I wrote after game one there should be no question the Denver Nuggets are a capable opponent for the Los Angeles Lakers. If there were still any doubters the Nuggets’ 106-103 game two victory has permanently closed debate although at this point the only people who needed convincing of the Nuggets’ prowess were the most hardcore Lakers fans.
It cannot be overstated how much the Nuggets are playing in the playoffs. They never played this well for this long during the regular season. With there being so much pressure, both internally and externally, to get out of the first round I believe this team was really chomping at the bit for the playoffs to start from the time they acquired Chauncey. George Karl said on multiple occasions that he thought Denver would explode once they made it past the first round. Well, he was absolutely right. The early success against the New Orleans Hornets has fired this team to an entirely different level of confidence. I lost track of how many times I heard analysts talk about how the Nuggets were a team comprised of knuckleheads. If you let knuckleheads taste success they become very dangerous just like in Bad News Bears.
Both teams were a little sluggish to start the game. After a relatively uninspiring first six minutes the Lakers slowly began to take control thanks to some seriously lazy play by Denver. Time after time Denver was beaten back in transition or standing and watching as a Laker player retrieved a missed shot and placed it snuggly in the basket. Things looked bleak as we were witnessing all the worst aspects of game one with an extra lack of interest thrown in for good measure.
Things slowly began to turn around in the middle of the second quarter. The catalyst was Carmelo Anthony. Melo started the game 1-6, but somehow willed himself into the zone (at least inside the three point arc). With the Nuggets down 14 Melo came out of a timeout and proceeded to pour in the Nuggets next 14 points in order to ensure they did not fall further behind. I think it was an incredibly significant moment in Carmelo’s career and you can read more about it here (#3).
While Melo kept Denver close with his scoring it may have been his recommendation that George Karl reinsert Linas Kleiza into the game with just under four minutes left in the second quarter that actually turned the tide. Karl complied and for the first time I can remember Denver went big.
The Nuggets had a lineup of Nene, Kenyon, Kleiza and Carmelo all on the floor with Chauncey. The Lakers did not get another offensive rebound for the rest of the quarter and Denver closed the half out on a 14-2 run.
There are a lot of Nuggets fans out there who have a strong dislike for Kleiza. He definitely regressed this season and he is typically a complete liability if his three point shot is not falling, which it has not been for months. I myself have been considering him nothing more than an asset to be traded in the offseason. Kleiza likes playing against the Lakers and he had a nice series against them last season. With J.R. clearly limited the Nuggets need someone off the bench to score. Kleiza might end up becoming a difference maker in this series. Kevin Arnovitz of ClipperBlog and TrueHoop fame has a nice segment on Kleiza in the Daily Dime (#8).
Love him or hate him you have to admit without Kleiza the Nuggets are down 0-2 in this series. What I loved about Kleiza’s play, I have definitely not written that in a very long while, was he knew Denver needed to keep the Lakers off the offensive glass and he was in the lane right at the rim on every shot attempt. His effort bore fruit as he pulled down eight big first half rebounds. His example was able to convince his teammates how important it is to swarm the paint. The Nuggets actually collected more offensive rebounds than the Lakers did, 14 to 13, and the total rebound battle was a virtual tie as well with L.A. claiming one more rebound than Denver, 43-32.
The Nuggets also remedied their free throw shooting although things were ugly early on again. Denver actually made 17 straight free throws and 18 of their final 19. The one miss sent hearts racing as it gave the Lakers the chance to tie the game up with a final desperation heave by Derek Fisher. Nene did a great job of fighting through an arm tackle by Paul Gasol and challenging the shot. He forced Fisher’s typically high arcing shot to a slightly higher trajectory than intended and the shot fell a foot or two shy of the mark.
It was a great win and I just cannot get enough of Carmelo right now. There is still room for improvement. He attempted a ridiculous number of threes, six, that left me begging for him to stop chucking them up. Those six three point attempts unduly drove his shooting percentage down. Carmelo ended up converting 12 of 23 two point attempts, which is very impressive. Melo also had a couple of very bad turnovers coming down the stretch. One was a pass directly into the teeth of the defense with no obvious recipient in the vicinity. The other he over dribbled moving at a snail’s pace on the perimeter coming off a screen and allowed Ariza to swoop in from behind and take the ball.
Even so the will and determination Carmelo is displaying is a new side we have not seen in the past. We all know Melo is competitive, you have to be in order to play at the highest level. What he has added is that will to succeed and to win and it is reflected in everything he does. Last season in the first round series against the Lakers if Melo found himself on Kobe, you could see him looking to switch off at the earliest possible moment. He has done a complete 180 as he now welcomes the challenge and is doing a pretty darn good job.
There was some consternation at the end of the game as there was a controversial jump ball resulting in a Laker turnover.
I watched the jump ball at the end of the game in super slow motion multiple times and the lane violation that the officials supposedly missed on J.R. was not nearly as clear cut of a call as the announcers and pundits would have you believe. J.R.’s first step was actually outside the circle and by the time his second step touched the ground inside the circle Gasol had already swiped at the ball, although he did miss it. yes, J.R. was in the circle before the ball was touched, but if you are going to stick to the letter of the law, the player who first set foot inside the circle was Lamar Odom who had his foot over the line before J.R. touched down inside the area in question.
The Lakers wanted Carmelo to be called for a foul after Ariza had gained possession. What happened, once again thanks to super slow mo technology, was Ariza’s left foot landed on Odom’s left foot and when Odom took a step it caused Ariza to lose his balance. Melo did not push Ariza. It was a very good no call.
There is much more to discuss, but I must get at least some sleep tonight. It is a shame I did not get to talk about Chauncey at all yet, but look for additional bullets sometime on Friday.
With tonight’s win game three just became much more exciting.