We are going to chat with Kurt from Forum Blue and Gold today at 2:00 PM Mountain time. We will dig into game one of the Western Conference Finals series between the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers and will look forward to game two. Get your questions for Kurt and I ready!
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.
Watch the game live online on ESPN360!
I was intending to put together some final thoughts on the series and then post some game one insights in a game thread, but sadly we are running out of time so I am going to have to combine both into one final pre-series post.
In my previous posts I have focused on matchups such as Bynum and Gasol versus Kenyon and Nene and how Carmelo can finally break out against the Lakers, but have not paid much attention to the most important key of all and that is how the Denver Nuggets defend the Lakers.
It all starts with Kobe and filters down from there. No matter who is guarding the Mamba they must make sure he gets nothing easy. On the other hand, if you pay too much attention to him and double and triple team him, you get Pau Gasol roaming the lane scoring on a barrage of dunks and layups.
What is the answer? Denver will trap Kobe off the pick and roll, but when he has the ball look for them to expect Dahntay Jones, J.R. Smith, Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony or whoever is guarding him to play him straight up, keep him out of the lane and force him to shoot jumpers.
The problem with playing him straight up like that is Kobe has an excellent post game and he can take Jones, J.R. and Chauncey down on the block and drain turnaround jumpers over them all night long. If the Nuggets do trap Kobe outside of coming off of a ball screen, look for them to do it when he has the ball in the post.
Denver will need Dahntay Jones to do a very good job on Kobe when Jones is on the floor. If he cannot at least make Kobe work hard for his points, Denver cannot afford to have him in the lineup. I expect Kobe to draw fouls on Jones quickly and do not be surprised to see Dahntay collecting four or five fouls in just ten or 12 minutes.
Even if Jones plays the best defense of his life it is unfair to expect him to put the clamps on Kobe. No one can shut Kobe down and few teams have been successful in even containing him. If Kobe is looking to score, he will get his 30 points and if he is on fire, he will get 40 or more. One thing to keep an eye on is Kobe has only made four of his past 16 threes. Denver will have to hope he remains cold from long distance, but we all know it is only a matter of time before he goes off.
If Kobe is wreaking havoc on Denver and they must adjust their defense to commit more resources to covering him the Nuggets must make sure they rotate perfectly. The Lakers’ shooters will make their open shots. I do not care that Derek Fisher or Jordan Farmar or Sasha Vujacic have been in shooting slumps lately, they will make their shots in the conference finals. If Denver is consistently giving up open looks to those guys the Nuggets will be in trouble. Equally as important as making sound perimeter rotations is ensuring their interior defense remains intact.
Players like Gasol, Bynum and Odom are all great finishers in the paint. If Denver shows cracks in the lane the Lakers are a great passing team and they will feed the ball to one of their big men at the rim. Look no further than Gasol’s 36 point outburst in game one of the Nuggets/Lakers series last season where ten of his 12 made baskets were assisted (he made 14 shots, but only 12 are on record in the play by play at least that I can see).
The other potential issue for Denver defensively is if they have to bring a double team to help Kenyon guard Pau in the post. If you double Pau, it opens up the floor for Kobe and if Kobe drives or is red hot from the perimeter your defense is going to get embarrassed.
Looking at the Lakers’ defense they really struggle to contain penetration. Their guards play hard on defense, but Fisher and Vujacic are just not quick enough to contain athletic guards. Much has been made of how Aaron Brooks shredded the Lakers’ defense in the semifinals although as everyone has pointed out the Nuggets do not have a Brooks type player. Do not let that fool you into thinking that Denver cannot get into the lane against the Lakers.
Chauncey may not have blazing straight line speed, but he is great with the basketball and when he wants to drive, he gets in the lane. You can count on J.R. Smith to find his way into the lane more than a few times and Anthony Carter is also capable of getting into the paint off of ball reversals when there is a gap in the defense.
The Nuggets are not only going to be facing the Lakers, Denver will also have to fight history. To me anything that happened two or five or especially 20 years ago is practically meaningless. The truth is tonight will be the first time these two teams with this mixture of player face each other with both teams fully healthy so who cares who won a series 24 seasons ago?
