It is only one game and I am trying not to get too carried away so I am going to try to remain composed and will simply say I enjoyed that thoroughly.
There were three aspects of the Nuggets performance that simply blew me away. The first was the clutch shooting of Chauncey Billups. Normally the clutch arrives at the end of games. Tonight Chauncey showed us what it means to be clutch early in a game.
The Nuggets know how important this series is for the franchise and to start the game they played like they felt the pressure. At the end of the first quarter Nuggets not named Chauncey Billups had shot 2-12 and committed six turnovers. Billups was 5-6 with no turnovers. While the rest of the team was fretting about what might happen if they lost this game Chauncey with the calm and confidence of a player who has actually made it out of the first round.
Without Chauncey stepping up and keeping Denver in the game early on there is no telling how tight the Nuggets’ sphincters would have become. Chauncey’s incredible play allowed Denver the opportunity to relax and just play basketball. By the time the third quarter came around the Nuggets had settled in and were just playing basketball. They buried the Hornets with a 21-0 run spanning the third and fourth quarters and the game was over.
There were times this season where I have wished to see more on court leadership from Chauncey. After watching him tonight I feel foolish for questioning that aspect of his personality. He clearly came alive tonight and even though there will be nights where his shot is not falling he will still bring his leadership night in and night out. (For a little bit more insight on Chauncey’s performance click here and go to item three.)
The second aspect of the Nuggets’ win, which was and will be equally important to what Chauncey brings to the table, was the Nuggets’ great defense. In order for the Hornets to win this series Chris Paul is going to have to be otherworldly. Tonight he was simply himself and that was not good enough. The Nuggets were able to force four turnovers and held him to 36.8% shooting. More importantly Denver was able to keep him from owning the paint.
We mentioned the Nuggets 21-0 run in the second half. In order to complete a 21-0 run you have to hold the opponents to zero points while you score 21.
The run began with New Orleans going to West in the post on back to back possessions which both resulted in turnovers. The next possession Chris Paul, being pressured by Chris Andersen and Chauncey Billups, lost the ball. After that West was able to get in the paint, but missed a layup (although he did not get credit for a block on the play, I think Birdman got enough of a fingertip on it to reroute the ball). To end the quarter J.R. Smith made a great hustle play to tip the ball away from Devin Brown and off his leg forcing yet another turnover.
We have talked about how the Nuggets can play great defense when they are focused. Tonight was a great defensive effort from everyone. Carmelo had a couple of moments that had me going nuts (both switches for no reason), but from start to finish I believe this was his best defensive game of his NBA career.
The third aspect of this game I thought was important was how the Nuggets not only matched the intensity and desire of Chris Paul, they surpassed it. Denver was certainly the hungrier team and they showed it. Whenever two teams play each other for a week or two they develop some bad blood and you get some shoving matches, harsh words and intense glares. Tonight’s game felt like game four from that standpoint. It was very physical and while a player like Tyson Chandler was pushing and bumping into people just for the sake of appearing physical, the Nuggets played the game with physicality. What I mean by that is defensively and on the boards they made sure they accomplished what they wanted whether holding their ground or clearing space. They were not bumping into other players away from the ball just to be physical, they were playing basketball physically.
The other big story was Melo’s performance. The glass half full version is Denver had a great offensive game without Melo having a big night. (In fact, he was on the bench for the entirety of the 21-0 run and did not play at all over the final 15:11.) He still contributed on defense and he has nowhere to go but up. The glass half empty version is he has a history of shooting a low percentage in the playoffs and his 4-12 performance in game one will only serve to exacerbate things. I still think Melo will have a big series. New Orleans is paying a lot of attention to him, doubling and showing help as soon as he touches the ball, but I still think he will do a better job of attacking the rim and his jumper will start falling.
Denver may have made it by the Hornets without Melo tonight, but they will need him to produce on offense if they are going to win this series.
The Nuggets have won the first game for the third time in their six recent playoff appearances. I think this time they actually win the series.
Additional Round 1 Game 1 Nuggets
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 92.2 – A little slow for a Nuggets home game, but still quicker than what New Orleans likes.
Defensive Efficiency: 91.1 – Incredible performance. The Hornets shot merely 35.1% on two point shots.
Offensive Efficiency: 122.6 – A great rating for the postseason where things are supposed to slow down and points are supposed to be difficult to come by.