Why the Denver Nuggets Have Been Struggling

Only a couple of weeks ago I would be expecting the Denver Nuggets to blow out the Kevin Durant-less Oklahoma City Thunder.  At this point I am just hoping for a victory.

Instead of a standard game preview I decided to address where exactly the Nuggets have been floundering and I will toss out a game thread later.  There has been a great deal written about the Nuggets crumbling season and the reasons behind it.  I think we can narrow the reasons for their collapse down to their play in three areas, offense, defense and the transition game.  There, that was easy.

I have broken down many of the Nuggets stats this season into games one through 54, at which point the Nuggets were 37-17, and games 55 through 65 during which the Nuggets are 3-8.  Some of the data supports some of the issues we have with the team (giving up too many open threes) and some of the data does not (taking more jump shots), but I think as a whole it paints a pretty clear picture.

Let’s start out with the transition game as it has the smallest amount of data, yet displays a clear discrepancy between the way the Nuggets started the season and the style they have been playing as of late.  The Nuggets’ pace factor through game 54 was 93.3.  Over the past eleven games they have a pace factor of 91.4 so clearly they are averaging almost two fewer possessions a game. 

The difference goes deeper than simply pace.  Their production from running has nearly flat lined.   Fast break points do not necessarily correlate to winning games, however, these numbers are quite telling.  Through the first 54 games of the season the Nuggets had an average of 17 fast break points a game to their opponents 11 which obviously converts to a six point advantage for the Nuggets in transition offense.  Over the last 11 games the Nuggets are only averaging nine fast break points a game, but their opponents, despite the games being played at a slower pace, have upped their average up to 12 fast break points per game.  The Nuggets have gone from being a plus six in fast break points to a minus three.  That is a nine point swing and it is a big reason why the Nuggets are struggling on offense.

That is not their only problem on offense.  There has been a lot of press about how their assist numbers have been dwindling.  I personally do not track team assists per game and I do not have time to plow through all that data this afternoon.  I believe it is safe to say that between the information from Benjamin Hochman  and others we can see that the Nuggets offense is getting more and more stationary and driven by isolations.

The primary problem is Denver is simply not making shots.  After shooting 47.2% through the first 54 games of the season the Nuggets have only made 43.3% of their shots over their 11 game slide.  Many of us have voiced the belief that Denver is getting jump shot happy.  That was certainly my sense from watching the games.  However, my research has shown that is not the case.

By looking at the team Hot Spot data available on NBA.com  I compared the last ten games to their season shooting stats.  (One thing to take note of is the Hot Spot data only allowed me to look at the previous ten games instead of the previous 11 games so unlike in the rest of this post this data breaks down the season into games one through 55 and 56 through 65.)  The Nuggets percentage of shots at the rim has remained exactly the same through the last ten games as it was during the first 55 games of the season.  They attempted 44.5% of their shots at the rim in games one through 55 and in games 56 through 65.  The Nuggets percentage of shots within 15 feet of the hoop has actually risen from 11.2% of all shots up through game 55 to 12.1% of their shots over the last ten games.  Shots taken between fifteen feet and the three point line have stayed almost exactly the same moving down slightly from 22.2% to 22.1%.  The percentage of shots that have come from behind the three point line actually fell from 22.2% in the first 55 games down to 21.4% in the previous ten contests.  The data shows that the Nuggets are taking slightly fewer shots from 15 feet and out and a few more from 15 feet and in during the last ten games.  One thing to take note of is the 15 feet and in range, the only zone that saw an increase in the percentage of shots taken, is by far the least efficient zone to shoot from so that is not necessarily a good thing.

Going from zone to zone the Nuggets shooting has fallen off the face of the earth.  Even though they are taking the same percentage of shots from in close they are making 4.5% fewer over the previous ten games than in the first 55 (59.3% to 54.8%).  Their shooting percentage on shots 15 feet and in has fallen by 1.8% (33.1% to 31.3%).  Their percentage on jumpers inside the three point line, but outside 15 feet has fallen 4.6% (40.4% to 35.8%) and their percentage on thee pointers has decreased by 4.4% (37.4% to 32.9%).

This team wide shooting slump has resulted in an offensive efficiency rating over the previous 11 games of 107.3.  That is down from their 110.4 rating they earned over the first 54 games.  Part of the reason for this is flat out poor shooting.  They are getting open looks and missing them.  I think there is another more frightening element involving the dropping assist totals.  Because the offense is becoming more stagnant and more isolation dependent the Nuggets are settling for tougher, better defended shots.  They are getting roughly the same shots playing one on one, but instead of using movement and crisp passing to ensure that shot is an open one, the shots are more heavily contested due to the forced offense that results from one on one play.

It is not only the offense, but the defense that is faltering.  After 54 games the Nuggets had a defensive efficiency of 106.0.  Over their 11 game slump that number has risen to 113.0!  They are giving up seven more points per 100 possessions than over the first 54 games of the season.  Denver’s field goal percentage allowed has only changed slightly from 43.9% to 44.6%.  That is not a huge increase.  In fact, it is a pretty minimal one.  That is actually a difference of less than one made shot a game.  So how is it that they are giving up so many more points per 100 possessions?

One reason is fouling.  Denver sent their opponents to the line 26.1 times per game over the first 54 games of the season.  That number has risen to 30.1 in the last 11 games.  Right there is an extra three points per game and a little more than three points per 100 possessions (due to the fact that the average game has fewer than 100 possessions).  The Nuggets shot an average of 4.4 more free throws a game than their opponents while they were winning, but that advantage has disappeared over the previous 11 games and it is entirely due to their opponents getting more trips to the line.  The Nuggets average free throw attempts per game has only dropped from 30.4 to 30.2.

The other area where the data shows the Nuggets’ are failing on defense is their three point shooting defense has gone from decent to atrocious.  Denver’s opponents made 35.6% of their three pointers in the first 54 games of the season.  That number ballooned to 39.3% in the last 11 games.  With the Nuggets’ opponents taking an average of 19.5 threes a night that difference results in an additional 0.8 threes a game which converts to 2.3 more points allowed a game.  Once again that number is accentuated even more in their defensive efficiency rating due to the fact that there are fewer than 100 possessions in their average game.  I believe the combination of what we have seen empirically and what the data is telling us is the Nuggets rotations have crumbled to the point where they are either poor or altogether nonexistent.  Strangely enough the Nuggets are actually holding their opponents to a lower shooting percentage on their two point shots allowing 46.6% in the first 54 games, but only 46.3% in the last 11.

