2008-09 Game 58: Denver Nuggets 110 – Atlanta Hawks 109

Box Score | Highlights

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

  • Much like the anchor street fight in Anchorman that game escalated quickly at the end.  It also ended very quickly.  If you went to get a soda abruptly.  The Hawks were charged one timeout in the middle of the fourth for a commercial break (after watching the NBA for over 25 years I still do not know exactly how television timeouts work in the pros, but I know they happen).  They called their penultimate timeout about a minute later to avoid getting tied up for a jump ball so they only had one timeout left for the final six minutes of the game.  That one was called with 1:38 left, once again to avoid a jump ball, so the Hawks had their last three timeouts called without Mike Woodson requesting any of them.  The result was a shockingly quick resolution to the game.  There were no timeouts called after the Hawks ran out and the only stoppages in play in the last 98 seconds were to shoot a pair of free throws and to inbound the ball.  Frankly it was disconcerting to have a game end so abruptly.  After the Hawks missed the potential game winning shot I was left expecting there to be more, but that was it.
  • It is easy to look at the point total and the Nuggets’ offensive efficiency for the game, to be unveiled later in this post, and think the Nuggets played well on offense.  Well as we discussed they were far too perimeter oriented.  It took a big game from Melo who was just red hot with both his midrange jumper and three ball to pull out this win.  The fact that Melo only shot two free throws is not a good sign.  He was far too dependent on his jumper, but I guess he could afford to be the way it was falling.
  • I mentioned when Nene went down that the Nuggets should look to post Melo and Chauncey more than they have been.  Both players ventured into the post a couple of times tonight, but not enough for my liking.  The Hawks were doubling Melo pretty frequently, but I think the Nuggets could take better advantage of that style of defense by putting Melo in the post and allowing the double to come there.  Then he can hit cutters or pass out to swing the ball to the weak side.  Melo did have five assists tonight and did a good job of triggering the offense by passing out of the double team.  The impressive thing about Melo’s assists was that they all came in the lane.  He recorded assists passing to cutters, on drive and dish plays and on a pick and roll (with a beautiful bounce pass between defenders to Petro).
  • Petro played another quality game.  He shot well, defended pretty well although he did get confused a couple of times in the pick and roll defense and I think he has earned more playing time even after Nene returns.  He is a very solid third big man and with Nene, Birdman and Petro the Nuggets should feel pretty good about the center position.
  • Dahntay Jones hit two three pointers from the corner tonight, both in the first quarter.  Sorry Dahntay, that does not change anything.  I still do not want you shooting.
  • It seemed to me like the Nuggets pushed the pace from time to time, but they were not credited with any fast break points.  The Hawks on the other hand continued the trend of taking advantage of the Nuggets poor transition defense scoring 15.  There were far too many instances, especially early in the game where Nuggets players were trotting back and not really caring that a Hawk player was either passing or already behind them.
  • J.R. Smith deserves a mention as once again he did a great job attacking the rim.  He also hit two big threes in the last few minutes.  
  • One thing that does not get mentioned enough is the importance of pin point passing when kicking out to a shooter.  On both of J.R.’s aforementioned threes Chauncey made absolutely perfect passes while on the move and in traffic that hit J.R. right in his shooting pocket.  J.R. did not have to move an inch and was able to catch both passes and shoot in perfect rhythm.  Many times you can tell a shooter is probably going to miss a three because the pass is either high, low or offline.  Chauncey almost made those threes for J.R. with his two beautiful passes.
  • I expected to see the Nuggets come out of the gate possessed, but they began the game pretty passive seemingly content to exchange baskets.  That may be another reason I am a little disappointed in the game.  They really should have displayed more fire the game after getting manhandled by 38.

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.

Featured Blog:  Hoopinion

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  • Nuggets4

    OK, I’ve been one of the few defenders of Karl this season, despite the fact that he’s consistently done two things that confuse me (giving LK minutes over Balkman and the never-ending switching disaster that is known as our defense), but for *censored*’s sake — can someone tell me if we have an offensive scheme? This is the second straight game (I don’t count the Boston coathanger experiment as a game) in which we’ve gone down the court at the end of the game and just had a clusterfornication. We’ve already discussed the Milwaukee game ad nauseum where everyone went down there, got in the position where they wanted the ball and then just stood without doing anything to help Chauncey, but what the hell happened last night? We go down the court and Chauncey wanted to get Melo the ball so he could go one-on-one (the smart play). When that wasn’t available though NO ONE DID ANYTHING! Seriously, do we have an offensive scheme in the last minute of a game? Where was K-Mart running a pick & roll for Chauncey? Where was JR slashing? What the hell people? What the hell?

  • BeefySwats

    Hey Jeremy, no mention of Carter? I know on the “8 game” road trip he played much better, but in the past two he’s been awful. Last night he was 0-2 with 4 TOs and contributed greatly to the near-game-breaking fourth quarter collapse last night.

    Agreed about Petro (and Nuggets4 about Balkman). If we have a shooting guard who can’t shoot (Dahntay), why wouldn’t we play the taller, more athletic, better defender (Balkman) who also can’t shoot? At least Balkman can get to the offensive glass and finish in the paint without committing an offensive foul.

