Nuggets relish rare three-day rest after facing Western Conference gauntlet to start season: “We had a lot of bumps and bruises”

If the Nuggets were as young as their next opponent, the last three days might have been handled differently.

But the Nuggets aren’t the Houston Rockets. They aren’t an upstart, largely overlooked team exceeding expectations early in the season and trying to stay hot. They’re more experienced and, yes, probably more tired — a defending champion roster dealing with a short offseason, an injury to a core player and an unkind schedule the first two weeks of the season. The first nine games were cramped into 16 days, including a five-in-seven stretch.

So when Denver gets granted a rare three-day gap between games, rigorous workouts aren’t an emphasis.

“For us, it’s probably different. For a young team that’s trying to find their way in the NBA, you probably practice a lot more than we did,” Nuggets lead assistant coach David Adelman said Saturday. “I think we needed rest. Our main five guys, outside of Jamal (Murray) with the injury, have played a ton of minutes. So it’s nice to take a couple days to be on the court, but no contact. Keep it light. Then today, we got up and down as much as we could with respect to an early game tomorrow.”

The Rockets (5-3) have surprised the Western Conference with the effectiveness of their starting lineup, which has an average age of 23.8 years even after the free agent additions of Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks. The Nuggets’ starting five, by comparison, has an average age of 28.8 in its current form with Reggie Jackson replacing Murray.

“I feel OK,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “A little fatigue here and there.”

Excluding the All-Star break and an up-in-the-air schedule gap in early December that might end up occupied by a tournament trip to Las Vegas, this is one of only two occasions on the 2023-24 calendar when the Nuggets (8-1) get three days between games. The other is in February. Denver canceled a full practice that was originally scheduled Friday, prioritizing treatment and recovery.

“We had a lot of bumps and bruises that we needed to get looking at,” Caldwell-Pope admitted.

“I think it’s gonna refuel our guys,” Adelman said while coach Michael Malone was out Saturday to watch his daughter in the CHSAA state volleyball tournament at Denver Coliseum. “I think it can lead to some sloppy play when you come back and play a regular-season game, but I think the guys handled it the right way.”

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The Rockets signed Jeff Green away from Denver during the offseason, formulating a new combination of high-end recent draft talent with experience. Young assets Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun are leading the charge in scoring, and the latter is receiving Nikola Jokic-esque hype.

The Nuggets will visit Houston twice in the next two weeks, the second of which is for the group stage finale in the in-season tournament. As of the weekend, the Rockets and Nuggets are the only teams in Group West B sitting at 1-0 in the tournament standings.

“Free agency was good to them. It doesn’t surprise me,” Adelman said. “They’ve got winning players, guys that have played in the playoffs. Obviously we all know Jeff (Green), but Fred VanVleet, Dillon Brooks, they’re winners. You take a blend of young talent, and you put them with people that understand the process of how to do this, and you’re gonna have success. So they’ve been impressive. They’re playing extremely hard.”

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