What does all this tell us?  Well, pretty much what we already knew from watching the games.  Denver needs to get back to running on offense, working together to earn quality looks and get back to communicating and working together on defense.  The only area where we had been complaining that was proven wrong was the belief the Nuggets had been attempting more jump shots during the last 11 games than the first 54.  Even so, I think we would still like to see more layups and fewer jumpers.  

The Season Is Not Over, but I Am Afraid the Season Is Over

The Denver Nuggets just completed a disastrous stretch where they actually lost five games in only nine days.  I understand how physically demanding such a stretch is and how the Nuggets were short handed playing without Kenyon Martin in three of those games and Anthony Carter in four.  Those are all just excuses.  Denver has managed to play very well other times during this season while playing six games in nine days.  What matters is at a time in the year where other teams are raising their level of play (Utah, New Orleans, Portland and San Antonio all come to mind) Denver is playing as poorly as they have all season.

I have two reactions to tonight’s loss against the Houston Rockets.  First, I would argue while many fans are waiving the white flag the season is not over.  The Nuggets have now completed one of the most difficult portions of their schedule and while they are floundering they have a great opportunity to collect themselves and go on an immediate five game winning streak.  Their next five games are comprised of contests against the Thunder, Clippers and Nets at home, a road game against the Grizzlies and then they return to Denver to play the Wizards.  A five game winning streak will put them right back at 20 games over .500 where they were when this debacle first began in Chicago.  If they can rebuild some confidence and recapture the efficiency on both ends of the floor which made them such a strong team the first three and a half months of the season 52 or 53 wins is still well within reach.  With the talent on this team and with the schedule providing them with a plethora of winnable games I feel very good guaranteeing that the Nuggets will make the playoffs.

While the season is not over my second reaction following the loss to the Rockets is, well, the season is over.  With the stink bomb the Nuggets dropped on us the past couple of weeks they have almost completely destroyed any chance of earning home court advantage in the playoffs.  I have a difficult time envisioning a scenario where they catch the Spurs, Jazz or Hornets.  Plus with the loss last night they have lost the season series to the Rockets making it even more difficult to surpass them in the standings.  In order to earn home court advantage the Nuggets would have to overtake two of those four teams.  At this point almost any best case scenario we can construct leaves the Nuggets playing either the Spurs, Jazz or Hornets in the first round.  Because of that I am afraid there is little hope of Denver reaching the second round.  (The one caveat I will add is if the Trail Blazers manage to crash the party and earn a top four seed and end up matched up against Denver in the first round.  I would welcome that series no matter who has home court advantage.  However, I do not see Portland finishing that highly in the standings as a likely outcome.)

What is most alarming is the Nuggets seem to be at a complete loss as to why they are losing games.  After dropping last night’s contest to Houston Carmelo Anthony is quoted as saying, “I can’t really pinpoint what’s going on.”  If they want to figure out why they are losing all the Nuggets need to do is throw in some game film of their home win against the Jazz or of the second half in Philadelphia and then put in the tape from last night.   The differences will be obvious and they all revolve around mental focus and the desire to do what is necessary to win.  Do not get me wrong, Denver has played very hard in the fourth quarters of both the Kings and Rockets losses, but that is not enough.  We are 65 games into the season and they do not seem to have figured that out.

You may be thinking to yourself that I am panicking and am way out of line.  Let me say this.  I do my best to stay on an even keel on this blog and remain consistent in my coverage of the team.  I try to remove emotion from the equation and give thoughtful analysis.  The season is long and it is not always easy to keep from getting too high when things are going well or too low during tough stretches such as this one.  I sat on this post for at least 12 hours since writing it trying to decide whether or not I wanted to publish it.  What it came down to is this is my honest assessment of the current situation and if it is what I truly believe, I would be cheating both myself and you all by not posting it.  After all, I proclaimed last season that the Nuggets would lose in the first round again after the fifth game of the campaign.  If I was confident that I was not jumping to conclusions at that point in the season I should fell alright arriving at the same determination in March this season.  What the Nuggets have displayed for us since the All-Star break is all the proof I need to see.

Of course I have been wrong before and I hope I am wrong now.  There is still over a fifth of the season remaining and things can change quickly.  Look where Utah was fifteen games ago and where they are now.  The same thing can happen for the Nuggets.  As I have said over and over the schedule is still set up in their favor, but they have to step up and earn wins.  Teams like Sacramento are not going to just roll over and thank Denver for blessing them with the honor of their presence.  The opportunity to claim home court advantage and win the Northwest Division title is still there as long as the Nuggets take every second of every game seriously from here on out.  I just wish I thought they had it in them.

Prove me wrong Denver, I beg you.

2008-09 Game 65: Denver Nuggets 95 – Houston Rockets 97

Box Score | Highlights

I am not here to make excuses for the Denver Nuggets.  However, knowing the Nuggets were playing their fourth game in five nights against a hot team made victory in this game a long shot.  I think many of the mistakes the Nuggets made tonight were a result of fatigue.

When the body and mind are tired they get lazy and look for shortcuts.  On defense that means laying off your man and not helping your teammates.  Offensively it means standing and watching resulting in the one or two passes and shoot style that is the bane of our existence. 

It is difficult to pick what side of the court the Nuggets lost this game on.  Nene did as good a job as any Nugget ever has on Yao by using his strength to keep him from getting position in the paint.  They gave up a few too many open looks from behind the arc and Houston scored almost at will in the second and third quarters.  However, Denver’s overall defensive numbers for the game were very strong.  Overall it was a good performance however, the subpar effort in the middle quarters cost them the game.

Offensively Denver took the second and third quarters off too.  After building up a ten point lead the Nuggets slowly stopped moving and passing.  The offense became much too stagnant.  Even though the defense could have been better had they made more than 38.1% of their shots, if they even equal the Rockets’ 42.5% they win the game. 

