The Denver Nuggets suffered a heart breaking 103-94 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in game five of the Western Conference Finals, the question we will not know for a another couple of days is if it was a back breaking loss as well.
The sad thing is it was Denver’s game to lose. After going up 71-64 and 7:23 remaining in the third quarter Denver crumbled like a week old muffin.
The Nuggets would only score 23 more points over the final 19:23. Conversely during that span the Lakers poured in 39 points flipping a seven point deficit into a nine point victory. Denver was able to maintain their seven point lead for a couple more minutes, but turned the ball over on four straight possessions over 1:20 allowing the Lakers to tie the game at 73. Denver would never recover.
Los Angeles, lead by the team play of Kobe Bryant and the determination of Lamar Odom, played with a great deal of intensity on defense and unselfishness on offense. The Nuggets on the other hand struggled with their communication on defense, a big point of emphasis in training camp, and turned more and more individualistic on offense.
The one Nuggets player who tried to will Denver to a victory was Carmelo Anthony. He did his best to carry the team on his shoulders as he ferociously attacked the rim over and over in the fourth quarter, but only had a gaggle of missed shots, a few free throws and some bumps and bruises to show for it.
The biggest problem with Melo’s attacking style was the Nuggets did nothing to set it up. Instead of getting Melo the ball off of a reversal and forcing the defense to try to stop him after getting out of formation from ball movement Denver just fed Melo the ball and forced him to go into the teeth of the defense.
The Lakers deserve credit for doing a great job of packing the paint and the referees were allowing contact in the lane, but Denver made it possible with their unimaginative offense.
At the other end of the floor the Lakers were doing all the things Denver was not and as a result they earned much easier looks.
The Nuggets displayed some defensive incompetence as well from time to time. It was not uncommon to see a Laker player standing alone awaiting a pass for an easy shot. The final example of that incompetence came with just over a minute remaining and Denver down 96-91. Chauncey doubled Pau in the post which required J.R. to rotate to Fisher and Kleiza onto Kobe. Kobe drove a step past Kleiza and Carmelo came over to help. At that point Kleiza retreated over to Ariza, but Melo expecting LK to stay with Kobe backed off as well. This left Kobe wide open for a dagger three, but instead of taking the shot he fired a diagonal pass across the court to Odom. Chauncey had switched onto Odom in all the rotating that took place, but was caught staring at Kobe as he rose for his shot. By the end of the sequence neither Chauncey nor Melo were guarding anyone, but Kleiza was partly to blame as well. The Lakers did not do anything complicated it was just another example of poor or no communication on defense.
However, my biggest question for game one is where was Chauncey? Billups had nine points in the first nine minutes. It appeared we were in for one of his big games, but he completely disappeared in the second half and finished with a mere 12 points.
Chauncey’s second half numbers read like this: 1-3 shooting, all three point attempts, one rebound, three assists, two steals, two turnovers and two fouls. Three points and three assists with two turnovers in what may prove to be the biggest half of the Nuggets’ NBA franchise history. Shannon Brown deserves credit for the defense he played on Chauncey, but a player like Billups cannot disappear in this setting with so much on the line.
Chauncey did deal with a little bit of foul trouble as he was called for his second foul with 2:23 left in the first quarter and had to come out of the game. Chauncey typically plays the entire first quarter so that change in routine may have affected him. Plus that second foul was on a play where he was aggressively attacking the basket on a 2-1 fast break. Chauncey brought his right knee up to jump as is typical, but when he made contact with Trevor Ariza and his knee got caught up on Ariza’s chest. The contact made it look like Chauncey lead with his knee when all he was doing was jumping in a very natural motion. I understand why the call was made, but it was unfortunate nonetheless.
If there is good news out of the game five loss it is that Denver still has two opportunities to prove they are the better team and deserve to be in the finals. As long as the Nuggets win at home in game six they can earn a game seven where even though the home team typically wins, anything is possible.
