For the first time in the postseason the Denver Nuggets trail in a series. There are two ways to look at tonight’s 105-103 loss at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers. Either Denver proved that they can hang with the Lakers and good things are ahead or the Nuggets proved that even when Carmelo plays what may have been the best game of his career and Denver outplays the Lakers for a vast majority of the game they still cannot win in Los Angeles.
There is some pretty good evidence to support both sides of the argument.
In the Nuggets’ favor if there was any question that Denver was going to be a match for Los Angeles, the debate is over. Denver is playing at a much higher level than they did at any time during the regular season. There were a couple of points in the game where the regular season version of the Nuggets would have fallen apart and been knocked out early.
On the other hand, this game set up perfectly for Denver. They got out to a quick lead to build their confidence. Andrew Bynum was in foul trouble for most of the night. Carmelo played an absolutely incredible game and they had a lead late in the proceedings. It is difficult to imagine Denver having as good of a chance to win in Los Angeles as they did tonight.
If Denver does rebound and win game two (or game five or game seven) in L.A. it will be because of Carmelo. Melo was nothing short of amazing in game one. Offensively he not only continued his hot shooting, but he went nova.
Carmelo drained 14 of his 20 attempts including 4-5 from behind the arc. Before the series I suggested that Melo and the Nuggets had figured out the Lakers’ defense, but I never expected him to go from completely contained as he was for the first three games this season to finding the cracks as he did in game 80 that was featured in my film room segment to being completely dominant as he was tonight.
Unfortunately, Carmelo was not much of a factor in the closing seconds. Following a charge call at the 2:07 mark, Anthony did not get another touch for the rest of the game. Kobe deserves some credit for that as he treated him like an employee at Cordillera (sorry, I could not resist), but the Nuggets consistently went away from him. Nevertheless, I think we can safely expect Carmelo to have a big series and as a result Denver is going to put up a big fight against L.A.
The sad thing is this game was the Nuggets’ to lose after Chauncey hit his first of two huge threes in the closing minutes at the 1:38 mark to put Denver up 99-97 and they lost it. A monsoon of mistakes down the stretch undid 46 minutes of tremendous effort.
The downslide started when on the ensuing Lakers’ possession the Nuggets forced a bad three by Derek Fisher, but Nene got out of position on Gasol, who of course went to the rim for the rebound, and as a result Nene chose to do the Paso Doble and gave Gasol an earnest embrace. If Nene did not realize it before, he now knows you cannot make a play on a rebound with both hands snuggly attached to a seven foot Spaniard. Nene’s grasp did not prevent Pau from grabbing the ball though, which he did, and was fouled. Pau made both free throws to tie the game.
At the other end of the floor Chris Andersen, in the game for Nene who fouled out in 32 minutes of floor time, missed a short attempt badly triggering a free for all for the basketball. A jump ball was called and Los Angeles gained control. Melo forced Kobe into a missed jumper, but Gasol prevented Chauncey from collecting the rebound giving the Lakers yet another second chance.
They capitalized on that second chance thanks to a bonehead reach by Kenyon Martin. After Melo failed to fight through a screen from Gasol as vigorously as he had on previous possessions and that forced Kenyon to switch onto Kobe. Martin did a good job, but chose to reach for the ball resulting in a predictable foul. Kobe made both free throws putting the Nuggets down two.
Next came the play that made even junior high players queasy. Anthony Carter was inserted into the game for Andersen and it was his job to throw the ball inbounds. There were three huge errors on the play that for all intents and purposes ended the game. George Karl drew up a play for Carmelo who set up on the right block and ran off a triple screen towards the ball. Gasol, he has popped up a quite a bit in these closing possessions, stepped out and covered Melo preventing him from coming open for the pass. Mistake number one occurred at this point as Carter did not turn to look at option two, Chauncey coming off a double screen, soon enough. He was still looking at Carmelo when Chauncey came open.
Mistake number two was the weak floating pass that Carter threw to Chauncey. He was being covered by the 6’ 10” Odom and for some reason Carter decided instead of making a high ball fake to get Odom’s hands in the air and following it up by throwing a crisp bounce pass the best pass for the situation would be a high floater over the head of the lanky defender. It was just an abominable pass, one that a halfway decent junior high player would never think of throwing.
As the ball hung in the air with Trevor Ariza closing quickly there is still hope for Denver. Chauncey simply has to come towards the ball to cut off Ariza’s angle. Doing so would result not only in Chauncey receiving the pass, but probably a foul as well with Ariza running at the ball in fourth gear. Enter mistake number three as Chauncey was actually fading away from the pass. Everything went wrong for Denver and Ariza took the ball up the floor.
There was still hope for Denver as there was roughly a five second difference between the game clock and shot clock. If they could get one more stop, they would have a chance to tie or win in the closing moments. Carter made one last mistake as he lunged at the ball, he did not reach, he lunged, which Kobe was dribble with his right hand. A quick between the legs crossover from Kobe’s right hand to his left allowed him plenty of room to drive past Carter leading to another foul before he could reach the rim.
Two more free throws and the Nuggets were down four. An amazing Billups’ three from the corner brought Denver to within one, but two more Kobe free throws pushed the lead back up to three.
Los Angeles fouls J.R. Smith before he can get a potentially game tying three off. J.R. makes the first free throws and misses the second, but Denver could not collect the carom. Over the final 1:38 the Nuggets made numerous mistakes. Basic principles of boxing out, playing defense with your feet and not your hands and making the correct pass went out the window and little details like that cost the Nuggets a huge game one win.
There is also the little issue of free throw shooting. Denver took 11 more free throws than the Lakers did, but they only converted three more than L.A. That is not good. The two biggest offenders were J.R. Smith who shot 2-6 and surprisingly Chauncey who missed his first three before making the next six. If Denver can just muster shooting 71.5%, 25-35, they get the two points they were missing.
Denver did a lot of things right. Their offense in the first quarter was exceptional with great ball movement even though it fell off quite a bit as the game wore on and the Lakers’ defense awoke. Despite Kobe’s large point total, they did a decent job of keeping him out of the lane for most of the game and Denver did not allow the Lakers to get many easy buckets in transition or in their early offense.
Unfortunately there were some pretty serious things that went wrong too. Even though Bynum did not play much, the Lakers still dominated in the area of offensive rebounds. The Lakers collected over 36% of their missed shots. The league average is right around 25%. Kobe proved to be too much for Dahntay Jones to handle and despite his best efforts Anthony Carter did not get the job done either. Even without trying to double much the Lakers took 25 threes and made 11 of them good for a 44% conversion rate.
The really frightening news is J.R. Smith sprained his knee on the final play where the Nuggets were fighting to gain control of his missed free throw. The official word from the Nuggets is vague as they say his status will be updated sometime on Wednesday.
Look for additional thoughts tomorrow, or actually later today.