That being said, a negative history can weigh a franchise down. A team and their fans can get conditioned to expect failure. The Lakers actually have a ten game postseason winning streak against Denver, which is the fourth longest streak of its kind ever behind a 12 game winning streak the 76ers held over the Knicks from 1968-83, a 12 game winning streak the Lakers held against Seattle from 1980-89 and a 12 game streak Boston compiled against Chicago from 1981-87. In addition to the losing streak Denver is 2-14 since joining the NBA in 1976 in game ones on the road. Denver also has to deal with their history in Los Angeles where they have not done well over the previous 12 seasons.
The one thing this Nuggets team has going for them in that area is they are the team that is defying the franchises’ sorry postseason history. They are the ones who are overcoming those past embarrassments. I do not think they will be at all intimidated and I expect them to play well throughout the series.
If you listened to the NBA Today podcast from May 19, you heard me say that my official prediction is the Lakers in seven games. Do not let that disappoint you, I have undersold the Nuggets in each of the first rounds and hopefully I am doing so again. Denver has an excellent shot at winning this series and as long as they can play competent defense and players like Carmelo, Chauncey and J.R. continue to shoot the ball the way they have been there is no reason why Denver cannot represent the west in the NBA Finals.
I doubt that the Nuggets are going to get a lackadaisical effort from the Lakers like the Rockets did. Then again, there is no guarantee that L.A. truly sees the Nuggets as a legitimate competitor and they may certainly overlook Denver as they did Houston.
Enough talk. It all starts tonight. If Denver can steal game one that could be the only spark they need to get over the hump against the Lakers and it would be a great step towards winning this series.
Take this with you: The Lakers are the first team the Nuggets have faced in this postseason that provide multiple difficult matchups. It seems Denver has taken a large step forward since the regular season ended, but we will not know if that is truly the case until tonight.
One more thing. It is not fair that I wrote all of this without mentioning Chris Andersen so I just wanted to say, “Birdzilla!”
Two of the most important keys to this series are how much Andrew Bynum can play and how well Carmelo Anthony handles the Lakers’ defensive scheme that has given him fits in the past.
When I talk about Bynum being a key to this series I am not saying he is going to average 18 points and 11 rebounds. What I mean is his presence makes Pau Gasol a much better player. With Bynum in the game Gasol obviously plays power forward and that means Kenyon Martin has to cover him. Without Bynum on the floor Pau will play center and thus Denver can use Nene or Chris Andersen, who at both much closer to his length and weight than Kenyon is, to check him.
I have put together some video clips to show both how difficult Bynum and Gasol can make things on Denver and how much better the Nuggets matchup with Gasol with Bynum on the bench. It does not matter if it is due to ineffectiveness or foul trouble, Denver needs Bynum off the court.
Moving on to Carmelo, everyone knows by now what a difficult time he has had scoring against the Lakers. Despite the fact he has been guarded by players like Luke Walton and Vladimir Radmanovic he has been taken out of his game. The reason is the Lakers’ scheme.
Carmelo has almost exclusively received the ball on the left or right wing. Whoever is defending Melo will crowd him and wall off the middle and force him to drive to the baseline. As soon as Carmelo catches the ball they pre-rotate help over to the ball side block. This defense takes away Melo’s jumper because the on the ball defender is not worried about the drive. He knows he already has help. The help defender does not worry about Carmelo’s ability to shoot, he is only concerned about keeping Melo from getting to the rim.
In the past Carmelo has either forced a contested jumper, dribbled away from the pressure or driven into the teeth of the defense. Looking at the clips from game 80 we can see he might have figured out how to combat this scheme.
During this game Carmelo began getting the ball closer to the middle of the floor making the pre-rotated helper less of a factor. That allowed him to get to the rim and finish. Also, he used his passing ability to earn his teammates better shots. The way Carmelo has played so far this postseason leads me to believe he will continue to use his ability to pass as frequently as his ability to score. When he does so he is a much more dangerous player and the Nuggets are a much better team.
I also recommend looking back at my Film Room segment on how the Nuggets defended the Lakers in their game 59 victory.
A few links to keep you busy while I work on posting some more good stuff.
Kurt Helin and I face off on the ESPN NBA Today podcast’s battle of the bloggers where we talk about everything from Kenyon Martin vs Mark Cuban, Vince McMahon vs Stan Kroenke and of course, the Denver Nuggets vs the Los Angeles Lakers.
