I cannot decide if I should feel good about this win or not. Honestly I do not want to feel good about it because of the way Denver played the first and fourth quarters. The Nuggets certainly showed more activity on defense than they did against Boston, but there were still plenty of holes in their defense. Add in the facts that Atlanta was missing two starters and was down eight with only 1:38 left in the game and the Nuggets still needed Flip Murray’s last second runner to bounce off the front of the rim in order to win and I really was left with a sick feeling in my stomach. They were just inches away from a five game losing streak.
Denver appeared to have the game well in hand. After trailing by as many as nine in the second quarter the Nuggets closed the first half on an 18-4 run. They extended their lead to as much as 17 in the third and Melo threw in a deep three pointer at the third quarter buzzer to send the Nuggets into the fourth quarter up 14.
I was thrilled to see the Nuggets had only turned the ball over seven times through the first three quarters. They entered the game averaging 19.5 turnovers per game after the All-Star break lowlighted by their 24 turnovers in Milwaukee. Sadly it took barely more than five minutes in the fourth quarter for the Nuggets to match their total of seven turnovers from the first three quarters. They ended up coughing the ball up ten times in the fourth quarter alone.
Denver’s offense ground to a halt in the fourth quarter and due to a combination of the aforementioned turnovers and stagnant uninspired play they only made four field goals in the quarter. All four were jumpers. The Nuggets did not score a point in the paint over the final 13 minutes. Now that is somewhat misleading as Chauncey did get to the line for six free throws on plays where he drove into, or at least in the vicinity of, the lane and was fouled and J.R. earned a pair of free throws, but apart from those four instances the Nuggets were seemingly always scrambling to fire off a jumper with the shot clock winding down. The key to the Hawks fourth quarter comeback was their 14 points in the paint. Fortunately for Denver the Hawks needed 16 in order to pull off the win.
I am getting off topic though. The story of this game was not the offense, which despite all its problems scored plenty of points with a very good efficiency rating to boot, but the defense. I wanted to see the Nuggets get back to playing tenacious defense as they had done as recently as last Wednesday in Philadelphia. They did not quite get the job done.
I have documented the Nuggets issues with defending the pick and role here and here and I wanted to see a better scheme, increased effort and better execution in that key area of team defense. The Nuggets did indeed come out with a better scheme and they certainly spent a little more energy defending screen and rolls than they did against the Celtics. However, without the execution the scheme and effort are pointless. Well, the execution left much to be desired.
The Hawks got off to a very good start on offense in the first quarter thanks to their ability to get easy baskets through their pick and roll game. The Nuggets switched their scheme from the switching defense that proved so ineffective against the Celtics to a version of the Celtics hedge and recover we looked at yesterday. The Nuggets took it a step further though aggressively trapping he ball handler, bringing weak side help to cover the roll man and then requiring the defender trapping the ball handler to recover back to his man who originally set the screen. If any part of the plan is implemented incorrectly the entire scheme will fail. Pretty much every time the Hawks ran pick and roll action the Nuggets missed at least one of the three elements of the plan. The first pick and roll action the Hawks ran the trap was strong, the weak side help showed, but Kenyon Martin lazily jogged back to his man, Al Horford, and left Johan Petro to cover both Zaza Pachulia and Horford. The result was an easy dunk.
The second time the Hawks ran pick and roll there was no weak side help and Pachulia scored an uncontested dunk.
The third pick and roll set once again Kenyon slowly jogged back to recover and the result was Pachulia left all alone under the hoop. By the time he caught the pass and gathered himself Kenyon showed up, but all the Nuggets could do was foul to prevent another easy bucket.
The fourth time the Hawks ran it, Dahntay Jones forgot that they were not switching anymore and started to leave thus negating the necessity of pressuring the ball handler with the trap. Fortunately the rest of the Nuggets were in good position to prevent anything at the rim, but the Hawks did earn a wide open three that fortunately for Denver clanged off the rim.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. The Nuggets were incredibly lucky that the Hawks basically abandoned the pick and roll game in the second half. Needless to say, I am not filled with encouragement regarding the Nuggets ability to defend this simple set in the future. This trapping scheme is something every player should be comfortable executing, but the Nuggets played like they just installed it yesterday during their off day.
In the fourth quarter, the Hawks ran more isolation sets and had some success early with Marvin Williams. The key to the fourth quarter though was the Hawks desire to have Joe Johnson take the game over contrasted with the Nuggets fear of Johnson taking over. Denver doubled Johnson almost immediately when he caught the ball. The result was they were left scrambling trying to cover either an open shooter or to collapse on the drive. Atlanta did a pretty good job of moving the ball and getting good shots. They had several attempts just rim out and the Nuggets should feel pretty fortunate for that. There were a couple of possessions where the Nuggets chose not to double Johnson and he made them pay with five easy points.
The other thing I wanted to see was some leadership and determination from Chauncey. He certainly played the role of Mr. Big Shot more than Mr. Pass First Point Guard as he lead the Nuggets in shots with 18, but he was aggressive and was able to the line 19 times. I could have done without a couple of the threes he forced up, but ultimately I got the impression he took a great deal of responsibility for getting a win and he came through. I was pleased to see a shot of him talking to J.R. in the fourth quarter and filling the role of coach/mentor on the floor. Chauncey gets a passing grade, but had the Nuggets played a tougher foe I am not sure they walk out of there with the win.
Speaking of tougher foes, I have already stated that I have written off the Laker game on Friday. Even if Nene does play, which apparently is a possibility, the way the Nuggets are defending they will get rolled off the floor. Fortunately the Trail Blazers lost to a Spurs team playing without Manu Ginobili or Tim Duncan so the Nuggets gained a game back on them. That is an important game because Portland will earn it back Friday when they beat the Timberwolves and the Nuggets lose to LA.
Additional Game 58 Nuggets
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 89.6 – Slow for a home game.
Defensive Efficiency: 121.7 – Yikes.
Offensive Efficiency: 122.8 – Thanks to Melo’s marksmanship.
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