DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 17: Emmanuel Mudiay #0 of the Denver Nuggets handles the ball against the New Orleans Pelicans on November 17, 2017 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
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Five Off-the-Radar Areas Fueling the Nuggets Fast Start

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider

On Tuesday, the Nuggets will play their 20th game of the season, when they face the Utah Jazz. Prior to the season, coach Michael Malone was vocal about not getting out to a losing record in the first 20 games. Check. An over-.500 record is already clinched.

Many of the reasons for the Nuggets successful start are obvious. The play of Nikola Jokić. Game-clinching plays made by newcomer Paul Millsap before he went down with a wrist injury. An improved defense, etc. But what else is helping? Here are five detail items that are fueling the Nuggets’ rise.

1. Getting to the paint and kicking out: Paint touches. You’ve heard the term. Or maybe you haven’t. Basically, it’s anytime the ball is in possession of a ball-handler in the paint. It is pertinent because guards driving into the lane forces help defenders, which opens up shooters at the 3-point line. The Nuggets have been collecting paint touches at a very high level this season, and it has helped generate a ton of open shots. Spot-up shooting is the Nuggets most used action, and it is made possible by constant attacking from guards. Never was this on better display than in the Nuggets’ win at Sacramento on Nov. 20. The Nuggets hit 15 3-pointers that night, and the persistent act of driving into the paint and passing out to open shooters was the chief reason why.

2. Kenneth Faried’s free throw shooting: This has been one of the under-the-radar improvements on the team this season. Kenneth Faried has been the best he’s ever been in making shots from the charity stripe, shooting a career-high 74.1 percent. And he’s been even better in fourth quarters, making 87.5 percent of his tries, which was on full display in the Nuggets’ win over Memphis last Friday. Faried went 5-for-6 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter of that game. Faried has improved his free throw percentage in each of the last two seasons, but this, so far, has been a breakthrough campaign at the line for the power forward.

3. Third quarters at home: Whatever the halftime message is in home games, Nuggets coach Michael Malone might just want to record it and play it back every night. In third quarters at the Pepsi Center, his team has outscored opponents an average of 28.0-25.3, is shooting 50.2 percent from the field, and collects assists on 70 percent of their 10.6 field goal makes. Defensively, the Nuggets are active with 2.2 steals and 1.3 blocks. And every time they’ve had a lead at the end of the period they’ve gone on to win the game. The Nuggets are 6-0 in those situations at the Pepsi Center. They are 8-2 overall in home games this season.

4. Emmanuel Mudiay keeping his dribble on baseline drives: And you thought this was going to be about his shooting, which, incidentally, has been the best of his career both from the field (40.6 percent thus far) and from the 3-point line (42 percent). His play off the bench has been vital in a few early-season wins. But this is about Mudiay making sure he’s a constant threat with the basketball. On drives that lead him toward the baseline, he’s largely eliminated jumping in the air with nowhere to pass. Now, he’s keeping his dribble alive all the way past the basket, curling back into the lane and finding teammates or an open look at the rim for himself. It has made him more of a threat, kept the pressure on the defense, and is a simple play that has resulted in points on many occasions.

Active hands: Being more aggressive on defense is one thing. Validating the extra activity by getting hands on basketballs is another. The Nuggets are among the league leaders in deflections per game, collecting 14.7 per night. And what that’s doing, even if the Nuggets don’t get the steal on a deflection, is throwing the opposing offense off rhythm, off schedule, and in late shot clock situations, making them have to scramble just to get a decent shot off. Gary Harris and Nikola Jokić are among the best on the team at deflecting passes, and in some cases getting the steal. All of this has boosted the team’s effectiveness in pick-and-roll defense, but the Nuggets’ added activity and energized hands this season has been key to an overall improved defense.

Christopher Dempsey: and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.