The Denver Nuggets 111-109 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies was a perfect example of the difference between playing hard and playing with focus. From the opening tip the Nuggets played hard. They understood the importance of this game and they wanted to win. But their hard work returned poor results because their lack of focus created easy scoring opportunities for the Grizzlies.
Denver snuck to within two points early in the third quarter at 59-57, but then the Grizzlies exploded on a 20-5 run. The Nuggets were not physically sloughing off, they simply made silly mental errors that allowed the Grizzlies to bag some easy points.
It all started after a nice defensive sequence by Carmelo Anthony who ran Rudy Gay off the three point line shut down a drive attempt and then when Gay went to the basket a second time Melo directed him baseline right into Nene resulting in the ball going out of bounds. On the inbounds play O.J. Mayo passed the ball into Marc Gasol and then cut past Gasol to the baseline and took a handoff. Dahntay Jones had been playing Mayo to come to the middle of the floor and was way out of position. Nene stepped out on Mayo after the handoff and Mayo threw him a shot fake. Nene left his feet and for some reason Jones, who was trying to get back into the play took a running leap from ten feet away, which even had Mayo shot would have been a completely ineffective challenge. With Nene and Jones in the air Mayo drive right to the rim and laid in an easy finger roll.
There was a play where Melo had to tie his shoe and he was late coming down the floor. As a result of Melo getting into the play late Chauncey only had one option to trigger the offense and that was Kenyon on the left wing. (Of course, Chauncey could have waited a couple more seconds to let Melo get back into the play or he could have penetrated or even shot, but he did not.) Darrell Arthur realized Chauncey wanted to pass the ball to Kenyon and he overplayed him. Despite telegraphing the pas and seeing Arthur all over Kenyon Chauncey passed the ball anyway. Of course Arthur stole the pass and took it the other way for a pretty sweet slam.
After Melo missed a layup the Grizzlies went the other way on a quasi fat break. Despite having four players back no one noticed Arthur running right down the middle of the floor. Nene stayed at the three point line to help guard Mike Conley even though J.R. was right there too. Chauncey was in the lane, but had his back to the ball looking at Mayo who was on the right wing outside the three point line. Kenyon was under the basket watching Rudy Gay, but he also had his back to the play. Arthur netted another dunk and the Grizzlies were up twelve 73-61.
During another Memphis possession Mayo took a shot from the top of the circle and J.R. ran out. Gasol collected the long rebound and Mayo cut from where he shot to the left wing. As J.R. came back in the play he just ran to the middle of the lane instead of running to Mayo and once Mayo received the pass from Gasol no one rotated over to him.
The run was capped off by a Gay three point play where he received the ball on the left baseline with Melo on him. Kenyon came over and doubled him. With the double team Melo had the responsibility to close off the baseline and Kenyon was to cut off a move to the middle. Even with his defensive responsibilities but in half (not having to worry about Gay driving right to the middle of the floor, Carmelo barely moved as Gay blew right past him along the baseline. Nene was in position to help, but reached instead of stepping in and Gay made a spectacular layup on the far side of the hoop and cashed in the free throw.
The Nuggets were playing hard, but they were playing with no focus or attention to detail. Because of that they saw a two point deficit balloon up to 17 in barely more than five minutes.
Even down 17 in the third the Nuggets managed to come back, but doing so not only required an increase in physical effort, but mental effort as well. In the fourth quarter the Nuggets played as hard as they have all season.
Denver was behind 100-88 with eight minutes left. Their comeback was triggered by an aggressive play trap a pick and roll by Renaldo Balkman who tipped the ball away from Conley and forced it out of bounds off of him.
To me the key play was all about hustle though. Melo tried passing the ball up the floor and his pass was tipped by Gay. J.R. ran the ball down just before it went out of bounds along the right sideline and passed it to Balkman on the block who immediately kicked it out to Melo for a three. The lead was down to eight at 100-92 and the Nuggets energy and focus was increasing on defense with every possession.
J.R. was hounding Mayo everywhere he went and on an ensuing possession after J.R. chased Mayo from one side of the floor to the other Mayo came off a screen and Chauncey pinched over from the top of the circle and forced a turnover.
Next J.R. picked Conley up full court trying to pressure him into a mistake. Conley ran off a Gasol screen where Nene hedged and forced him towards the sideline. J.R. was a little slow recovering, but after chasing Conley into the lane he followed the pass to Arthur and blocked his shot from behind.
After a couple of baskets by the Grizzlies Nene and Balkman doubled Gasol as he spun on the block and got too deep under the rim resulting in a turnover and what followed was the “May the force be with you” moment of the game. with the Nuggets down three, 104-101, Balkman received a nice pass from Nene, had his shot blocked, and then missed the wide open follow up layup. He managed to get the rebound again and Kicked the ball out to Chauncey in the left corner. Billups faked a pass up the sideline to J.R. and that fake drew Mayo out away from the middle of the floor which opened up the weak side wing for Melo. Chauncey skipped the ball across to Melo who drained a wide open game tying three.
The final huge stop of the game came with the Nuggets up one and 33.2 seconds left in the game. Memphis isolated Mayo in the middle of the floor near half court. Gasol came out to set a screen to Mayo’s right. Mayo never went anywhere near the screen allowing Nene and Anthony Carter to play a soft double. Gasol then reset the screen and Mayo tried going right off of it. Carter did a great job of crowding Mayo without fouling to avoid the pick. Mayo was never able to break free and never looked to pass even though he was in a pack of Nuggets. Kenyon, who was inserted back into the lineup for that final stand blocked his shot. Melo made two free throws for the final margin.
Not only did the Nuggets play aggressive physical defense in the fourth quarter, but they also hit their shots. From the time they were down 17 Denver hit seven threes in 13 attempts. It is amazing what making shots can do for a team, just ask Sacramento.
I thought Memphis played well and they forced the Nuggets to earn the victory. While being happy with the result it is once again a little frustrating that Denver could not put together a complete game. Even with their amped up defense if they miss a couple of threes they lose that game. Many of you seem to think that the Nuggets will blow through Phoenix and Dallas on the upcoming road trip, but if the Nuggets play like they did tonight they probably lose both of those games.
Additional Game 69 Nuggets
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 94.2 – Pretty brisk for a road game.
Defensive Efficiency: 115.7 – Memphis shot 47.7% and only turned the ball over 10 times.
Offensive Efficiency: 117.8 – Very good considering Denver turned it over 19 times.
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