The Denver Nuggets have made it out of the first round of the playoffs. I am pleased with the progress and the way they dominated the Hornets, but if this is where it ends I am not going to be satisfied. This is not the destination.
Chauncey Billups summed it up best in his postgame comments (which I painstakingly transcribed thanks to my DVR and pause button):
“Even though I have not lost in the first round in a long time, being around here all year man, it’s like, you know everybody’s putting all the emphasis on the first round. I shoot higher than that, you know that’s just the first step.”
Imagine how silly it sounds to a player like Chauncey, who has been to the finals twice, won it all once and played in the conference finals six straight times, that this franchise was obsessed with winning one playoff series. At this point the Nuggets players are saying all the right things about how they want more and they are still hungry, but up until they prove on the court that those things are true, shouldn’t we be a little worried how they will react to removing the monkey off their back?
Honestly, I think the players do want more. I expect them to play great against the Mavs and win the series. On the other hand I would be lying though if I did not admit that the thought of Denver coming out flat because of their “accomplishments” this season does not worry me a little.
As Chauncey said, everyone in this organization, and even a large portion of the fan base, has put all the emphasis on getting out of the first round. Just because it has been 15 seasons since Denver has been this far in the postseason does not automatically establish playing in the semifinals as an exceptional achievement.
You can say whatever you want about me that I am unrealistic or a killjoy, but I take little solace in accomplishing things that any self respecting organization views as commonplace. If any franchise truly takes itself seriously they do not revel in making it out of the first round because they do not suffer through a drought of 15 years between series victories. Championship caliber franchises do not mark 50 win seasons as a major feat or feel a sense of triumph in bettering the preseason prognostications made by journalists who do not even watch the team play on a regular basis.
I am not saying Nugget fans should not enjoy the fact that their squad is experiencing the most success in 15 seasons. Even Lakers fans, Cavs fans and Celtics fans stand up and cheer on their team when they advance. However, any organization that views this as a monumental time in franchise history is not worth their weight in sawdust. The rarity of an accomplishment does not in and of itself make reaching it a milestone.
Yes, the win last night was a step in the right direction and typically winning the NBA championship is a process that takes several years, but anything less than a championship should not be looked at as success. Until the Nuggets start thinking that way, nights like last night will be the biggest event we ever experience as Nuggets fans.
Celebrate the step Denver has taken, but make sure you want and demand more from this franchise.
At this point I do not have a lot to add about last night’s game. Mentally I have switched over to the next series, which is nice to be able to say.
There, now that that’s done we can start focusing on Dallas.
The NBA has announced the Schedule for the Nuggets/Mavericks series.
As we knew game one will be played Sunday at 1:30 PM Mountain time and will be aired on ABC.
Game two will be Tuesday, May 5 and it will be the 8:30 PM Mountain time game on TNT.
Game three will not be played until Saturday, May 9 in order to give the teams plenty of time to get from Denver to Dallas by covered wagon in case they cannot get a flight. That game will air at 3:00 PM Mountain time and will be broadcast on ESPN.
Game four is slated for Monday, May 11 and will be on TNT at 7:30 Mountain time.
Games five, six and seven do not have start times yet, but will be on every other day with game five on Wednesday, May 13 (TNT), game six Friday, May 15 (ESPN) and game seven on Sunday, May 17 with the network to be determined.
Tickets will go on sale Friday at 6:00 PM Mountain time on line at Ticketmaster, via phone at 800-4NBATIX and at the Nuggets Pepsi Center box office. There will be a lottery at 5:15 PM Mountain time to determine the position in line. Anyone arriving after the lottery will be placed in a secondary line.
I think the wait between games two and three is bogus and I am not a big fan of the lottery process. If someone wants to camp out in line for 70 hours more power to them. Of course, I understand there are liability issues involved and we need a way to complicate thing for ticket brokers, but there is something exciting about seeing people huddling in the cold all night long to get that primo seat for a big sporting event.
Bring on the Mavericks.