In the end basketball comes down to making shots.  Whether you are facing tough defense or nonexistent defense you need to knock down shots.  The Nuggets missed more layups than I care to track.  They also missed numerous open jumpers.  On one second quarter possession J.R. drove the lane and missed a right handed layup, Birdman missed the tip, but Nene was able to corral the rebound and passed it to Jason Hart.  Hart passed it to Melo on the right wing who drove in and kicked a pass out to J.R. who had no one near him in the right corner.  J.R. missed the open three, but Nene tipped the rebound to Melo who was all alone at the middle of the free throw line and he missed the wide open jumper.  You cannot fail to capitalize on chances like that.

As in the Kings game the Nuggets tried to crank up the intensity and make a late run and just like in the Kings game it was too little too late.  I have no idea why they continue to play a turn it on when it matters style after it has failed game after game since the All-Star break.  If they do not learn their lesson soon it will be too late.

The Nuggets are now a game behind Utah and Portland for the division lead.  They have a day off before Oklahoma City comes to the Pepsi Center.  The Nuggets had better get enough rest so that they can focus for an entire 48 minutes.  They cannot afford to forfeit prolonged stretches of the game to their opponent.  They cannot afford to give away another game to a sub .500 team and hold out any hope that this season will provide a different ending than any of the previous five. 

Additional Game 65 Nuggets

 

  • Driving home from work I heard a replay of an Interview on 104.3 The Fan with Chris Dempsey from the Denver Post.  He claimed in the interview that Kenyon Martin was a good week away from playing again.  I have taken the position that Martin needs to sit out as long as necessary to ensure he is healthy for the playoffs.  I was afraid the current losing streak would provide motivation for Martin to return to early.  Lo and behold look who was in the starting lineup tonight.  Kenyon played somewhat effectively and accumulated 24:05 on the floor.  I am afraid he did come back too soon.  During the very first possession of the third quarter he was on the right side of the hoop and Luis Scola pushed him under the basket after a shot by Yao.  Kenyon jumped up and reached back over his head to try to get the rebound.  I have seen Kenyon struggle with his back enough to see his upright stance after landing was a sign his back was barking at him again.  Kenyon remained in the game another seven minutes, but one he checked out with 4:18 left in the third, he never checked back in.
  • I was hoping Balkman’s performance had earned him some additional playing time, but with the return of Kenyon he saw absolutely no burn.  George Karl did manage to find over 21 minutes of floor time for Linas Kleiza though. 
  • Yao’s length really bothered Nene.  He missed numerous layups around the basket and a dunk because of Yao’s size.
  • This was the sixth time the Nuggets have played six games in nine days and it was the worst performance they have produced in those six situations posting a 1-5 record.  They went 4-2 from November 13-21, 2-4 from November 26-December 4, 2-4 from December 15-23, 5-1 from December 26 -January 3 and 5-1 from February 3-11.  The Nuggets do not have any more six games in nine night sets for the remainder of the season.  They also do not have any more four game in five night stretches either.
  • With 3:58 left in the third quarter J.R. Smith missed a layup attempt over Yao as he chased the rebound down near the Rockets bench he swing his fist in frustration and yelled something at the ref.  He must have said the magic word because three Rockets simultaneously leapt up off the bench and practically chased the ref down the sideline yelling at him to call the technical.  It really was pretty funny to watch their reaction.
  • Entering tonight’s game Shane Battier had missed 18 consecutive three point shots.  I predicted he would make at least three.  I was wrong, he only made two, but his second one was the decisive shot of the night when he put the Rockets up seven with a minute left.  Denver did pull to within two, but they had to start fouling to stop the clock.  If Battier misses that three the game is completely different and maybe Denver even pulls off the unlikely comeback.

Mindboggling Game Stats

Pace Factor:  94.7

Defensive Efficiency:  102.4

Offensive Efficiency:  100.3

Featured Blogs:  Rockets Buzz | The Dream Shake

2008-09 Game 65: Denver Nuggets vs Houston Rockets Game Thread

Once again I am sad to say that I as I write this I have little hope for a Nuggets victory tonight.  This is the fourth game in the past seven where I feel like the Nuggets are likely to lose.  Of course, they won one of those four games (against the Lakers), but now they have lost two of the three games that were thought to be nearly sure things (at Indiana and at Sacramento).  The Nuggets are 4-7 after the All-Star break and tonight is their fourth game in five nights. 

Of course the Houston Rockets have not been sitting at home on the couch as it is their third game in four nights.  The Rockets have been hot winning nine of their previous 11 games, but looking at the schedule they have had a very heavy dosage of home games.  They have played 18 of their previous 26 games at home and in the eight road contests during that stretch they are only 2-6.

Maybe the Nuggets have a chance after all. 

The Nuggets have always struggled to cover Yao as do most teams thanks to the shortage of mobile 7’6” athletes in the NBA.  Poor Chris Andersen probably had to sit in an ice bath for 24 hours after the beating he took from Yao’s shoulders the last time these two matched up.

The other Rockets to look our for include Shane Battier who has only hit one of his 20 three point attempts in March so you know he is going to drain at least three tonight.  He loves shooting in Denver for some reason.  The Rockets other Nugget killer, Tracy McGrady, is out for the season and I believe Ron Artest is much easier to defend than McGrady.  However the Rockets’ winning streak coincided with McGrady’s departure from the lineup.  The other player that scares me is Aaron Brooks who seems to shoot well against the Nuggets and his quickness makes it impossible for Chauncey to contain him.

The Nuggets were clearly down after their loss last night in Sacramento and aparently at a loss for answers.  It will be interesting to see how they respond. 

Both Kenyon Martin and Anthony Carter are still listed as questionable and I would not expect either one to play. 

I am not going to say this game is unwinnable for Denver, but pulling out a victory will be a tall task. 

Denver Nuggets Game Notes

Previous Matchups:  Game 18 – Den 104 Hou 94 | Game 25 – Den 96 Hou 108
Game 42 – Den 113 Hou 115

Featured Blogs:  Rockets Buzz | The Dream Shake

Take this with you:  The Nuggets confidence is shattered, but even in the midst of their second half collapse they have won three straight at home.  Hopefully a return to the Pepsi Center is what they need to get back on track.

2008-09 Game 64: Denver Nuggets 106 – Sacramento Kings 114

Box Score | Highlights

Sorry for the belated and brief post.  The Nuggets deserve to be skewered for their performance last night.  Sadly I just do not have the time to go all out on them.  The four games in five nights is not only tough on the players, it is tough on the bloggers too.