The L.A. Times Lakers Blog has some great video from Lakers’ practice yesterday where Kobe and Phil Jackson talk about facing off with the Nuggets.
On NBA.com Chris Tomasson paints an ugly picture for the Nuggets based on their past history, but Denver is embracing the challenge and doubters such as Shane Battier.
Brian at Empty the Bench looks at what Chauncey has to do in order for Denver to beat the Lakers and it does not all involve making shots or setting up teammates.
The Nugg Doctor has posted his series preview.
By the way, the NBA Draft Lottery is tonight. I love the drama of the lottery and the draft. Never before has the lottery snuck up on me as it did this season, but with Denver in the conference finals I think you can understand why.
Here is an abbreviated Offday Offerings as I continue to watch game film in preparation for the Denver Nuggets/Los Angeles Lakers Western Conference Finals.
FM 104.3 The Fan in Denver is reporting that the Pepsi Center is double booked on Memorial Day, Monday, May 25. WWE Monday Night Raw, which is broadcast live, is slated to take place in the Pepsi Center at 6:30 PM Mountain. Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals is also supposed to take place that night at 7:00 PM Mountain. While it would be interesting to see both events run concurrently, I do not believe that is an option.
Reportedly at this point Vince McMahon is claiming that he is not moving his event, which is understandable seeing as how it is slated to be televised live. Mike Evans and Sandy Clough just spoke with Barry Fay, a former big time concert promoter in Denver, and Fay said he believes Kroenke will just have to write McMahon a check in order for the WWE to allow the NBA to have the building for game four.
Needless to say this was not one of the story lines I expected to be covering for this series.
I imagine you have all read this by now, but the Denver Post has a great recap of how the Nuggets acquired Chauncey Billups. It all started with a call by Detroit inquiring about Carmelo Anthony and Denver had to do a 180 on an trade with the Pacers involving Jamaal Tinsley.
Henry Abbott of TrueHoop has highlights of the continuing conflict between Kenyon Martin and Mark Cuban as told by Chris Tomasson on HoopsHype.com.
John Hollinger’s always interesting insight on the series.
Nate at Pickaxe and Roll has his preview up.
So does Andrew at Denver Stiffs who apparently does not like the Lakers very much.
So far in the 2009 NBA Playoffs the Nuggets have only had to deal with players like Tyson Chandler, Hilton Armstrong, Erick Damiper, Ryan Hollins and Brandon Bass.
Not an overly impressive group, eh?
Next up is Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
If that did not get your attention, I do not know what will. I guarantee those two have the attention of the Nuggets’ scouts, coaches and players. The interior beef that the Los Angeles Lakers bring to the table is quite imposing, especially compared to the parade of overmatched stiffs the Nuggets have battled with in the paint over the first two rounds. Dirk Nowitzki proved to be too much for the Nuggets bigs to handle on their own, but on his own he falls short of the difficulty the Nuggets could, and probably will, have with Gasol and Bynum.
Watching bits and pieces of the Houston Rockets/L.A. Lakers conference semifinal series the one thing that I kept clinging to was Bynum appeared to be either rusty or disinterested. Bynum’s performance in game seven today was disconcerting because he was clearly not rusty or disinterested. If he plays that way against Denver, the Nuggets will be in trouble.
You can talk about Kobe Bryant all you want, the Nuggets biggest concern should be how they can handle Bynum and Gasol. With the starters on the floor Kenyon Martin is going to have to guard one of them and he has a serious length disadvantage against both. Most likely Kenyon will be guarding Gasol and for all his defensive desire and talents he is in a big hole trying to cover Gasol. Pau can shoot his 15-18 foot set shot over Kenyon at will and when he goes into the post his jump hook will be impossible for Kenyon to stop.
Nene is relatively better equipped to cover Bynum than Kenyon is for guarding Gasol, but Bynum still has a significant length and weight advantage over Nene. On the other hand, Nene has done a decent job against Gasol in the past so will Denver choose to stick Kenyon on Bynum and double the heck out of him should he get the ball in the post thus creating one major mismatch instead of two less than desirable matchups?