It may not have been as impressive as a 58 point beat down, but the Denver Nuggets still cruised to their third relatively easy win at home with a 107-86 series clinching victory.
There are plenty of excuses for the New Orleans Hornets, mostly surrounding the health of Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler, who was held out of game five with a bad ankle. Excuses aside Denver was clearly the best team and a healthy Hornets’ squad would still have had to deal with the defense the Nuggets brought for most of five games.
We have seen Denver play pressure defense from time to time during the regular season, but never for entire games and never for multiple games in a row. This team has come alive in the playoffs and they are playing defense that I feel confident saying has never been seen in Denver. Maybe someone from the ABA days can correct me, but the exceptional teams of the mid 1980’s never locked down like this team has.
That being said, the Nuggets defense was solid, but not spectacular in the first half and a good chunk of the third quarter. They were switching a lot of screens and I lost count of how many times Nene was stuck guarding Chris Paul one on one. Still Denver was playing hard and did not let the game get out of hand. As we have seen so often this season they ratcheted up the defensive pressure down the stretch in the third quarter.
Denver struggled to gain any momentum throughout the game as neither team was able to take control. The game was tied at 62 when Melo, stuck guarding Hilton Armstrong in the post, tricked Rasual Butler into attempting a lob pass. Carmelo quickly spun and tipped the pass away triggering a fast break that Dahntay Jones finished at the other end with a nice layup at the 5:15 mark. Both teams failed to score for the next few possessions until Chauncey hit one of his patented dribble up threes with 3:34 left.
The next trip down Shawn Marks set a high screen for Chris Paul and Jones stayed with Marks on the switch. However, he noticed Paul blew by Nene and darted towards the rim hoping to stop a wide open layup. Dahntay recovered in time to not only challenge the shot, but he actually blocked the attempt that morphed from an open shot to a hopeless flailing effort by Paul and it all happened in a fraction of a second.
During the dead ball Jones was replaced by J.R. Smith. Smith was able to challenge Posey on a post up and Denver took the ball back up the floor. Smith hung back in the middle of the floor as Chauncey dribbled up the right side of the court. Melo busted his butt up the left side of the floor and earned position on the right block against Peja. Seeing this Posey sagged down to double Melo in order to prevent him from getting the ball. As a result no one noticed J.R. setting up about 28 feet from the hoop. Chauncey made a crisp pass to J.R. who splashed the three putting Denver up eight.
New Orleans called a timeout to try to calm things down. One of the small stories of the series was how timeouts rarely had much of an effect in stopping the Nuggets. Late in games one and two, early in game three and throughout game four Byron Scott called timeouts in an attempt to slow the Nuggets’ momentum and those timeouts were generally ineffective in doing so. Denver came out of the timeout fired up and after Chris Andersen and Chauncey trapped Chris Paul and forced him well beyond the three point line he passed across the floor to Posey who lost control and turned the ball over.
Chauncey brought the ball up the floor and covered by Paul probed here and there to see if he could get in the lane. Paul did not leave any easy openings so Billups turned to back him down. All along J.R. was once again spotted up in the middle of the floor about eight feet or so beyond the three point line. As Chauncey turned his back to Paul Kenyon darted to the top of the circle to seal off Butler. The funny thing was as he was running to set the screen he was pointing with his thumb over his shoulder to J.R. informing Billups that he was about to ensure J.R. could get another three. Chauncey made a crisp pass and J.R. nailed it putting the Nuggets up 11.
New Orleans would never be that close again as Denver scored on their last six possessions of the third quarter (starting with Chauncey’s walk up three) and they also converted on their first four possessions of the fourth quarter.
So there you have it Nuggets fans. Denver dominated this series and won easier than even the most optimistic fan thought possible. The Nuggets averaged 24.2 more points per game that the Hornets and I believe have proven themselves a team to be taken seriously for as long as they remain active in the playoffs.