I have no idea how the Denver Nuggets could play the way they did in Sacramento knowing that a loss drops them out of first place in the division.  You could tell as the game wore on that they realized they were in danger of losing to the worst team in the Western Conference and they tried to crank up the intensity as time ran down.  The problem was the Kings realized early on that it was their night.  As the threes started to fall the entire team was filled with confidence.  By the end of the game when the Nuggets were finally challenging the Kings’ shooters, it was too late, they were all dialed in. 

Offensively the Nuggets played their lazy perimeter game involving one or maybe two passes and a jump shot until the final minutes when Chauncey Billups realized he better start going to the basket.  Last night I thought at key portions of the game Chauncey was trying to force his offense by posting up on Will Solomon, which resulted in the offense becoming even more stagnant.  Billups finally started going at the rim during the fourth quarter and the Nuggets shot 15 free throws in the final stanza as a result, but it was too little too late.

After starting the season dominating the lesser teams in the NBA Denver has now lost to five sub .500 teams since the All-Star break and Detroit was under .500 when they beat Denver earlier in the week.  I listed out the sub .500 teams left on the schedule and Denver has a great opportunity to take advantage of those games and reinsert themselves back amongst the elite of the west, but if they continue to play uninspired ball in the first quarter and give these teams hope they may not be able to take advantage of their relatively easy finishing schedule.

Additional Game 64 Nuggets

  • One cliché you hear in the NBA is never foul a jump shooter.  Apparently that is not one of the sayings the Nuggets are familiar with.  How many times did the Nuggets foul a King taking a shot from 18 feet or further?  Five?  Six?  The number is probably even higher than that.  If you are concerned about a player’s outside shot you do not play five feet off and then lunge at him when he brings the ball up. 
  • J.R. continued to be aggressive on offense.  He tried to force his way to the rim through the teeth of the defense resulting in a couple of turnovers, but his attacking style is quickly becoming a staple of the Nuggets offense.  He seemed to be looking to shoot almost every time though and he finished the game with zero assists.

Mindboggling Game Stats

Pace Factor:  94.6

Defensive Efficiency:  120.5 – I am guessing that is one of the worst defensive efficiencies the Kings have dropped on someone all season long.

Offensive Efficiency:  112.1 – That should have been good enough.

Featured Blog:  Sactown Royalty

2008-09 Game 64: Denver Nuggets at Sacramento Kings Game Thread

Here is a partial list of teams the Denver Nuggets will play over their final 19 games.  Sacramento (twice), Oklahoma City (twice), the Clippers (twice), New Jersey, Memphis, Washington, Golden State, New York, Minnesota.  Those are twelve games the Nuggets should win.  It starts tonight with the Kings.

Denver Nuggets Game Notes

Previous Matchups:  Game 21:  Den 118 Sac 85 | Game 43:  Den 18 Sac 99

Featured Blog:  Sactown Royalty

2008-09 Game 63: Denver Nuggets 91 – Utah Jazz 97

Box Score | Highlights

The Denver Nuggets did what I thought was impossible.  They led me to think they actually had a shot at beating the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City.  The Nuggets played an incredible 18 minutes to start the game, but the Jazz were not having it.  I have watched the turning point of the game, when the Nuggets took their 17 point lead at 47-30, a few times and there was no substitution or strategic master stroke.  The Jazz basically took back the paint.  Denver had been dominating the lane on both ends of the floor for most of the game, but just like that Utah started taking the ball to the basket and the Nuggets started taking jumpers. 

With 10:38 left in the third quarter C.J. Miles made two free throws to cut the Nuggets lead down to six, 47-41.  At that point former point guard Mark Jackson, the color commentator on the ESPN broadcast, proclaimed that it was Chauncey Billup’s job to step up and be a difference maker.  He was exactly right.  As the point guard Chauncey has the ball in his hands and the command of the offense.  He knew the Jazz had scored 11 straight points and the Nuggets were in danger of losing control of the game.  How did he respond?  Take the ball to the rim?  Get the ball to Melo in the post?  Run a set to get some motion in the offense and force the defense to actually defend the whole court? 

With all of those options and the Nuggets in need of a bucket Chauncey brought the ball up the floor, dribbled on the left wing for a few seconds, dribbled towards the middle of the floor off a pick by Nene and launched a 23 foot jumper, with both feet on the three point line, that was so strongly challenged by Deron Williams that he had to shoot the ball almost straight up in the air. 

I think the Nuggets deserve credit for fighting back and actually temporarily regaining the lead.  They could have completely folded and I think we all knew what the result of the game would be early in the third quarter when the Jazz completed their run. 

I think there are two big positives that can come out of this game.  First of all, J.R. Smith is proving that he deserves to start with his play at both ends of the floor.  He did an incredible job of taking the ball to the rim and his defense continues to improve.  The other positive that hopefully will come from the game is Renaldo Balkman proving to George Karl that he deserves to be on the floor. 

The Nuggets are still a half a game ahead of the Jazz and they have by far the easier schedule between the two.  As well as the Jazz are playing I think the division is still the Nuggets to lose.  As long as they beat the weaker teams on the schedule and split the tough ones they should finish ahead of Utah and Portland. 

Additional Game 63 Nuggets

  • I thought the officiating in the first half was fine and in the second half was fine, but the problem was that there was almost no correlation between how the first half was officiated and how the second half was officiated.  The first half was rough and tumble and the second every little bit of contact drew a whistle. 
  • Only Jazz fans boo every call against their team in a quarter when the Jazz shoot 17 free throws.
  • Chauncey clearly looked slow and I think he is at the point in his career where he cannot play 40 minutes on back to back nights.  The good news is in the playoffs there are no back to back games.  He was clearly outclassed by Deron Williams, but the way Williams is playing I do not think you can hold it against Chauncey.
  • Melo may have only ended up with six second half points, but I liked the way he played in the first half.  He was derailed by foul trouble in the second half and that was a big reason why Denver struggled to score.

Mindboggling Game Stats

Pace Factor:  88.8

Defensive Efficiency:  109.2 – Not bad, plus they held the Jazz to 42.7% shooting.

