DENVER (AP) — Brian Shaw and his team hit the road just when it appeared like the coach might be run out of town.
A good time to escape for the Denver Nuggets, especially given the squad’s early season woes.
After a 2-1 trip that included a win over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the hot seat for Shaw has slightly cooled. Make no mistake, the Nuggets are still very much a work in progress as they try to regroup and get back on track in the unforgiving Western Conference.
For the moment, the critics aren’t quite as loud even with the team off to its worst start (3-7) since 2002-03, when the Nuggets began 2-8 on their way to a 17-65 record.
“We’re under fire in a lot of different ways, but no matter what, we have to stick together in this room. We have to have each other’s back,” Shaw said Monday night after a 106-97 win over the Cavs. “People are attacking us from everywhere. The only way we can shut everybody up is by our actions on the floor.”
Nearly a week ago, it looked as though Shaw’s days in Denver just may be numbered. The team had dropped six straight, which included giving up 84 points in the first half at home to Portland.
Shaw’s team was faltering. His tactics were questioned. His motives second-guessed.
Once a fast-paced, make-opposing-players-gasp-for-air sort of team under former coach George Karl, the Nuggets were suddenly stuck between a desire to sprint and slow it down to run more of a half-court offense under Shaw.
“It’s a process,” said Shaw, whose team hosts Oklahoma City on Wednesday night. “But the reality of the situation is last year, our front office was new, our coaching staff was new.”
They finished 36-46 last season — 21 wins less than Karl had when he was named coach of the year before being let go. They also missed the postseason for the first time since ’03.
To revamp the roster and add more leadership, Denver traded for Arron Afflalo in the offseason. The team also agreed to a four-year, $50 million contract extension with Kenneth Faried, an explosive player known as the “Manimal” who’s long been a fan favorite.
Still, the Nuggets struggled out of the gate, even with the return of injured players such as Danilo Gallinari (knee).
The low point was against the Blazers, when the Nuggets were torched for 84 points in the first half. It was the most points scored in the first half by a Denver opponent since Phoenix scored an NBA-record 107 points on Nov. 10, 1990.
The Nuggets walked off the court to a sound they weren’t exactly accustomed to — boos from the Pepsi Center crowd.
Following that game, Shaw gave a brief statement before stepping away, not wanting to say something he would later regret.
The next day, Shaw told media members that if the effort doesn’t pick up, “I won’t survive it. And it’s that simple.”
The message sunk in as the team embarked on its trip east.
The Nuggets snapped out of their funk in Indiana, the place where Shaw spent two seasons before arriving in the Mile High City. With that victory, talk of his dismissal went down a few decibels on local sports radio.
But then the Nuggets lost to the Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks in New York, a game in which Ty Lawson scored the lone basket for the Nuggets in the second quarter on a last-second layup. New York outscored Denver 31-8 in the quarter to blow the game open.
One again, chatter about the ineffectiveness of the Nuggets picked up.
On Monday, during the second night of a back-to-back and against one of the league’s top teams in the Cavs, Denver took control as Lawson scored 24 points and Afflalo added 23.
Beating the Big Three of James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving was a big boost to the team’s psyche. Possibly a rallying point going forward, too.
That’s what Shaw’s hoping anyway.
“It might not have been a big game for them, but it was a big game for us,” Shaw said. “More so than anything, it shows if we defend the way we defended (Monday) and play together and we play with the kind of the heart we showed, we can beat any team on any given night.”
– By Pat Graham, AP Sports Writer
AP freelancer Brian Dulik in Cleveland contributed
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