Look for additional nuggets tomorrow, but if you still thirst for more of my thoughts on game five, including a bit on Melo’s maturation, you will enjoy box seven of the Daily Dime (although I recommend checking out the other nine boxes too).
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: Game Five – 88.9 | Series – 88.5
Defensive Efficiency: Game Five – 96.7 | Series – 95.1
Offensive Efficiency: Game Five – 120.3 | Series – 122.4
Before I sign off for the night I would also like to thank Niall Doherty and Ryan Schwan from Hornets 24/7 for the insight they provided throughout the series. They run a great blog and they proved to be a class act on top of everything else as Niall sent me a very gracious email following the game.
I am not sure how to handle tonight’s game. I will say I know I should be thrilled. Logic tells me tonight will be nothing short of a formality. The Denver Nuggets are clearly a more talented and hungry team than the New Orleans Hornets. New Orleans is overmatched, banged up and mentally broken. I do not think you can make a credible case that the Hornets’ will win tonight. The only real reason seems to be they have too much pride to not come out and play well after such a lopsided beat down. The time to show pride was entering the third quarter of game four and New Orleans clearly folded.
So there you have it. As long as Denver plays hard a victory tonight should be a foregone conclusion. If that is the case, then how come I am so nervous?
I am like the dog that gets beaten every day after his owner gets home from work. The twenty plus years of experience I have of cheering for the Nuggets has conditioned me to always prepare for the worst case scenario. All the data and everything I have seen over the previous month compels me to expect a Nuggets victory and in my mind I do. My heart is just not so quick to make the leap.
Feel free to judge me or if you can understand where I am coming from, to commiserate with a fellow fan who is held hostage by fear.
Take this with you: As an NBA fan I really want to see how Chris Paul reacts to being almost completely shut down. For the good of the league part of me wants to see him play well. I think the fact he tweaked his knee has given him the excuse to underachieve. I believe that he has admitted to himself, at least subconsciously, that the Hornets are going down and there is no reason for him to kill himself for the sake of his teammates who are clearly not holding up their part of the bargain. Will we get the game three Chris Paul with the killer instinct or a disinterested one who is resigned to his fate?
Tonight in game four of the first round playoff series between the Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Hornets the Nuggets did many things well. You have to do a lot of things well to tie the all time NBA playoff record for largest margin of victory at 58.
Denver played great defense, great offense and I thought Carmelo took another major step towards proving he has finally figured out how to play in the playoffs. Out of those three I cannot decide which to discuss first so in the spirit of the choose your own adventure books that I used to read in college elementary school I will let you choose what you want to read about first. Make your choice below:
|Read about Carmelo first||Read about the defense first||Read about the offense first|
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 87.2
Defensive Efficiency: 72.2 – Best single game of the season topping their 80.7 from game 53 in Orlando.
Offensive Efficiency: 138.7 – Second best of the season behind their 139.7 in game 68 against New Jersey.
After game two I was giddy with the possibility that Carmelo might have turned a corner. He accumulated nine assists and I was hoping it was a sign that Carmelo was going to stop forcing his way through double teams and start finding the cracks in the defense.
Game three came and went and I did not mention anything about whether or not I thought Melo had proven the nine assist game a fluke or if he had truly learned from five seasons of post season failure.
After watching game two I have to say that findings are inconclusive.
Carmelo started the game forcing three straight jumpers, none of which were close, and it looked like the old Carmelo had returned. However, he quickly realized his shot was not falling and began attacking the basket. The Hornets appeared to eschew the immediate hard trap for more of a soft double pre-rotating so that the help defenders were already in place.
Having the help defender lay off closed off some of the passing lanes Melo took advantage of, but the result was Melo was able to get into the lane almost at will. He did struggle to finish from time to time as the Hornets did a good job of meeting him at the rim and going straight up to avoid fouling.
After his initial barrage of jumpers over the first four and a half minutes Mel only took six more the remainder of the game. It was the first time all series the Hornets allowed him to penetrate. It will be interesting to see tonight how the Hornets play him if they stick with the soft double or trap right away although I would expect them to mix it up as the game progresses.