Offensive Efficiency:  102.4 – The 8:50 stretch spanning the end of the second quarter and he first half of the third quarter where the Nuggets only managed to score five points drove their efficiency into the ground.

Featured Blogs:  SLC Dunk

2008-09 Game 63: Denver Nuggets at Utah Jazz Game Thread

Tonight the Denver Nuggets have a shot at proclaiming to the world that the Northwest Division is theirs and they will not tolerate any discussion implying otherwise.  A win in Utah would put a stop to the Jazz’s nine game winning streak and reestablish a two game lead over Portland and a two and a half game lead over the Jazz.

I will leave how likely that scenario is up to you.  The Nuggets are just 1-6 against the Jazz since 2005-06 and the average margin in those seven games is Jazz plus 12.4.  Three of the Nuggets six losses over that seven game stretch were by 21 points or more.  Last season they lost both games in Utah by 27 points.  If you think that is bad the Nuggets are 3-22 against Utah since the 1996-97 season.  Ouch.  Utah has the best home winning percentage in the NBA over the previous two seasons accumulating a 64-10 record. 

The Nuggets have not been terrible on back to backs as they are 7-9 for a winning percentage of .438.  In games played with at least one day of rest the Nuggets are 33-13 good for a winning percentage of .717.  That is the second largest difference between those two situations in the NBA ahead of only the Utah Jazz who are a shockingly bad 3-11 on the second night of back to backs.  Unfortunately for the Nuggets Utah was off yesterday.  Carmelo also has the largest disparity among active players in scoring average between games with at least one day of rest (24.8) and on the second night of back to backs (22.3).

On opening night the short handed Nuggets (sans Melo) battled the short handed Jazz (sans Deron Williams) pretty well, but still fell by four.  Both teams are completely different at this point in the season and I do not think there is anything to extrapolate out of the events of that evening.

The Jazz have a very versatile offense.  They love to grind out possessions with cross screens and back picks designed to get easy shots around the rim, but once you start packing the defense in the lane players like Williams, Mehmet Okur and Kyle Korver will start killing you from behind the arc.

Kenyon Martin is questionable for the game and I think you can count on him sitting this one out.  That makes for some rough matchups for the Nuggets bigs.  I would guess that Nene being more mobile than Johan Petro, will cover Okur.  Andersen is not a great matchup for either Okur’s outside game or Boozer’s power game. 

The Nuggets are also going to have to figure out a way to slow down Ronnie Brewer who is posting 17.8 points per game over his last 17 contests.  He has not shot under 40% for a single game since January 20th when he went 1-4.  J.R. Smith has played some very good on the ball defense lately, but chasing Brewer around screens and keeping track of him when he slashes in from the weak side is a completely different experience than just staying in front of Kobe or Brando Roy.  Tonight we will get a good glimpse of how far J.R. has come in his defensive improvement.

Of course Denver also has to worry about the scoring and passing of Williams.  He is one of the toughest covers in the league and after a subpar game last time out against Denver he will be looking to slice and dice them up.

Denver Nuggets Game Notes

Previous Matchups:  Game 1 – Den 94 Uta 98 | Game 44 – Den 117 Uta 97

Featured Blog:   SLC Dunk

Jason Hart and His Future With the Denver Nuggets

After the initial burst of excitement following the report by Chris Tomasson that the Denver Nuggets were going to sign Jason Hart after he was bought out by the Clippers everything was swept under the rug.  There was never any big news story in the Denver Post, or anywhere else, heralding Hart’s signing.  He has now appeared in a game for the Nuggets after playing garbage time last night against Portland so it is about time we talk about him.

The Nuggets’ front office likes to pick up players either at the trade deadline, or soon thereafter, who they think might have a future with the team.  It does not cost anything other than a prorated minimum contract and I think it makes good business sense. 

Two seasons ago it was Von Wafer and he has played well this season, just not for the Nuggets.  Last season it was Taurean Green who was acquired from Portland in exchange for Wafer.  Green ended up being one of the two nonguaranteed contracts that brought Renaldo Balkman to Denver.  He may not have been a success on the court, but Denver could not have acquired Balkman without him, or at least without his contract so that has to count for something.

This season the late pickup is Jason Hart and I think he has a brighter future in Denver than either Wafer or Green.  This is just a hunch, but I believe the Nuggets signed him now to be Anthony Carter’s replacement as the backup point guard next season. 

I have liked Hart’s game since he was at Syracuse.  He is not an explosive scorer, but he is just a sound player.  He has been a rotation player for quality teams like the Spurs and Jazz.  He knows how to play team defense and his midrange jumper is more consistent than Carter’s.  I doubt he will see much time this season, but I suspect they brought him onboard now to groom him for his role next season.  

2008-09 Game 62: Denver Nuggets 106 – Portland Trail Blazers 90

Box Score | Highlights

Sure the Denver Nuggets beat the Portland Trail Blazers, but the real story was the homecoming of local boy and Denver hero Michael Ruffin.  What, you guys care more about beating the Blazers than the return of Ruffin?  Well, OK then.

Hopefully we will look at tonight’s game as the return of Carmelo Anthony as a dominant offensive player.  He clearly felt like he had something to prove coming back off of his one game suspension and his play was spectacular.  He was a little jumper happy early on, but he started going to the rim and utilizing his quickness for short pull up jumpers instead of long range ones and Portland had absolutely no answer for him. 

Melo’s displayed his entire arsenal tonight.  He scored off of transition jumpers, pull up jumpers, catch and shoot jumpers, he drove and finished with his right hand, drove and finished with his left.  He ran the floor and was successful on either scoring or getting to the line from the post. 

Almost as encouraging as the play of Melo was the play of J.R. Smith.  I loved the way J.R. was aggressive on both ends of the floor.  On offense he was looking for seams in the defense and succeed in setting up other players as well as getting his own shot off.  Plus he was clearly fired up as the taunting technical for his primal scream that followed his follow up dunk over Joel Przybilla.  J.R. was also all over the glass in the first half. 

Above all else I really enjoyed the defense he played on Brandon Roy.  J.R. has all the physical skills to be a very good one on one defender.  He has just been missing the desire and the mental comprehension of positioning and technique.  Of course, those are two pretty important aspects of playing defense, but one can be created and the other taught.  J.R. appears to be making progress in both areas.

