I am not sure if I should look forward to playing Oklahoma City or not. On one hand, the nip and tuck nature of these two games has been completely draining. On the other the sweet thrill of victory puts a hop in my step and a song in my heart (Livin’ on a Prayer by Bon Jovi is somewhat appropriately currently streaming through my arteries).
Before we get to the causes for the big turnaround we need to look at how the Nuggets found themselves down by 16 in the second quarter. The Nuggets were up five points, 38 to 22, with 10:19 left I the quarter. Just over seven minutes, and some of the worst basketball the Nuggets have played all year, later Denver was behind 58 to 42. That is right, they were outscored 25 to four and that includes a 15 to zero run.
The Nuggets had two primary issues during that stretch. First of all, they were getting decent shots, but they were just missing them. There were a plethora of layup attempts and short open jumpers that just did not go down. As a result of all those missed shots the Thunder players led by Earl Watson and Russell Westbrook scored layup after layup in transition. That was the real problem and the reason why Oklahoma City dumped 39 on the Nuggets in the second quarter.
The Nuggets guards, Anthony Carter, J.R. Smith and Dahntay Jones did a terrible job of slowing the Thunder guards down. Anthony Carter was especially bad. He would set himself up at the three point line and then just watch as the offensive player, who obviously has the benefit of momentum, blow past him. In a situation like that you need to set yourself up beyond where you want to start to slow the dribbler and begin to give way as he approaches. If you are not going at full speed by the time he reaches you the only way to be anything other than a shinny blue billboard on his way to the basket is to become a speed bump and just throw yourself at his feet and take him out.
The Nuggets were able to get the gap back down to 11 at the half and heading into the third quarter I had one reason for hope and that was I knew the Nuggets were going to stop switching screens in the second half and that we could expect a better scheme to slow the Thunder down. In the first half on the few occasions the Thunder had to set up their half court offense Denver was burned time and again by switching screens. The Nuggets repeated their performance from the previous night against the Spurs as there were times when only one defender switched the screen. I have no idea how at this point in the season these guys have such a difficult time getting on the same page defensively. Either you are switching or you are not.
Denver also suffered from rotation breakdowns that we have seen in the past. They would have one or two players rotate, but then when it came time for the next rotation no one arrived resulting in open jumpers for the Thunder Threesome.
The Nuggets played much smarter and more together on defense in the second half. There were two big keys to that in my mind. One was as I mentioned, they stopped switching screens and secondly the big men started jumping the ball handler on the pick and roll. Nene and Chris Andersen did a good job trapping along the sideline and that additional ball pressure, believe it or not, made a big difference. Go figure. Add in the fact the Nuggets continued to score and thus did not give the Thunder a chance to run and the result was a paltry 43 second half points for Oklahoma City.
The last topic that jumped out at me was the battle of wits between George Karl and Scott Brooks as both coaches had the chance to draw up two plays in the closing seconds.
The first play was drawn up by Karl. The game was tied at 111 with 29 seconds left. J.R. Smith threw the ball in from the riht sideline to Melo who came off a down screen by AC. J.R. ran off a baseline screen by Nene and received a pass from Melo on the left wing. He made a ball fake right and then drove left on Weaver drawing a foul. He once again showed that he is unclutch form the line as he only made one of two free throws. The decision to get J.R. the ball was a good one as he was on fire for most of the night. Having him pass the ball in from and then run along the baseline screen to get open was sound. As a secondary option J.R. had the opportunity to dump the ball to Nene who was covered by Westbrook after Nick Collison left Nene to cut off J.R.’s penetration.
Brooks now had the chance to devise a play of his own down 112-111 with 22 seconds on the clock. His play may have been simpler, but it was more effective. Westbrook entered the ball from the left sideline to Durant who was freed by a down screen by Collison. Durante then dribbled to the middle of the floor and just blew by Dahntay wit his right hand and flew to the rim for a layup. Secondary options included a kick out to Jeff Green had Melo helped off to stave off the driving lane and Collison was crashing from the weak side.
The ball was once again in Karl’s court down 113-112 and with 17 seconds on the clock. He chose to get the ball to Melo and allow him to create. Ac inbounded the ball on the left sideline and Melo was freed up by a down screen by Nene. Westbrook was guarding the inbounds pass and he started to flare out towards Melo as he neared half court. Carter was forced to toss a little lob to Melo and he had a difficult time catching it. Had Westbrook gone after it, he might have corralled a game saving steal. Melo was able to latch onto the ball in the backcourt and settled in the middle of the court with Jeff Green crouched in his defensive stance in front of him. Melo made his move with about nien seconds on the clock. Russell Westbrook was cheating over off of Carter to help if Melo drove right. The key to the play was having J.R., who did not miss a three all game long, set up on the left wing. Weaver could not risk leaving J.R. to help out on the drive. Knowing this Melo beat Green off the dribble with his left hand and did not encounter any resistance until Collison came over to help inside the charge circle. Melo somehow managed to flip the ball in with his right hand while being squeezed by Green on his right and Collison on his left. I have no idea how it managed to float into the net. It was a truly awkward shot. Melo’s secondary option would have been to kick the ball out to J.R. had Weaver helped.
Once again down one point and this time with 5.3 seconds on the clock Brooks had to answer. Being down only one with that much time left on the clock I expected something similar to the previous play where Durant simply drove right to the rim. Instead Brooks had Westbrook inbound the ball to Collison. Westbrook cut to Collison and received the ball on a handoff. AC was well behind Westbrook and Nene switched off. This all happened in 1.2 seconds and Westbrook now has the ball in the middle of the floor well above the three point line. Durant, who had started on the weak side of the floor on the baseline, runs off a double screen up the left side with Green and Collison attempting to brush off Dahntay. AC who had switched onto Collison jumped out at Durant and forced him to receive the pass from Westbrook running away from the rim about 30 feet from the basket. There is only 1.9 seconds left on the clock when Durant receives the pass. He manages to turn and fire a 35 foot turnaround fade away that catches a lot of rim, but bounces helplessly away. There really was no time for a second option as the play took so long to develop and KD received the pass running away from the basket. Had there been an extra second or two on the clock and Durant had been able to dribble a few times it would have been fine. I also wonder if Collison was supposed to set his screen deeper. As it was, he was at the three point line and that forced Durant to curl further away from the rim than Brooks had hoped. I certainly expected the Thunder to get a better shot off than they did in that situation.
I will also add that was the correct situation to be switching screens. When time is short and you cannot afford to let a player like Durant get an open look switching on the perimeter is the right decision. I think it was important that Melo did not switch the first screen that Green set for Durant as Green could have easily slipped into the lane for a layup with no one in position to help on the weak side. It was a well executed scheme by the Nuggets.
Denver now has a day to rest and then faces the team with the worst record in the entire league, the Washington Wizards on Friday night. I would expect Chauncey and Kenyon to play.
Additional Game 49 Nuggets
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 96.0 – Both teams like to play fast.
Defensive Efficiency: 117.7 – I wish I could have calculated the defensive efficiency by half. I bet the first half was about 135 and the second half about 100.
Offensive Efficiency: 118.7 – Considering they were missing Chauncey that is pretty good.