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Defending a lack of defense

Paul Westhead can see clearly now. But for how long? How long before his Denver Nuggets finish on the wrong side of another 165-155 defeat? How long before the Nuggets become the first NBA team to permit a 200-point game?

How long before Westhead's name and the phrase "coach in trouble" become synonymous?

The Nuggets' preseason, mercifully, has ended. So, too, should Westhead's grand experiment with the revolutionary shoot-within-seven-seconds offense.

A former professor of English literature, Westhead is not your everyday basketball coach. An intelligent man, he quotes passages from Shakespeare when describing his coaching methods and the world around him.

But he also is a stubborn man with a me-against-the-world attitude. He has been fired twice from NBA teams. His most recent collegiate success at Loyola Marymount convinced Westhead the system can _ and will _ work in the pros.

"I am a fast-paced coach," said Westhead, who coached the Chicago Bulls in 1983-84 and guided the Lakers to the NBA title in 1980. "No, I stand corrected. I am the fastest-paced coach. And I will accept any and all criticism because of that.

"This is what I do. The people who hired me know that. They didn't ask me to walk the ball up the court. Everyone in the league runs basically the same stuff; 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.

"My goal, starting out, win or lose, is that our opponents will be very, very tired," said Westhead. "In my college experience at Loyola Marymount, we scored as high as 181 points. Now, we have eight more minutes."

At the current pace, Denver is on course to shatter league records for most points scored and allowed in a season.

In eight preseason games, Denver (2-6) averaged 143.9 points _ nearly 18 points higher than the NBA record of 126.5 established by Denver in 1981-82. The Nuggets,

however, were invisible on defense, permitting an incredible 163.6 points nightly _ nearly 38 points higher than the league mark of 126.0 also set by Denver in 1981-82.

No Denver opponent scored fewer than 137 points. Atlanta scored 194, Phoenix dropped in 186 and Boston 173. High-scoring Golden State opens the season at Denver on Friday night.

No team has ever scored 200 points in a regular-season game. With Westhead joining the league, 200 points is a reasonable goal.

"I always thought I would be the first coach to have a 200-point game," Westhead said, "but I never thought I would be the one having it done to."

The fastbreak offense, any fastbreak offense, gets rolling on the principle that layups are easier to make than jump shots.

A fastbreak normally starts with a defensive rebound, so the first priority of a breaking team is to control the boards. Most teams rely on two rebounders and send three men out on the break. Teams with a dominating center can release four men downcourt.

Denver does not possess a dominating big man _ it ranked 23rd in rebounding last year. The Nuggets hope to compensate by running off the inbounds pass following an opponents' made basket and foul shots.

Simply put, Denver's fastbreak is an attitude. Everybody runs.

"We're going to run a fastbreak system that will take shots within 5-6-7 seconds upon possession. We'll try to generate that for as many possessions as we get in a game," said Westhead.

In Westhead's world, defense is offense, and offense is defense.

"We will use full-court pressure defense. Deny defense. Traps. We're going to try and generate an opportunity for our opponents to score or attempt to score as frequently as we would like to. I'm trying to create a pace at both ends. Both are equally important. Both, ultimately, play off one another."

The words flow effortlessly, relentlessly, and it is not difficult to understand that Westhead believes every word.

"I've run this break since 1975 and I'm very comfortable with it. The only thing that ever held it back was the slower pace of our opponents when they had the ball. Over the last few years of instituting the full-court defense, I found the ultimate answer. If I can get my defense to work for me, nothing can stop the offense."

Westhead knows he has nothing to lose. He knows the Nuggets' new owners hired him to improve sagging attendance. Denver ranked 22nd in the NBA last year (12,668 a game), so why not give the fans a show for their money? Westhead replaces Doug Moe, whose teams were swept in the opening round of the playoffs the past two seasons.

Denver's offense is designed to wear down opponents. Running teams want to force teams to play their ninth and 10th men, reducing their overall effectiveness. But running teams have to be deep, too, and the Nuggets are not.

"I'm sure he's re-evaluating a little bit with the talent he has," said Phoenix Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, whose team beat Denver 186-123 in the Nuggets' first game under Westhead. "He'll probably try to find a happy medium between racehorse up the floor and push it up the floor."

"The system won't change," said Westhead.

Westhead believes in the system even when the league's 26 other coaches don't. He has staked his reputation in making this thing work.

He is all alone.

Around the league

Hawks: Atlanta may be severely hampered by injuries when they open the regular season Friday against the Orlando Magic. Forward Alexander Volkov must have surgery to repair broken bones in both wrists. He could be out for three to five months. Center Jon Koncak has a sprained ankle, and leading scorer Dominique Wilkins and top rebounder Moses Malone both are having leg problems.

Pistons: Detroit cut guard John McIntyre, trimming its roster to 13 with three days left before the regular-season opener.

Sixers: Philadelphia welcomed forward Jayson Williams, obtained in a trade with the Phoenix Suns. "I grew up watching Julius Erving play here and always wished I could play for Philadelphia," said Williams 22. "Now my dream has come true."

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