I had hoped to see an over the top defensive effort from Denver.  They fell short of that although I am pretty happy with the way they played.  Brandon Roy was able to get his points although he was never able to take over the game.  Denver showed some cracks though and they allowed the Blazers to stay in the game. 

There were several occasions where they missed a rotation resulting in a wide open look from behind the arc for Steve Blake, Rudy Fernandez and Travis Outlaw and they shot a combined 6-12 on threes.   However, those were not the breakdowns that hurt the Nuggets.  There were really only two stretches where the Blazers controlled the action.  A two and a half minute stretch where they outscored the Nuggets 10-2 and a three minute stretch in the third quarter where they outscored Denver 10-4.  Those two runs the Blazers had came when they were able to consistently score at the rim.  For those who are interested I have put a breakdown of those stretches in the additional nuggets.

The win was an important one and it sets up what may be the biggest game of the season tomorrow night in Utah.  Should the Nuggets pull off a victory in Salt Lake City and build up a two and a half game lead on the Jazz again I will feel very good about Denver’s chances to win the division.  Utah is on fire, but the Nuggets have a far easier schedule from here on out than Utah does. 

Additional Game 62 Nuggets

  • With apologies to Kevin Arnovitz of Clipper Blog I am about to steal his format.

[4:30, 2nd quarter] In the second quarter the Blazers started their run with an impressive fast break alley oop from Roy to Aldridge. 

[4:01,  2nd quarter] After a traveling violation by Kleiza they ran Rudy Fernandez back and forth off the same screen until he finally freed himself up for a three.  

[3:23, 2nd quarter] Melo scored on a runner and then on the other end he attempted to steal a pass into the post by Steve Blake to Aldridge.  He missed getting the steal and to make things worse he fell down.  Aldridge kicked the ball out to Blake and Birdman ran at Blake leaving Aldridge uncovered.  Blake passed the ball back to Aldridge who made a hook shot at the rim.  Had the guards rotated over they could have delayed the play long enough to get Melo back involved. 

[2:32, 2nd quarter] After a couple of missed jumpers Portland goes back and runs Blake and Fernandez off a series of screens.  Nene helps out on one screen leaving Pryzbilla temporarily open and Roy zips a pass to him.  Andersen comes over to help leaving Aldridge open.  Joel dumps the ball over to Aldridge and Nene, attempting to get back in the play fouls LaMarcus for the “and one.”   

That is seven paint points in four possessions.  Now fast forward to the third quarter for the other run the Blazers sprung on Denver.

[9:56, 3rd quarter] After a screen and roll between Roy and Aldridge Portland swings the ball to Blake in the weak side corner for a long two.

[9:15, 3rd quarter] Chauncey misses a contested corner three, coming back at the Nuggets Roy runs off a high screen from Przybilla.  J.R. does a good job fighting through a half hearted screen, but he overruns the play and Nene fails to cut off Roy at the free throw line and Roy gets to the rim for a layup.

[8:51, 3rd quarter] Chauncey throws the ball away attempting a behind the back pass to Nene in the lane triggering a fast break dunk by Nicolas Batum.  Portland is now within two for the first time since the 6:17 mark in the first quarter.

[8:45, 3rd quarter] Time out Nuggets.  Following the break Nene receives a pass at the left elbow and drives right at Przybilla for a layup.  Denver then forces a turnover as Portland tries to post Aldridge and he losses the ball out of bounds.

[7:54, 3rd quarter] Nene hits a 14 footer over Przybilla and Portland responds by running Roy along the baseline off a strong side screen and he receives the pass and drives in the lane.  J.R. is right with him, but he hits a short 13 foot fade away. 

[7:10, 3rd quarter] Nene throws a bad cross court pass that is intercepted by Batum.  The Blazers run out on the break and Batum scores a layup.

Eight points in the paint in six possessions.  Between the two runs Portland put together spanning roughly five minutes they scored 15 of their 38 points in the paint.  The Nuggets helped with turnovers and jumpers that lent themselves to scrambling defense and early offense.

  • Did anyone miss Anthony Carter tonight?
  • I stand by my assessment from before the game that the big difference between these two teams is the Nuggets ability to defend.  Portland is not capable of defending the Nuggets.  I would love to see the Blazers in the playoffs.  Some of you may laugh at the following statement, but they really miss Martell Webster on defense.  For some reason Webster had the ability to frustrate Melo, especially in the post. 
  • There was no single Nugget player who had a negative plus/minus.  No Blazer player had a positive one.
  • Chauncey’s nine assists represented his highest total in a single game since January 17th and it was his third highest total of 2009.  Part of the reason the Nuggets have been struggling shooting the ball is Chauncey has not been getting his teammates easy shots, but tonight seven of his nine assists were on layups or dunks.
  • The movie Ultraviolet may be one of the worst movies I have ever seen, but Mila Jovivich has managed to keep my attention.
  • Portland threw some small lineups out on the Nuggets and they set up a couple of weird matchups for Denver.  There were short sequences where Melo was guarding Steve Blake, Chris Andersen and Nene were taking turns guarding Travis Outlaw and at one point Linas Kleiza was covering Jerryd Bayless.
  • Kleiza’s shot seems to be falling again and that makes him somewhat useful on the basketball court until his next cold stretch.  The bad news is I am afraid he is going to chuck up six or seven threes tomorrow against Utah.  He did take a couple of uncharacteristic pull up midrange jumpers.  Needless to say they clanged off the rim, but it was interesting to watch nonetheless.
  • The TNT crew, especially Charles Barkley, were all over the Nuggets for not putting the Blazers away earlier so they could rest their starters.  Denver was close to bowing the game open a couple of times, but it is not like Portland is a YMCA team.  The Nuggets handed them their third worst loss of the season as it was.  You cannot just blow out a quality team because you fell like it.  Sure it would be nice, but that is not how the NBA works.
  • I like J.R. Smith in the starting lineup.  He played point when Chauncey took his typical early second quarter rest.  He started with a beautiful bounce pass to a streaking Kleiza for a layup.  He made a complex set of moves to drive past Bayless and get to the rim, but he missed the lay in.  He hit a pull up jumper after Melo initiated the offense.  He delivered a how did he see that cross court pass to Kleiza who drove the baseline, but missed the layup.  He initiated the zone offense and hit a three of a skip pass.  As a backup point guard he might be as good as it gets in the NBA.

