Nuggets practice “average at best,” Denver’s frontcourt still kindling new romance

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DENVER — Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone gave his team the day off Wednesday after a rigorous training camp and preseason schedule that came to a conclusion Tuesday night, when the Nuggets fell 96-86 in Denver's preseason finale.

The Nuggets shot just 33 percent from the field in the loss and many of their jump shots came up short — a direct side effect of tired legs. After the game, Malone blamed fatigue and how hard he's worked his guys in practice.

"We were exhausted," Malone said at practice Thursday.

After a rest day, Denver got right back into the swing of things Thursday with what Darrell Arthur described as "the hardest practice of the season."

"It was alright. I thought it was an average at best practice," Malone said to a group of huddled reporters. "I think it was good to have a day off because I think they needed it and it was well-deserved but the flip-side of that is after a day off, they have to be ready to work when they come back in the gym and I thought today for the first time in a while where I didn't think we had a very have a competitive, spirited practice and obviously that cant happen with seven days to go before our opener."

After starting last season 3-7 and his first season with the Nuggets 5-5,  7-13 record, Malone and his staff are putting an extra emphasis on a hot start this year. And although Denver's schedule opens with five of their first seven games on the road, the Nuggets' late-October east coast trip presents winnable games at Charlotte, Atlanta, Brooklyn and New York.

Malone is calling on his veterans, like Paul Millsap, to turn things around on the practice court.

"I told them at the end of practice, let's not wait until the end of practice to talk about having a shitty practice," Malone said. "Let's nip it in the butt early and change it. I've been in the league a long time, some of the hardest practices are after an off day."

Millsap cited the temperature in Pepsi Center for Thursday's lackluster hour and 45-minute session.

"It was like 40-degrees in here earlier," Millsap said. "That's what I'm blaming it on."

The goal for Denver's six remaining practices before their regular-season opener Oct. 18 in Utah is to get their bodies right and to keep installing their playbook, terminology, offense and defense with a few new faces on the roster that are set to receive heavy minutes.

With just five preseason games — down from the seven or eight that most teams played last year — and just over two weeks since training camp opened in Boulder on Sep. 26, Millsap "feels like things have been rushed."

"Everything's crammed together," the 32-year-old said while leaning against the north wall of Denver's practice court. "You got to fit a lot of information, a lot of material into a short period of time, which is tough but the end game is hopefully beneficial."

Millsap's learning an entirely new offense from the one he played in Atlanta over the past four seasons and the Nuggets are also installing a new defensive scheme that they only played at certain points last year.

The starting power forward also has to learn how to play alongside another ball-dominant big in Nikola Jokic, something he didn't have to do as much with the Hawks. That tandem is still working out the kinks but coming together gradually.

"I think they're probably on their second or third date," Malone said about the two bigs. "Trying to get comfortable, still holding hands, getting a feel for each other and kind of seeing how it goes from there. I see progress."

Jokic and Millsap have had their ups-and-downs this preseason. The two had their best-combined showing in the Nuggets' preseason opener in Golden State where they combined for 34 points and 17 rebounds and backed that up with a 27-point combined effort against the Lakers a few nights later.

Millsap didn't fair well against the Thunder on Tuesday and he finished with just six points on 2-8 shooting and five rebounds in 19 minutes. The big man pairing will need to be on their A-game when Denver opens the season against the Jazz, who start one of the best frontcourts in the league in Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert.

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