Melo did finish the game with five assists even though he was able to be more aggressive with the drive. However the Nuggets needed a sixth assist from him in order to pull out a win as his pass in the final seconds to Kenyon Martin was tipped away.
So did the light go off in Melo’s head before or during game two? I would have to say I remain encouraged that after the first few minutes he did not force outside shots, nor did he force passes when they were not there. He took what the defense gave him and that is what good offensive players do. The key tonight will be for Melo to recognize how the Hornets are defending him from possession to possession and adjust accordingly.
Of course, it would also be nice when he does drive to complete the play and hit the shot.
I have to admit I am a little worried about the return of the elbow contusion. It really bothered him earlier in the season and he reached the point where he basically could not score. If it gets that bad, Denver will be in some serious trouble.
As far as the rest of the Nuggets, game four will be another test of their collective will. The scary Chris Paul arrived in game three and I suspect he will be on the court for game four as well.
Watching game three it was pretty clear the Hornets exceeded the Nuggets’ intensity for the first time. Now that the Hornets have a sense of hope their intensity will burn even hotter, which in turn will make the Nuggets job even more difficult.
As Andrew at Denver Stiffs pointed out it seems that in most playoff series that end after five games the losing team tends to win game three at home. I agree that certainly seems to be the case. Of course, we do not know if this will be a five, six or seven game series. After tonight we will have a much better idea. Should the Nuggets win, I think they win game five to close out the series. If they lose tonight, this thing is going seven games.
Take this with you: I do not think we can count on Nene to provide any offense whatsoever right now. He certainly looks slow and when he makes a move he has been using all season to score and the defense is able to stay with him, it baffles him. As a result his confidence has disappeared. Nene’s four shots were the third lowest total of the season. It looks like the Nuggets are going to have to win this series without him.
If the Nuggets are going to give themselves a good chance to advance as far as they can they need to win the next two games and hopefully earn Melo and Nene some time to rest.
If you have not done so yet, look at the box score. Look at how close those stats are. Go right down the line and you will notice only two numbers where there is a difference of more than one or two digits. The first is field goal attempts. The Nuggets took five more shots, but made the same number as the Hornets, 30. The other number is free throws made. Denver made four fewer free throws even though both teams shot 35.
The Nuggets did shoot 35 free throws , which would seem to signify they were being aggressive on offense, but if you look at the shot chart you can see how perimeter oriented their offense was (keep in mind, missed shots resulting in free throws do not show up as they are not counted as an attempt and the dot in front of the rim represents more than one shot).
Now look at another couple numbers. Check out the Game Info page and look at the fast break points and points in the paint. The Hornets led in both categories with a 22-6 advantage in fast break points and New Orleans outscored the Nuggets in points in the paint 44-30.
(Warning, the rest of this section may seem very self congratulatory, but trust me, I am just reporting what happened. Do not let the fact that I was right about this stuff make it sound like I am trying to tell you how great I am.)
When I was a guest on the podcast with Alejandro de los Rios and he asked me what Hornets fans could look at to help themselves feel better after their losses I mentioned the Nuggets were not getting many points in the paint and they had been playing almost exclusively on the perimeter. From Chauncey to J.R. to Melo a great deal of their offense was coming off of jumpers. When those jumpers stopped falling we all knew the Nuggets could be in trouble.
New Orleans also made some important adjustments that I may have mentioned. I thought the Nuggets would struggle to defend the pick and roll if the Hornets ran it with Nene’s man setting the screen every time. Tonight, when Nene was on the floor the Hornets were doing exactly that. That affected the Nuggets’ defense in three big ways. First of all, Nene was almost exclusively guarding Tyson Chandler or Sean Marks and those two are the best New Orleans has at rolling to the basket after setting the screen requiring the Nuggets to suck into the paint.
