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.