When Chris Andersen comes off the bench things do not get much better. Andersen is physically a better matchup on Gasol than Kenyon, but his desire to block shots plays right into one of Gasol’s greatest strengths, and that is offensive rebounding. When Andersen leaves Pau to go for a block he better get it or else Pau is converting the miss.
One more thing to worry about is the Lakers’ ability and desire to push the pace. Players like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Kobe, Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza will all look to run every chance they get. That is not all as Gasol runs the floor very well, plus he cherry picks a lot, and Bynum does pretty well himself at least when it comes to earning good post position during the early offense. That all spells trouble and you can count on the Lakers taking advantage of the Nuggets’ sloppy transition defense much better than the Hornets or Mavericks did.
Well, that was the bad news. We got it out of our system. Things are not all bad for Denver.
The best news of all is that we will not have to watch players like Kenyon Martin and Eduardo Najera attempt to cover Kobe Bryant on the perimeter and consequently Allen Iverson will not be attempting to cover Vladimir Radmanovic on the block. The reason is the acquisition of Dahntay Jones.
In the first series against the Hornets, Dahntay was the key defender thanks to his ability to frustrate Chris Paul. As I projected Dahntay played a much smaller role in the second round against the Mavericks because Anthony Carter was much better suited for chasing Jason Terry through screens. Even though Anthony Carter has played plenty of minutes on Kobe in the past, it does not take a rocket scientist to realize Jones will once again be called on to play defensive stopper.
By the way, while we are somewhat on the subject, the fact George Karl decided to have the Nuggets’ power forwards guard Kobe last season in the playoffs showed how badly overmatched he felt the Nuggets were. If he though Denver was even close to being the Lakers’ equal on the court he would not have dreamed up such a cockamamie strategy. This season I think you can be sure he feels much better about this squad’s chances playing straight up.
OK, I was able to get that out of my system.
Kobe is going to get his points, but like we saw with Chris Paul and Dirk Nowitzki, as long as Denver can make him earn them I think the Nuggets will be happy. They need to be mentally prepared for the fact that no matter how good of defense they play against Kobe, he is going to go off in a couple of games. They cannot let discouragement set in because of it.
The Lakers do not run a lot of pick and roll, but they will run it. In game 80 of the regular season Denver, especially Nene, did a very good job of hedging on the pick and roll and keeping Kobe out of the lane. If Denver does not prove to Phil Jackson that they can slow it down, the Lakers will exploit it.
While Bynum is a little too much for the Nuggets to handle defensively, when the Nuggets have the ball, Nene is too quick for Bynum. Nene can get past Bynum with his spin move or by facing up and driving at him. If Nene can go at Bynum early and get him in foul trouble it will be a big bonus for the Nuggets. Nene has shown a propensity to shy away from taking the ball at bigger defenders like Bynum. He almost acts like someone is holding his family hostage and they have told Nene that if he ever gets a shot blocked his family will pay the price. He must go at Bynum and Gasol when he has the ball at the rim.
The Lakers’ other frontline player of consequence is Lamar Odom. Kenyon is definitely highly capable of guarding Odom, but with Odom coming off the bench, Kenyon and Odom will not be on the floor much against each other unless Bynum or Gasol get in foul trouble. It will be interesting to see if Karl tries to work the matchups so that Birdman is on the floor with Gasol as much as possible while Kenyon will play when Odom is in the game.
Another advantage for the Nuggets is Los Angeles does not have anyone who can cover J.R. Smith. Even Kobe will be hard pressed to contain Smith’s ability to penetrate. Sasha Vujacic will be a pest, and it will be important for J.R. to not get baited into giving him a cheap shot, even though we all know Vujacic deserves it. Sasha will get up in J.R.’s personal space, but Smith is too quick for him and should be able to blow by him at will. Smith was one of two Nuggets to have a nice series last season and there is no reason not to expect him to do it again.
Unlike J.R., Carmelo has not done very well against the Lakers and over the next few days you will hear a lot of talk about how the Lakers do a great job of shutting Carmleo down. They certainly have had his number in the past and they completely flustered him in the playoffs last season. This season Carmelo only averaged 14.5 points per game on only 33% shooting. I just finished watching the final matchup of the season between the Nuggets and Lakers, the previously mentioned game 80 in L.A. which the Lakers won 116-102, and Carmelo played very well on offense scoring 23 points on 8-16 shooting.