Additional WCF Game 5 Nuggets
Next Gasol misses the free throw, but instead of stepping back into Lamar Odom to get as much space for the rebound as possible, Chris Andersen just steps forward into the lane. The ball comes off to Birdman’s side, but Odom is able to grab the carom because of those extra few inches Andersen surrendered by stepping into the lane on the shot. Birdman does manage to block Odom’s first attempt, but Odom stays with it and converts his next attempt. The Lakers have cut the Nuggets five point lead down to one in just 13 seconds.
The Nuggets now have the ball with 46.9 seconds left. They can either hold the ball and ensure Los Angeles only gets one more shot or they can try to go two for one which would require a shot between 35 and 30 seconds remaining in the quarter. Carmelo opts for neither one of those options and shoots with 38 seconds left. He is fouled and makes both free throws.
Now Los Angeles can pull off the two for one as long as they get a shot off within six or seven seconds. Kobe had been absolutely killing Denver in the two for one department with his ability to shoot the pull up three. J.R. Smith does a great job of hounding Kobe on the inbounds forcing the pass in to Walton. When Kobe does get the ball AC comes up and coerces Bryant into passing up the floor to Fisher. Fisher drives in and takes a jumper with 31 seconds left, perfect timing for a two for one opportunity, but the shot rims out. Kenyon cannot control the ball cleanly and he falls down in the lane. His solution is to call a timeout. It was the first of two timeouts that Denver called to avoid a jump ball situation and they could have used both of those timeouts in the fourth quarter.
I am sure you all remember what happened next. The Nuggets are set to inbound the ball from the side just a few feet from the baseline. This time J.R. Smith is throwing the ball in with Vujacic covering him. Instead of blanketing J.R. Sasha spins just as Smith receives the ball from the referee and jumps Chauncey who is making his cut to receive the pass. With Billups blanketed Kleiza has to run in from half court to give Smith another option to pass to. Kleiza is being pressured by Odom who is running with him a half a step behind. J.R. puts the pass in the only place Kleiza can get to it without Odom tipping it or stealing it. Kleiza, running full speed ahead, cannot control the ball with his left hand and it bounces out of bounds. Denver had an entire timeout to figure out how to get the ball inbounds and all they did was say J.R. you pass to Chauncey. I have no idea how you cannot have a second option readily available. You cannot blame Kleiza or J.R. Linas did a good job of recognizing that Smith needed someone to bail him out and J.R. made the best pass possible into a small window. If a player did anything wrong it was Kleiza trying to one hand the catch when he probably could have reached out with both hands, but it was clear absolutely no attention was given to the task of inbounding the ball during the timeout.
Los Angeles now has the ability to run the clock down as there is barely more than a second difference between the game clock and shot clock. Kobe dribbles the clock down before driving down the left side of the lane. He picks the left side knowing that the right side is congested with Odom, Gasol and Fisher. A drive to his left will allow him to either get to the rim or suck in the defense and pass to Vujacic in the left corner for an open three. As Kobe drives the defense does collapse. It collapses completely. All five Nuggets are within probably a four foot radius. J.R. Smith, who was guarding Vujacic in the left corner ended up on the right side of the lane. As the self proclaimed Machine goes into his shooting motion there is not a single Nugget player within 18 feet of him. J.R. must realize that both bigs will be there to help on the penetration and he cannot just abandon a shooter, no matter how cold he has been, in the corner.
It was that one last breakdown that allowed the Lakers to tie the game at 56 after scoring seven points in the final minute of the half. The game management and clock management from the players on the floor and the coaches on the bench was nonexistent and the attention to detail was completely lacking. At worst in that situation Denver should have gone into halftime with a four point lead.
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 93.3 – Just about average for the series.
Defensive Efficiency: 110.3 – Again not terrible, but a lot of little breakdowns kept Denver from winning this game with their defense.
Offensive Efficiency: 100.7 – Worst rating of the playoffs for Denver besting, or worsting, the previous low of 106.4 from game three in New Orleans.