    I would like to see this rotation for the remainder of the season:

    C: Nene/Petro
    SG: Balkman/JR/Jones
    PG: Billups/Carter
    SF: Carmelo/Kleiza
    PF: Kenyon/Birdman

    That way you have a strong defensive presence in the second unit with Birdman and Jones if necessary, and can switch JR in/out for instant offense.

  • Othe33

    First – thanks for the great post, Jeremy. Good variety of info and depth.

    I’d like to echo what others are saying here…mainly my frustrations with George Karl.

    I just don’t see him as a top-tier coach. He lacks the ability to improve a player’s skills on either end of the floor, as evidenced by the slow improvement of J.R. A kid with that much talent should be growing exponentially, not stumbling along after three years in the same system. Carmelo takes huge leaps in effort and understanding only after spending time with the national team each summer.

    Karl’s propensity to be biased towards certain players has never been more obvious than this season. The acquisition of Balkman seemed like the perfect way to replace/upgrade the role filled by Eduardo Najera (or El Guapo, as I like to call him). He’s longer, more athletic, and equally as willing to throw his body to the wolves for the team. I’m flabbergasted by his inconsistency in playing time this year. To start him and play him 17 effective minutes against Milwaukee and then relegate him to two consecutive DNP-CD’s in the next two games…I just don’t understand it.

    I want to like GK. He’s old-school, played the game the way it should be played back in his day. I just don’t see an evident passion for this team. He spends the entire game on the bench, rarely defending his players with the referees. As much as I hate Popovich, I really wish George would take a few cues from him. Clearly he knows how to manage personalities, and he always gets more from his role players than anyone else in the league. I shudder to think what JR would do in the Spurs’ system under the influence of a coach who is passionate about his team’s success.

    His defensive schemes and offensive schemes are much maligned on this site, and rightfully so. Often it seems like he’s just trying things, hoping they succeed, and when they don’t he expects a shrug to satisfy those who expect more. This team has the talent to achieve much more, to win at least 55 games. They’ve been relatively injury-free (especially when compared to recent years) and the front office has made great strides to improve the mix on the floor. There are no more excuses for GK to use.

    Karl is not the guy to take this team over the hump. He’s never lead a group to succeed above its talent level. He made some nice runs with Seattle back in the 90’s, but that was a hugely talented team in a relatively weak Western Conference. Of course we all remember the historic upset of that Sonic group at the hands of our beloved 8-seeded Nuggs.

    Unfortunately, I just don’t see an available replacement out there…It’s just too bad that a guy is keeping his job by default.

  • b.archy6

    Uh, Jeremy, I would honestly love to hear an explanation on how you can do a post on this game and not mention, even once, the name Anthony Carter. He was by far the worst player on the court anytime he is out there. His defense is horrible, yet somehow Karl believes he is a good match up for Joe Johnson. Joe f=ing Johnson!!!!! Furthermore, I did a little research and found out that 17% of Carter’s possessions end in a turnover, which is 65th out of 66 pg’s who play at least 6 minutes a game. For comparison, Billups turnover rate is about 9%. Also, his true shooting percentage is 45th out of those 66 pg’s at 50.6%. Chauncey is 5th. Finally, his PER (which I do not totally trust, but still) is 51st, at 10.81, where the league average is 15! Again, Chauncey is 8th at 19.51. Of the players below Carter in PER only 4 of them play more minutes then him. What I’m getting at here is there is clearly a huge drop off at the point when CBill goes out. Carter played especially horrible last night, and pretty much his worst came during crunch time. How much longer will GK keep trying to use him, when it is completely obvious that he should not even be in the league, much less playing meaningful minutes on a team hoping to contend for a title.

  • sleepydog

    i have to agree about carter. despite a few stretches of good play, this year he has been terrible (in fact, i think billups replacing carter as starting PG has improved our team more than billups replacing iverson). altitude loves to point out that he is like 4th in the nba in assists from the bench, but he only gets so many assists because he never met a pass he didn’t like; he pushes the tempo but only by throwing the ball ahead on the break into a crowd and hoping we come up with it. he plays hard on defense, but he’s so short he can only match up against a few players well. despite billups’ occasional inconsistencies, carter is making him look like an MVP candidate.
    because i hear there is a chance sam cassell will get released, and a chance he could come to denver, i am wondering what he could contribute to the nugs. i am not particularly excited about his skill set, but more and more i am convinced anything is better than AC.

  • Gimmons

    Jeremy – great detailed post as usual! I enjoy reading your breakdowns of Denver’s schemes on the pick-and-roll and other aspects.

    To the comments: Othe33 great post! I agreed with all your points. Especially about Balkman not being utilized.

    b.archy6 – thanks for the AC info!

    sleepydog – great point about Billups being a key to getting AC off the floor. That has made a HUGE difference.

  • BeefySwats

    No no no no no no NO to Cassell. Dude is a chucker, WAY past his prime, and does not fill the PG role that we need. At least Carter still has some speed.

  • http://www.roundballminingcompany.com jeremy

    There are always things I do not fit into my posts after games, but you guys are right about AC. He is struggling again. It warranted mentioning. Maybe I am getting desensitized to it.

    Part of it may be that I am still proud of the defense he played on Wade in Miami. He definitely cannot bring it on defense night in and night out, but he also gets put in difficult situations being forced to cover players like Paul Pierce who can just shoot over him. However, he should be able to stay in front of Joe Johnson.