We will get more into this in the next couple of days, but Denver seemed to find a couple of cracks in the Lakers crowd and force into help scheme they have utilized on Melo the past couple of years.
The other thing in Denver’s favor is Carmelo is having his best postseason ever and he also has a history of figuring defenses out. After struggling against Trenton Hassell and the Timberwolves his rookie season, including a dreadful 1-16 in the decisive game four, a two point loss in Denver that all but ended the series, Melo went on to absolutely dominate Hassell from the next season on. In his second season it was the Spurs and Bruce Bowen who forced Melo into a poor statistical series, but when Melo was covered by Bowen after that he absolutely owned him. Bowen did not stand a chance against Melo one on one and when the two teams met in the postseason in 2007 Carmelo had his only good series until this playoff campaign.
The point is Melo is too talented to be completely bottled up by any scheme indefinitely. If the progress in game 80 was any indication of his growth against the Lakers’ defense, the numbers 14.5 and 33% will be completely meaningless over the next few days.
Looking at how these two teams have fared in the 2009 playoffs the one major difference between the Nuggets and Lakers is Denver is yet to mail a game in. They have been wonderfully consistent while L.A. has not shown a great deal of mental focus from game to game. Los Angeles let the first game at home against Houston slip away and after taking a 2-1 lead and seeing Yao Ming go down in game three L.A. lost two more games and neither one was very close. The Rockets played hard, but they had no business taking a team as talented as the Lakers to seven games with Yao in street clothes. There is always the chance the Lakers take Denver for granted enough to give away one of the first two games and the way Denver is playing that may be all they need to win this series.
Sorry, one more bit of bad news to keep in mind. Los Angeles won 65 games this season, 11 more than the Nuggets. Regular season records do not mean squat in the playoffs, other than the fact the lakers’ gaudy win total earned them home court advantage against Denver, but L.A. was clearly better than Denver for 82 games and that is not to be overlooked. The Lakers have been the favorites to win the Western Conference all season and are on a mission to avenge their loss in the 2008 NBA Finals.
Denver is playing very well right now, but they have had very little success against the Lakers. In fact, it would have been difficult to have less success as Denver has lost ten out of their previous 11 matchups against L.A. over the past two seasons. Even with Billups on board Denver has lost two games in L.A. that were not particularly close, although the one win in those previous 11 games came in Denver with Chauncey onboard.
This is going to be an uphill battle and there are plenty of reasons to be concerned, but not all uphill battles are lost.
I told you I would post a game five recap, not that anyone cares at this point though.
For all the talent the Nuggets possessed in the Carmelo Anthony/Allen Iverson pairing there is nothing quite like watching Denver play when both Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony are playing at their peak level.
In the Nuggets 124-110 series clinching victory over the Dallas Mavericks Carmelo once again showed his entire offensive repertoire. He scored on drives, turnaround jumpers, pull up jumpers, catch and shoots and had one beautiful swooping scoop shot through the lane. This is the Carmelo Anthony we expected to see during the regular season, but whether he was held back by injuries, the growth of his teammates or just had a down year does not matter now.
Heading into the Western Conference Finals Carmelo is the matchup nightmare that the Nuggets envisioned him being when they drafted him in the summer of 2003.
Chauncey plays with a steady quiet spirit. He wears away the opposition like water erodes rock. There may not be any one play that sticks out in your mind, but at the end of the game you notice he posted 28 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds.
They fell apart a little in the second half, but Denver played their best defense of the series in the first half of game five. Dallas had some success scoring, but the combination of scheme and execution was very good. The Nuggets stopped switching on every screen and chose to aggressively trap Jason Kidd on pick and rolls/pops. Twice Denver forced Kidd into the right sideline well beyond the three point line. Both times Kidd leapt into the air and turned the ball over once on a weak floating cross court pass thrown straight to Dahntay Jones and the other time he threw one of his patented cross court passes into the front row.
The Nuggets lead for most of the first half by ten points or thereabouts Dallas made a game out of it in the second half thanks to their three point shooting early in the third quarter and penetration in the early part of the fourth. Denver continued to play the pick and roll more aggressively, but Denver failed to rotate nearly as well as they did in the first half. At that point everyone realized that the Mavericks were not going to go away.