Mindboggling Game Stats

Pace Factor:  88.6 – Closer to Portland’s ideal pace than the Denver’s ideal pace.

Defensive Efficiency:  101.6 – Very good considering Portland is the second best team in the NBA in offensive efficiency.

Offensive Efficiency:  119.6

Featured Blogs:  Blazer’s Edge | Center Court | Rip City Project 

Lineup Changes

Kenyon Martin and Anthony Carter are going to miss the game tonight against the Trail Blazers.  Karl has inserted J.R. Smith in place of Dahntay Jones and Johan Petro in place of Kenyon in the starting lineup.  

With J.R. starting I think that indicates he is not going to be playing back up point guard.  That role will be filled by newly signed Jason Hart.  The Nuggets may be able to get through tonight’s game alright, but by removing a starter and rotation player the increased minutes that will burden the rest of the players tonight is bad news considering Denver is kicking off a stretch of four games in five nights.

2008-09 Game 62: Denver Nuggets vs Portland Trail Blazers Game Thread

During the All-Star break when the Nuggets had a three and a half game lead these next two games against Portland and at Utah looked to be important, but not life or death type matchups.  With the events that have transpired since then (the Nuggets slumping while the Blazers have surged and the Jazz have absolutely caught fire) the next two nights have taken on a much greater importance.  However, it has not reached that status to George Karl who referred to it as “one game in a marathon (season)” in the Denver Post today. 

The Nuggets have been in first place in the Northwest Division for most of the season.  If they lose the next two games and Houston and New Orleans win their next games Denver will wake up on Saturday and fine themselves in third place in the division and seventh in the conference.  Think about that.  For all the praise and good press the Nuggets have received they are really teetering on the brink right now.

What is the solution?  Desperation.  The Nuggets showed us when the pressure was on against the Lakers that they can perform at a higher level.  Intensity and focus on defense can overcome a multitude of issues.  Against the Lakers the Nuggets shot 41.7% from the field and 14.3% from three point land, but they won by 11 points.  They will have to play with desperation these next two games.

The Trail Blazers have a top quality offense.  They are second in the NBA in offensive efficiency behind only the Lakers.  They have incredibly talented offensive players in LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Fernandez, Travis Outlaw and of course Brandon Roy.  What makes them even more dangerous is they play very unselfishly making them even more difficult to defend.  What they do not have is a defense that can go into lock down mode and that is the difference between these two squads.  Of course should the Nuggets come out tonight and go through the motions any defensive advantage will be completely negated and that is why it is important they play with desperation.

Portland comes into town having played a tough game at home against the Pacers and they were a Jarrett Jack three at the buzzer away from losing.  The Nuggets should be fairly well rested and Melo should be very well rested. 

Brandon Roy has yet to shoot well in Denver having a career field goal percentage of 37.8% on 28-74 shooting.  Portland has only won once in five tries in Denver since Roy came to town.  Earlier this season when the two teams met at the Pepsi Center Carmelo was sitting out to rest his sore elbow and the Nuggets won with defense.  They held Roy to 3-11 shooting and no one else stepped up to fill the void.  I wrote in my game recap that one of the keys to the Nuggets defensive effort that night was that they fought through screens with the bigs hedging to slow down the ball handler.  We should be able to get a good indication of what type of defense the Nuggets will come out with tonight based on how they defend the pick and roll.

These next two games are going to be more about effort and heart.  Denver can either lose their grip on the division or they can reestablish it.

Denver Nuggets Game Notes

Previous Matchups:  Game 28 – Den 97 Por 89 | Game 29 – Den 92 Por 101

Featured Blogs:  Blazer’s Edge | Center Court | Rip City Project

Take this with you (new feature for a big game):  With a great effort and win tonight Denver can put the Melo suspension behind them.  With a loss it will threaten to hang over them for the foreseeable future.

2008-09 Game 61: Denver Nuggets 95 – Detroit Pistons 100

Box Score | Highlights

The Denver Nuggets just cannot beat the Detroit Pistons.  They dropped another winnable game on the road and it is officially time to really start to be concerned about this team. 

The Pistons started the game off on fire making six of their first eight shots, and they were able to collect the offensive rebound on both of the misses and eventually convert.  Fortunately for the Nuggets Chauncey was making everything he threw up too.  Billups clearly felt comfortable returning to Detroit and he lit up his former team scoring 21 first half points on 7-11 shooting.  The first half was not just all about Chauncey though as Denver was able to find a lot of holes in the Piston defense on their way to 54 first half points.

The Nuggets started the second half out strong as well using the pick and roll to continue to create holes in the defense.  Chauncey made a three, his fourth of the game, with 8:26 left that put the Nuggets up 65-54 and gave him 26 points on the night. 

At that point Richard Hamilton had seen enough.  After the ensuing Pistons possession Hamilton stood under the basket, made a gesture to Rodney Stuckey who had been covering Billups that communicated, “This is not working, you guard Dahntay Jones because he cannot score” and he began hounding Chauncey all over the court.  Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess then began trapping Chauncey off of screens and that really slowed down the Nuggets attack.  For the rest of the night the Nuggets struggled to score.  In fact, from the time Hamilton started covering Billups the Nuggets only scored 12 points over the next 12 minutes and only scored 30 points over the final 20 minutes.  The only reason they managed to score that many points was because J.R. Smith put up ten points in the final five minutes of the game.

Even with the limited offense if J.R. converts on a dunk attempt, on which he may or may not have been fouled by McDyess (Altitude never showed a replay of what may have been the most important play in the game, but after watching it a few times it did not look like McDyess touched the ball at all), The Nuggets might have pulled this game out.

In a game without Carmelo the Nuggets’ supporting cast was just not strong enough.  Linas Kleiza started, but was virtually useless scoring only two points in 26 minutes proving his one point performance in the first meeting was not a fluke.  Kenyon Martin shot 3-13 and scored a measly six points.  Chris Andersen missed jumpers and tip ins alike to finish 1-8.  Even with his strong finish J.R. was a sorry 6-16.  A major key to the game was in the second half Chauncey, Nene and J.R. scored all but five points for Denver.  A team with only a couple of weapons can be easily defended.

