DETROIT – Christian Braun attacked his minutes Thursday night like a dog salivating over red meat.
Throughout an inconsistent campaign, Braun has stayed even-keeled, unperturbed when the minutes come and go. But more often than not, when Nuggets coach Michael Malone has opted for the poised rookie, he’s delivered.
Such was the case against the Pistons, when the Nuggets desperately needed to snap a four-game losing streak, and Braun was a fixture of the lineup that swung the game.
Throughout the first five-plus minutes of the fourth quarter, the Nuggets outscored Detroit 11-5, which created the rare advantage while Nikola Jokic rested. Denver’s much-maligned bench unit took shape, with Braun, Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, Thomas Bryant and Jamal Murray bridging the gap between starters and reserves.
Asked pointedly what he wanted the identity of that unit to be, Malone distilled the priorities succinctly.
“I want that identity to be defend, rebound, run, be nasty, be physical, and get some easy baskets off that defense,” Malone said after his team won 119-100, pulling away in the second half due to a stingy defensive effort, particularly on the glass.
In Braun, Brown, Green and Bryant, the Nuggets have size, athleticism, energy, and muscle. In Murray, they have an offensive focal point. The casualty of that group has been buyout addition Reggie Jackson, whose presence, next to Brown and Murray, is somewhat redundant in skillset. Nonetheless, Malone championed Jackson’s professionalism and vowed he’d help the Nuggets moving forward.
But the decision to play Braun, who finished with nine points, three rebounds, two steals and a block, instead of Jackson, has unlocked that unit’s defensive potential.
According to Malone, Braun’s become “a hard kid to keep off the floor because he just makes winning play after winning play.”
In Braun and Brown, who added three steals and two blocks, Denver has a versatile defensive pairing that can help mirror their tandem among the starters in Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The combination of all four could be suffocating in the postseason.
Though just a rookie, Braun already sees what will define that group’s success.
“This might sound super simple, but that second unit is so much better when we get stops because the second unit’s really good in transition,” he told The Post.
In one key sequence, Detroit got scrambled on defense while focusing on Murray, inadvertently leaving Braun open in the corner. The hesitation was all Murray needed to dish to Braun, who stepped confidently into a clutch 3-pointer.
“A lot of confidence,” Murray told The Post when he was asked about Braun. “He’s playing with confidence. He’s running the floor, rebounding, making the most of his opportunity, not getting frustrated when he’s out of the game. We need him to continue to do that and be ready for playoffs.”
Asked specifically about that grouping, Murray interjected before the question was over.
“Rebounding,” he said. “… Once they only got one shot, the game was pretty easy after that.”
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After snagging 20 second-chance points in the first half, Denver shut off Detroit’s water in the second half. The Pistons managed just three second-chance points in the second half – a point of pride among the team Thursday night.
It was only one game, against a team that was trying to lose at that, but the Nuggets’ second unit is beginning to take shape with only 12 games remaining before the playoffs. In terms of attitude, toughness, rebounding and defense, Braun has proven he deserves a chance to be a staple.
What do those traits constitute?
“Winning attributes,” Malone said.
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