After the Dallas run in the third quarter the Nuggets started flying around on defense once again and pushed their lead back up to 17. The best defensive possession came with 2:39 left in the third quarter. J.R. Smith followed J.J. Barea off a down screen, pressured him towards a Brandon Bass screen when Barea reversed direction and drove away from the screen toward Kidd on the left wing. Barea hands off to Kidd and Chauncey and J.R. switch and now J.R. is covering Kidd. J.R. sticks with Kidd tight enough Kidd almost loses his balance on his way to the right sideline. J.R. is bodying Kidd up the entire time and forces him into the left corner. Birdman covers over to trap Kidd in the corner and Kidd throws a pass to the left corner where Melo and Chauncey run at Josh Howard. Howard kicks the ball to Barea who misses a three as Kenyon rotates to challenge the shot. J.J. misses, but Dirk gets an offensive rebound at which time he is fouled by Smith. It was a great hard working possession which displayed the kind of scrappy defense the Nuggets excel at. The only breakdown was when both Chauncey and Melo rotated to Howard it forced Kenyon to run at Barea instead of Chauncey and that allowed the Mavs to get the offensive board.
Denver was able to fight off the third quarter surge by the Mavs and entered the fourth quarter having maintained their 14 point lead. They were 12 minutes away from their first Western Conference Finals appearance in 24 years and they come out flat?
Dallas then surged once again in the fourth using penetration and a little zone defense. It all started innocently enough as Antoine Wright beat Carmelo on a baseline drive that forced Chris Andersen to help on. That left Brandon Bass alone and he converted Wright’s missed shot into a three point play. Melo committed an offensive foul on the other end and then allowed Josh Howard to drive to the rim and make a layup. Denver’s 14 point lead was quickly down to nine. The Nuggets failed to score again and Jason Kidd raced up the floor and was fouled at the rim by Birdman. He made both free throws and the lead was down to seven. Nuggets fans who had not seen their team get passed the second round in 24 seasons grew worried and the Nuggets were tightening up. Next Kenyon Martin threw the ball to Chauncey Billups just as he started to cut and Jason Kidd scooped the loose ball up and fed Bass crashing through the lane drawing another shooting foul. Bass made one of two and Dallas was within six.
A quarter that fans expected to be a celebration was turning into a near nightmare.
For some reason Rick Carlisle switched back to man to man despite the fact the Mavericks’ zone had held Denver scoreless for 2:04. J.R. quickly drained a three against the man to man defense to end the scoreless streak and an 8-0 run by the Mavericks. The lead was back to nine, but before fans’ blood pressure could begin to decrease Dirk hit a three of his own after Denver collapsed on Barea after he darted into the lane. Fortunately, Denver scored on a Carter runner and the offense was back in business.
The teams traded baskets and after a short rest Carmelo Anthony checked back in the game with 6:51 left and the Nuggets clinging to a six point lead 103-97. Later on that possession Dallas deflected the ball out of bounds with only two seconds left on the shot clock. J.R. was inbounding the ball by the Dallas bench and Melo, who was covered by Jason Kidd, cut towards the sideline and then made a second diagonal cut towards the three point line. He caught a pass from Smith, turned and shot a three. Kidd was caught completely by surprise and Melo drained one of his biggest non game winning shots of his career. The difficult long bomb was very disheartening to Dallas and from that point on Denver rebuilt their lead and ended up cruising to a 14 point victory.
The Mavericks deserve a lot of credit for the way they played. They never stopped fighting and refused to give the Nuggets anything. Even thought the cards were stacked against them and with their recent history of postseason disappointments Dallas played like they were never out of any game.
Dirk especially deserves a great deal of credit for the way he battled and carried Dallas on his back for five straight games. He has certainly recovered from any mental anguish he experienced after the loss in the finals to Miami and the upset by Golden State two years ago.
The Nuggets earned some rest and have had plenty of time to get ready for the Los Angeles Lakers, who are crushing the Rockets by 24 as I write this. The Lakers have been the Nuggets nemesis the past couple of seasons and they will prove a tremendous test for how fat this Denver squad has come.