Secondly, it reduced their dependence on David West. As I mentioned after game two the Hornets were force feeding West instead of working to get the ball to their hot shooters. By setting fewer screens with West it allowed him to either spot up or attack the glass (he pulled down three offensive boards in game three after pulling down only one in each of the first two games) and also and allowed Paul to spread the ball around more and find players like Posey in the first half and Butler in the second who were hitting their shots. Thirdly running the pick and roll at Nene forced Nene to try to contain Paul and he has proven to be the worst Nuggets big man at keeping Paul out of the paint. Also, four of Nene’s six fouls were a result of defending the pick and roll. Two were called when he tried to dislodge the screener and two were instances where Paul drove into his body.
Another adjustment I thought the Hornets needed to make was to allow Paul to attack the Nuggets’ porous transition defense. Paul was very aggressive in game three and there were many occasions where he was able to get in the paint easily in transition.
The other change Paul needed to make was to be himself. That means splitting double teams and to not give up his dribble so easily. Saturday afternoon we saw the MVP caliber Paul that I was so afraid of heading into the series. If he can squeeze off two or three more 32 and 12 performances another one of my comments will turn out to come true as well and that is these two teams will play all seven games of this series.
Additional Round 1 Game 3 Nuggets
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 87.4
Defensive Efficiency: 108.7 – Much higher than what they did in the first two games, but not bad. If they can hold New Orleans in that area for game four it should be good enough to win.
Offensive Efficiency: 106.4 – This was the area that really killed them. The jumpers stopped falling and so did their efficiency.
Now the real work starts. As George Karl has pointed out approximately 236 times since the end of game two a playoff series does not start until someone wins on the road. A win today in New Orleans would end the competitive portion of the series. Heading into this postseason there have been 85 instances of a team taking a 3-0 lead in a seven game series. Those teams have won 85 times. Only nine of those 85 games have made it to game six and only three of those teams won game six to force game seven.
As good as the Nuggets have been on offense, it has been their defense that has carried them. The good news is great defense translates no matter where a game is being played. If the Nuggets can produce the same defensive effort as they did in the first two games you have to like their chances to win game three.
However, we do not know how much the energy from the home crowd has helped boost their performance. Truly great defensive teams thrive off of silencing a crowd on the road as much as inspiring their own fans. At this point the Nuggets are not in the truly great category. On the season Denver posted a 105.6 defensive efficiency rating at home, but that number slid to 110.0 on the road. Clearly the Nuggets have raised their focus to a new level during the playoffs, but two games does not a reputation make although they are off to a good start. Another top notch defensive effort tomorrow on the road will improve their case considerably.
The other primary story of the series has been the historic play of Chauncey Billups. Out of all the incredible performances in NBA playoff history there has only been one player to score more points in the first two games of a series than Chauncey’s 67 without committing a turnover. You may have heard of him, his name rhymes with Gichael Tordan. Yes, MJ himself scored 70 points in the first two games of the 1998 NBA Finals without coughing the ball up. Sure it is a made up stat, but it sure sounds cool doesn’t it?
Reader Pedro from Brazil (the Internet sure gets around doesn’t it?) crunched some numbers and figured out that between his 67 points and 12 assists Billups has accounted for 92 of Denver’s 221 points in the series which equates to 41.6%. That is pretty impressive, but when you look at his numbers for when he is on the court it gets even better. The Nuggets have scored 178 points with Chauncey on the floor and his production has accounted for 51.7% of those 178 points. By comparison LeBron James accounted for 51.9% of Cleveland’s points when he was on the floor (I am assuming that is a regular season number, but it might be just for the playoffs) so you can see Chauncey’s first two games of the post season are MVP caliber.
I have somewhat similar numbers for Paul, but they are based on field goals instead of points so it does not take into account three point shots. This season Chris Paul either scored or assisted on 51.3% of the Hornets’ field goals. That is the third highest total ever behind John Stockton’s 51.6% in 1990-91 and Nate Archibald’s record 53.5% in 1972-73. Paul has been “struggling” in the playoffs, but he has still either scored or assisted on a whopping 57.1% of the Hornets’ field goals. Perhaps instead of ripping on Paul’s performance we should be impressed that he is doing so well considering how strong the Nuggets have been on the defensive end.
