes made to the starting unit when the team is off to their best start in over 40 years, but there has to be some thought about it when looking at how Denver has started out games.

Malone placed Torrey Craig in the starting unit when Will Barton went down with a hip injury weeks ago against the Phoenix Suns. By placing Craig in the starting unit it provided Denver with defense as he matches up well as a traditional small forward, but his play on the offensive end and Denver’s consistent slow starts offensively has left much to be desired. Maybe a shakeup of adding Hernangomez or even Malik Beasley to the starting lineup could be beneficial until Barton returns.

In six games, Craig is averaging 6.0 and 4.0 rebounds a game. He has not consistently knocked down open looks, the starting unit around him has come out slow and his lack of outside shooting has led to defenses packing the paint against Denver’s starters.

In that same time frame Beasley is averaging 6.7 points and 2.7 rebounds. Hernangomez is averaging 7.6 points and 3.0 rebounds a game and both players have provided spacing with their ability to knock down shots, energy with their hustle, and an ability to defend. Both Hernangomez and Beasley also have a positive plus-minus and have made the case to be placed with the starters as their presence has added plenty to the second unit.

Craig is a player that has put in the work and deserves to play. He should definitely be in the rotation as he is critical to the Nuggets success. Maybe by placing him back with the second unit Denver could possibly start out games stronger.

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