Additional Round 2 Game 5 Nuggets
Mind Boggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: Game – 89.6 | Series – 93.3 | Playoffs – 90.0
Defensive Efficiency: Game – 122.7 | Series – 114.4 | Playoffs – 105.0
Offensive Efficiency: Game – 138.3 (second best rating of the 2008-09 season) | Series – 122.8 | Playoffs – 122.6
After the Houston Rockets defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 95-80 to force a game seven in their Western Conference Semifinal series the NBA announced the schedule for the Western Conference Finals.
I am sure you all know the format, but just in case should the Lakers win Denver will play at Los Angeles in Games one and two, while games three and four will be in Denver. ”If necessary” games five and seven will be back in L.A. with game six in Denver. If Houston wins game seven against the Lakers on Sunday the Nuggets will have home court advantage in Games one and two and in the “if necessary” games five and seven.
Game 1 – Tuesday, May 19, time TBD on ESPN
Game 2 – Thursday, May 21, TBD on ESPN
Game 3 – Saturday, May 23, TBD on ABC
Game 4 – Monday, May 25, TBD on ESPN
Game 5* – Wednesday, May 27, TBD, ESPN
Game 6* – Friday, May 29, TDB, ESPN
Game 7* – Sunday, May 31, TBD, ABC
* – If necessary
Mark your calendars! Plus, I promise some game five thoughts tomorrow.
Soak it in Denver Nuggets fans. For the first time in almost a quarter of a century the Nuggets are in the Western Conference Finals.
We will have plenty of time to dig into what went right in Denver’s 124-110 game five victory over the Dallas Mavericks and what they will need to do better in order to advance to the NBA Finals. I promise a proper game recap tomorrow (this time I mean it) and even though there is more work left to do let’s take a brief look at what tonight’s win will do for the franchise.
For all of the abuse he received after the Marcus Camby trade, Stan Kroenke is a very good owner. He loves basketball and wants the Denver Nuggets to win a championship. After paying an exorbitant bill for the 2007-08 Nuggets squad that was demolished by the Los Angeles Lakers 4-0 in the 2008 playoffs he understandably demanded that the front office slash salary this season. As I wrote after last season, he would have been insane if he did not slash salary. That team was simply not worth keeping together.
This group of players is proving that they are capable of earning playoff success. As a result I firmly believe Kroenke is going to foot the bill to bring every player the front office wants to hang on to back next season. That means you can count on the Birdman flying high in Denver next season. Some of you might recall that previously I expressed my opinion that Chris Andersen was as good as gone after the season, because I did not think this team was going anywhere in the playoffs. I am happy to admit I was wrong about the Nuggets’ chances in the playoffs and I will be wrong about Birdman not returning to Denver for the 2009-10 NBA season.
That is the good news. The really good news is I believe Kronke will not just spend money to bring back players like Birdman or Dahntay Jones or Anthony Carter to maintain the roster, but he will spend money to actually improve the roster. That brings us to the next big development for the Nuggets and that is that as a conference finalist Denver is going to be a free agent destination.
The Nuggets have proven that they can play a fun style of basketball, they can play defense, players like Carmelo and J.R. Smith are no longer guys you do not want to share the court with and Denver has a leader capable of guiding the team in the right direction who has won it all before. Players who are looking to win a title that cannot catch on with Cleveland or Los Angeles (the Lakers, not the Clippers) are going to strongly consider the Denver Nuggets.
During the season the Nuggets expressed interest in veteran players who were bought out such as Joe Smith and Mikki Moore and at the time I wrote they should not even waste their time talking about those guys because they are not going to be interested in Denver when teams like Cleveland and Boston are on the phone. Now with their success over the previous month Denver has made itself a team that has to be taken seriously when they call. They can and will be a force to be reckoned with in the free agent market, both in the offseason and for the in season veteran castoffs.
Now combine those two points and then add a third. Denver has an owner willing to spend, a team that will be interesting to free agents plus economically teams are hurting and will be looking to not only hold on to their money, but to dump salary this offseason. Perhaps you have heard the phrase in the land of the blind the one eyed man is king. Well, in the league of the impoverished the team with $5 is king. The Nuggets are not going to have much to spend once they bring back Birdman and whoever else they choose to retain, but they will not need much in order to outbid the few teams who will be looking to spend.