In the third quarter Detroit only had to worry about Chauncey and Nene.  After Nene made a jumper less than a minute into the fourth quarter he only attempted two more shots and one of those was a meaningless three at the final horn.   After Nene’s final bucket early in the fourth Chauncey and J.R. scored all of the Nuggets points, but one, a free throw by Anthony Carter.  You want your best players to shine down the stretch, but the lack of diversity in the Nuggets offense played into the Piston’s hands. 

Defensively the Nuggets played hard for most of the game, but they did not play together.  Almost all of the Pistons’ shots were uncontested as defenders either blew assignments and rotations or were simply out of position.

I was worried about how the Nuggets would respond to the suspension of Carmelo and I thought they played hard.  I think that the fact it was Chauncey’s homecoming game helped keep the effort up.  Unfortunately the focus and determination just was not there, especially on defense.

Up next the Nuggets return home for a Thursday battle with the second place Trail Blazers and then follow that up the next night with a battle against the surging Jazz in Utah.

Additional Game 61 Nuggets

 

  • It was great to see Chauncey receive such a warm greeting from Piston fans.  I do not think anyone expected anything less.  Even though the Nuggets lost I was glad to see Chauncey have a nice night posting a new season high. 
  • Sticking with Chauncey I thought he provided Carmelo a great example of how to trust your teammates.  Instead of forcing his offense down the stretch Chauncey deferred to J.R. and Smith carried the Nuggets offense and almost pulled the game out on his own pouring in 14 fourth quarter points. 
  • Kleiza played 26 minutes, which was far too many, but even though George Karl gave him that many minutes it was still encouraging to see Karl use Renaldo Balkman as much as he did in an attempt to slow down Tayshaun Prince.  Kleiza played hard, but had no answer for Prince’s offensive arsenal.  Prince scored nine points in the first nine minutes of the game being guarded by Kleiza, but only three more the rest of the half being covered by Balkman.  In the second half Prince scored four points on Kleiza in nine minutes, and seven on Balkman over the final 15 minutes.  However, Prince scored a layup after Balkman had to switch off of him and he made a three when Balkman had to help on penetration, but amazingly Renaldo still managed to get from under the hoop to the corner to challenge the shot.  The final tally was 13 points off of Kleiza over 18 minutes and ten off of Balkman in 24 minutes, but as I pointed out, five of those points on Balkman came as a result of him leaving Prince through the design of the defense.  Again, we can only hope that we see more of Balkman in the next few weeks.
  • Something is wrong with Kenyon Martin.  With 4:16 left in the second quarter Martin received a beautiful behind the back pass from Chauncey under the rim.  He tried to dribble over to the left side of the rim, elevate and dunk, but he barely got the ball up to the rim.  He is also not getting his typical elevation on his push shots around the rim and they are al coming up short.  Since he sat out the Milwaukee game to rest his back he has shot 15-45 and not all of those 30 misses have been jumpers.  According to his Hotspot chart  from NBA.com over those five games he is shooting only 14 of 29 from in close. 
  • Kenyon Martin shooting last five games
  • As in the Pacer game the Nuggets inability to collect rebounds late in the game hurt them.  With 1:37 left down 94-90 they forced Rasheed Wallace to take a long three.  Rodney Stuckey jumped over Billups and taped the ball back towards half court.  Rip Hamilton chased it down and passed it to Sheed before falling out of bounds.  Not one Nugget chased after the ball.  On their next possession Prince missed a jumper with 41 seconds left, but the ball bounced past Billups and Smith to Stuckey.  Game over.
  • The Nuggets free throw shooting was another problem, especially during the third quarter.  At one point the Nuggets missed five of six free throws.  It also did not help that they only made it to the line 22 times.  

Mindboggling Game Stats

Pace Factor:  79.4 – Very slow partly due to the lack of turnovers, only 17 combined, and offensive rebounds, 28 total. 

Defensive Efficiency:  126.0 – Very poor. 

Offensive Efficiency:  119.7 – This number belies how bad they were in the second half thanks to Billups hot first half and J.R.’s hot final five minutes.

Featured Blogs:  Piston Powered | Detroit Bad Boys

ESPN NBA Today Podcast

With the Nuggets in the news lately I was asked to be a guest on the ESPN.com NBA Today podcast.  Jason Smith and I discuss Carmelo’s suspension and future in Denver, the game in Detroit and whether or not the Nuggets would have been better off with Scott Hastings on the floor instead of Linas Kleiza.  Plus if you happen to have a kid who needs to work on their math have them try to count how many times I say, “um.”  It may sound like a verbal crutch, but I am actually all about the kids.

Click here to listen.  My segment begins at the 19:30 mark, but I highly recommend listening to the entire show.

I will have my recap of the Pistons game up early this afternoon.

George Karl Discusses Carmelo Anthony’s Suspension

George Karl has spoken with the Denver Post’s Benjamin Hochman (who is the go to guy for Nuggets news right now) and shared the events that took place that resulted in Carmelo Anthony’s suspension.  As we surmised from the game it was indeed at the timeout with 1:13 left in the quarter and reportedly it was due to the fact that Melo felt like he was finally heating up.  

The players do not sound very thrilled that they will be facing a tough opponent in a negative environment.  Some interesting quotes from the article include the following:

Asked if the suspension shows the players that the coach is in charge, forward Kenyon Martin said: “I guess that’s what they’re trying to prove.”

Will it work?

“I don’t know,” Martin said. “We’ll see. I hope it doesn’t affect anything that we have built so far this year. But you never know. Only time will tell. I hope it doesn’t.”

and:

Asked if the suspension was fair, Billups said: “I’m not going to speak on the fairness of it, but definitely there’re always rules to everything. He knows he made a mistake. I don’t think he was doing it to say ‘screw the team’. He was doing it because he wanted in the basketball game. There’s a fine line between that. There’s rules to everything and punishment to every rule. But he’s taking it with a grain of salt and he’s going to be fine. It’s something that I’m sure he wishes he didn’t do.”

The Nuggets can go two different directions on this.  Realize that George Karl is in charge and put forth a strong effort tonight or feel sorry for themselves and let this situation produce a negative impact on the remainder of the season.

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