If you are looking for a reason why the Denver Nuggets struggled to duplicate their relatively easy wins from the first two games of the series against the Dallas Mavericks I will give you three. First Dallas played with more fire and intensity because they were at home. They are a very good home team.
Secondly Dallas finally started running and scoring in transition. In game three the Mavericks were credited with 21 fast break points while the Nuggets only compiled nine. Dallas had only scored 13 fast break points in the first two games while Denver rung up 54. Transition defense has been a weakness for the Nuggets all season and neither New Orleans nor Dallas have tried to take advantage of that aspect of the game.
Thirdly, the game was officiated in a way that was beneficial to the Mavericks. That is not a complaint. I thought the referees were consistent from start to finish, or at least from start through the first 11:57 of the fourth quarter. Dallas needs the referees to penalize Denver from playing physical defense and they did. In my opinion they called the game too tightly. The third quarter seemed like it lasted an hour. Dallas shot 21 free throws in the third quarter alone (all in the final 9:20) and the Nuggets shot 12. Thirty-three free throws in a single quarter is just brutal to watch.
However, it is difficult to be upset with the referees (and not because of the way the game ended). After watching the third quarter again the way the game was being officiated, it is hard to argue with the calls. Many of them were on plays where the Nuggets were reaching. Chauncey picked up two fouls trying to make a steal. At one point Melo had switched onto Dirk, he fought for position in the post and forced Nowitzki out to the three point line to receive the pass. Then he banged with Dirk continuing to fight for every inch he could. Then after working that hard, he bails Dirk out by slapping his arms when he pivoted to shoot. The Nuggets committed fouls due to either lazy defense or getting caught out of position.
Foul trouble became an issue in the third quarter as Chauncey, Chris Andersen and Nene all were called for their fourth foul by the midpoint of the third quarter. Andersen committed two bad frustration fouls which gave him five fouls with over three minutes left in the third. He would foul out after playing less than 11 minutes.
As a result the Nuggets were forced to play with a smaller lineup and with the Mavericks forcing their way into the paint more frequently it forced the Nuggets to foul even more to prevent easy shots at the rim.
As the game progressed it was apparent to me that Dallas was playing with just a tad bit more intensity and intelligence at both ends of the floor. As I have written before it is impossible to manufacture desperation and Dallas was playing with desperation. Add in the poor shooting by the Nuggets in the first half, the lackadaisical defense resulting in the free throw parade in the third quarter, the foul trouble born out of sloppy defense and the Nuggets not being able to put together that decisive run we have become accustom to and it was a very frustrating game to watch. The Nuggets did not play their best and everything I was watching convinced me the Nuggets would not pull this game out. They lost a close game three in New Orleans and they were about to lose a close game three in Dallas.
With 34 seconds left Anthony Carter made the horrible decision, as he frequently does, to run at Dirk from behind Dirk in an attempt to steal the ball. Carter left Jason Terry all alone in the corner and in a play you could see happening before everything actually happened Dirk passed over to Terry who hit the open three to put Dallas up 105-101. Game over, or at least so I thought.
From that point on the Mavericks made four big mistakes. First of all needing to run some clock they allowed Carmelo to score on a dunk in only 2.6 seconds. I realize you do not want to foul, but at least make Melo change directions. If they manage to force just two more seconds off the clock, I think Denver has to foul on ensuing possession instead of playing to get one more stop with time on the clock.
The second mistake was made by Dirk. Not only did Dirk take some terrible shots down the stretch, but he probably lost the game for Dallas by shooting far too early on their second to last possession. There was a differential of roughly four seconds between the shot clock and game clock. Dirk shot with six seconds left on the shot clock. By the time Denver corralled the rebound and called timeout there were 6.5 seconds left. If Dirk shoots that shot with just one or two seconds on the shot clock, Denver is looking at only a second or two to tie or win the game instead of 6.5.
The final two mistakes were the inability to foul convincingly, which I have already written about, and the unimaginative inbounds play the Mavericks ran at the end of the game. I thought the final inbounds play by the Mavericks was pretty weak. The Mavs only needed two points to win and running a play for Dirk or Terry to catch running away from the basket, forcing them to turn and shoot from long range was silly. I think Dallas could have had Josh Howard cutting to the rim. They should have known Denver would be focusing on Dirk and Terry which would have allowed Howard, who set a screen for Dirk, but when Howard curled around the backside he ran towards the opposite sideline instead of at the rim plus Brandon Bass was just sitting on the offside block anyway.
If Dallas makes better decisions or better plays in any of those four situations, apart from the final play with only a second left, that is a tough situation to bounce back from, perhaps the game ends up differently.
If you are looking for one thing that turned the game in the Nuggets’ favor look no further than a defensive adjustment George Karl made midway through the fourth quarter. With Dirk scoring almost at will off of all the defensive switches the Nuggets were employing Karl changed things up during a timeout with 6:22 remaining in the fourth. From that point on Denver started defending screens straight up with the big man hedging to slow down the ball handler and then recovering back to his man. From that point on I believe Denver only switched one more screen the rest of the game. However, Dallas probably did not realize the Nuggets had changed tactics for a couple of minutes because they posted Jason Kidd up on Chauncey for four or five straight possessions.
Dallas ran their last set with Kidd posting up Billups at the 3:17 mark when Chauncey finally kept Kidd out of the lane and forced a bad turnaround jumper. From that point on Dallas ran their regular down screens and pick and pop sets against the Nuggets more stout non-switching pick defense. The result was out of Dallas’ final six shots not one of them came from in the lane. Four of those six shots were badly forced jumpers by Dirk over Kenyon (of course one of them was the final shot of the game where Dirk had no choice, but to shoot a contested jumper).
When the Nuggets switch and Dirk is covered by a guard or Melo, he will back the smaller defender down and get an easy two. If he has a big man on him, he almost always settles for the jumper. By making sure Kenyon stayed on Dirk it ensured Nowitzki will take much more difficult shots.
Denver did hold the Mavericks to 40.0% shooting so from that standpoint it is difficult to say Denver did a poor defensive job, but I will. The Nuggets hardnosed defense we saw against the Hornets has been softened because of all the switching. Denver was forced to foul because the Mavs had the ball in the lane all night long. The Nuggets defensive efficiency in games two and three against Dallas has been their two worst of the postseason.
The Nuggets now have a chance at sweeping the Mavericks tonight in Dallas. How amazing has this run been?
Additional Round 2 Game 3 Nuggets
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 90.7 – Exactly the same as game two.
Defensive Efficiency: 115.8 – Exactly the same as game two as the pace factor was the same and Dallas scored 105 points in both games.
Offensive Efficiency: 116.9 – Once again the offense was solid even with J.R. Smith struggling and Melo shooting a poor percentage.