The NBA's version of video basketball made its first appearance in Utah, Thursday night in the Salt Palace, when the Jazz take on the Denver Nuggets. The league's resident curiosity piece is in town and ready to fire away once again - critics notwithstanding.
All the interest in the Nuggets is solely based on the new system installed by first-year Coach Paul Westhead, who announced when he took the job last summer that he would transplant his frenetic Loyola-Marymount attack in the midst of the NBA. His philosophy: The only good player is one putting up a shot. The plan was to take a shot within five to seven seconds of possession, every time down the court. There would be pressure defense, traps and, obviously, a lot of people gasping for air. Scores would look like your social security number. Westhead called it "the offense of the future," and promised it would "knock your socks off.""Everyone in the league runs basically the same stuff," Westhead was quoted as saying. "Everybody plays the same game of Monopoly. Well, I'm going to try to play Parcheesi. I'm going to try to change the game a little bit."
He certainly did, though not necessarily for the good. The pace not only helped Denver get high scores; opponents quickly learned to break the press or get long rebounds and convert them into easy baskets at the other end. The Nuggets lost to Golden State, 162-158 in their season opener, as the two teams combined to score more points in a regulation-length game than any in league history. San Antonio scored 161 on the Nuggets, Phoenix 173 and Portland 155. The Nuggets lost their first seven games, tying a franchise record to start a season, and didn't get thir first win until Nov. 15 when they beat Minnesota. But that was followed by four more losses.
All totaled, the Nuggets are 5-15 and only a half-game away from last place in the Midwest Division.
Predictably, the Nuggets have been fodder for criticism. Ex-NBA Coach Alex Hannum called Westhead's approach "crap-a-doodle." San Antonio center David Robinson said playing Denver leaves one free to "go in and get your dunks."
Westhead's response to the critics: "What? Surrender?"
Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan takes the high road on the subject. "I certainly am not one to judge other people," he said.
In fairness, the helter-skelter attack used in the early going has been tempered somewhat. The enormous scores are gradually subsiding, and the Nuggets are starting to look a little bit like an NBA team, having won two games in a row (over Charlotte and Washington). The defense is a little less frantic, the shots a little less rapid-fire, and the point totals the last three games have been more believable (about 126 per game for Denver).
"Really, they've backed off a little from what they were doing. They're more in the mold of a Golden State," said Jazz assistant coach Phil Johnson. "They're not taking their shots quite as quick and not pressing and trapping as much."
The Nuggets' problems probably weren't entirely due to the type of offense. Denver went through a major overhaul during the summer thanks to a series of trades that included the departure of mainstays Fat Lever and Alex English. Coach Doug Moe was fired and Westhead hired. Guard Michael Adams missed the early season with a hamstring injury. When he returned on Nov. 21, the team began to improve.
Orlando Woolridge has used the system to become the league's No. 1 scorer (30.1 ppg).
Despite a settling of sorts by the Nuggets, Thursday's game still promises to be an intriguing contrast in styles - The Road Runner vs. Andre the Giant. The Jazz, who are third in the league in scoring defense (97.1), are taking on a team that averages 129 points a game (highest in the NBA).
"I haven't seen them play," said Jazz guard Jeff Malone, "but I've heard that basically they let you score, huh?"
While most of the league laughs at the Nuggets, the Jazz appear to be taking them seriously, until further notice. Said guard John Stockton, "There's a certain amount of anxiety when you play a team like that. It's kind of like a mystery."
Notes: The Jazz Sub for Santa program will continue Thursday night. Fans are encouraged to bring new, unwrapped gifts, wrapping paper, clothing and other essentials to the game . . . Karl Malone has averaged 30 points over the last five games. . . Jeff Malone has scored in double figures in 18 of the 19 Jazz games he's played in . . . Utah and Denver are tied with 38 wins apiece in their alltime series . . . The game will be aired live on PSN, with the pregame at 7 p.m.