In my mind the one aspect of the game I am most excited to witness is whether or not Carmelo will have another highly effective and unselfish attitude when it comes to passing out of the double teams he will undoubtedly see. We will see if his nine assist game was a case of temporary sanity or an aberration. If he truly has changed his stripes, it is just another reason to watch out for the Nuggets over the next few weeks.
I do not think we need to get into X’s and O’s or matchups at this point. We know what both teams are trying to do. There may be some minor tweaks, perhaps Paul holds onto the ball longer and put the Nuggets’ bigs in the situation of trying to decide if they need to try to help pursue him as he backs away from the rim or if they should turn tail and try to recover back to their man. It is a no man’s land that big men hate. For the Nuggets perhaps they run the offense through Melo in the post more frequently to take advantage of his ability to find the open man out of the double.
If you want to worry about something worry about the game shifting to New Orleans. The Hornets were a very good, not great, home team this season in the regular season with a 28-13 record in the Big Easy. If we judge them by last season’s playoff performance there is reason to be concerned. In seven home games last postseason they were 6-1 and outscored their opponents (Dallas and San Antonio) by an average margin of 13.0 points per game. I can see you are thinking that the Hornets were a better team last season and that is true, but consider they were outscored by the same margin in their seven road games and you can see these guys are capable of turning up the heat in their own building.
Denver will have their work cut out for them, but the job is certainly one they can complete. Even with Chauncey due to slow down and the Hornets sure to come out swinging if Denver plays with the tremendous focus they brought to games one and two they should be in position to pull out another win.
Take this with you: The Hornets are claiming they still have confidence and believe they can come back in the series. The evidence they keep citing is their experience last season when they were up 2-0 after winning their first two home games against the Spurs, but ended up losing. I may be wrong, but is it really that encouraging to remind yourself how you could not win a series last season when you won the first two games when you have just lost the first two of another series? I think they are trying to trick themselves into thinking they have a shot the way I trick myself into thinking I can have a brownie smothered in Hershey’s chocolate syrup because I will run the next day. As soon as it is time to run I start thinking about how the wind is blowing and I have other things to do. Believe it or not I somehow end up not running. The Hornets are telling themselves they are going to run tomorrow, but if the Nuggets can make things hard on them, they will soon realize all the talk about going for a jog was just a bunch of bunk so they do not have to face the truth that they are a flat blob with a chocolate covered brownie problem.
As expected Jason Terry won the Sixth Man of the Year award today. He dominated the voting capturing 111 of the 121 first place votes and finishing with 576 points. J.R. Smith was his closest competitor garnering three first place votes, 36 second place votes and 32 third place votes for a total of 155. The only other player to total at least 100 points in the voting was New York’s Nate Robinson who finished with 113.
I think a lot of the voters probably made up their mind on this award early in the season. The stat I imagine most voters used to make up their minds, Terry’s 19.6 to 15.2 points per game average over J.R, was misleading as Terry also had a minutes played per game advantage of 33.9 to 27.7.
If you look closer you can see that there was very little statistical difference between the ratios and percentages for both players. Terry has a slight advantage in points per 40 minutes, 23.2 to 22.0. Both players averaged four assists per 40 minutes. Terry had better field goal (46.3% to 44.6%) and free throw percentages (85.7% to 75.4%), but J.R. surpassed him every so slightly in true shooting percentage (57.6% to 57.1%). Terry also held a small advantage in turnover ratio (7.3 to 10.2). The one major advantage for Smith was rebounding as he nearly doubled Terry’s rebound rate (7.7 to 4.1) which equates to 5.3 rebounds per 40 minutes for Smith and only 2.8 for Terry.
When you throw in the difference in team success I think this should have been a much closer vote.