Plus Denver can be a force in the trade market as well as they have some excellent assets to work with. They possess a nearly $10 million trade exception from trading Camby. That exception was included in the Billups trade and “refreshed” thus they can use it until November making it infinitely more useful (originally it was going to expire in mid July). They also have a roughly $3.2 million exception that was acquired in the Chucky Atkins to Oklahoma City deal. Throw in potential sign and trade deals with Linas Kleiza, and the future first round draft pick that Denver is owed by Charlotte and Denver can be a major player this offseason.
I hope you can forgive me for looking into the future with this season being far from over, but I am just excited that the Nuggets have to be considered a member of the NBA elite and have a bright future.
I realize there are surely fans out there who just do not believe in the Nuggets. They still think Melo, Kenyon Martin and J.R. are knuckleheads and they will get swept by the Lakers or trounced by the Rockets. Well, Denver has a great opportunity to win those doubters over by winning the Western Conference Finals, a task they are certainly capable of accomplishing.
Soak it in Nuggets fans. It is a new day in the Mile High City.
Hungry for more Nuggets coverage? Check out the ESPN NBA Daily Dime.
There has been almost as much written about the activity in the stands as what happened on the court during the two games in Dallas. It makes me very angry that this is news and that I even had to consider putting together a post about it, but it is a story that is still brewing. In an attempt to put everything behind us here is all the information available right now on what has transpired.
The first public salvo was fired by Mark Cuban when he admittedly made a remark about Kenyon Martin’s personality and demeanor to Lydia Moore, Kenyon’s mother.
Of course Kenyon was upset over what Cuban said to Mrs. Moore and he claimed he would take care of things man to man. Mark Cuban then apologized on his blog, but just this afternoon Kenyon decided that his apology was not sincere.
Game four saw more ugliness. Chauncey Billups said that he had about ten members of family and friends at the game who had a bad experience.
The main story surrounds Mrs. Moore and Carmelo’s finance LaLa Vazquez. There were reports that Mrs. Moore had a beer poured over her head and Ms. Vazquez claims she was verbally assaulted, including racial slurs, and was physically pushed.
The Nuggets’ version of what transpired can be read here. There is also an eye witness account from Peggy, a Mavericks season ticket holder, of what happened on this podcast from a Dallas radio station. She claims that Mrs. Moore did nothing to upset anyone during game three, but had a completely different demeanor for game four. Peggy claims Mrs. Moore entered in such a way as to draw attention to herself and began talking trash and trying to get under people’s skin. However, according to Peggy it was a bodyguard with Ms. Vazquez who apparently triggered the ugliness with a cruel remark about her appearance and everything that went wrong was the fault of Ms. Vazquez and her bodyguard.
I am not in a position to say who is right or who is wrong. Peggy’s account is being held as the gospel by those seeking to defend the reputation of Mavericks fans so at this point I feel like I need to point out a discrepancy. Peggy left before halftime to compose herself and was not present during the time some of the people around her were removed from their seats by security. Later she talks about how she can definitely say that no one dumped a beer on Mrs. Moore, but we know based on what she said that she missed whatever happened that resulted in the expulsion of her fellow fans.
The biggest problem with how these stories and quotes are analyzed is every comment is being viewed through a stereotype. Mavericks fans are a bunch of hicks so of course they made racial slurs or LaLa Vazquez is an attention hogging wanna be celebrity.
Everyone is picking and choosing sides based on which team they are loyal to. The truth is almost everybody is capable of becoming an idiot. There are classless Mavericks fans and oh by the way, there are classless Nuggets fans too, but the vast majority of fans of both teams love the game and just want to support their team.
The bottom line is that all of this is unsubstantiated my word against your word, but we do know that things became so untenable that people had to leave a game they really wanted to watch. As far as I am concerned everyone involved is guilty. It takes two sides to escalate a dispute and the one thing that is not reported is that anyone on either side tried to be the voice of reason to work to calm the situation down.
I realize it is probably too late to write this and do any good, but if you are going to the game tonight, do not just behave appropriately, make sure that those around you do too. Do not soil what could be a historic victory with reports of insults and abuse. If you are sitting next to a Mavericks’ fan, you do not need to talk trash or get in their face. Let the Nuggets take care of that on the floor. There is no better way to insult your opponent than by shaking their hand afterward and saying, “Congratulations on a nice season.”
Update: I originally thought this video was from after game three, prompting Cuban to yell at Mrs. Moore, but it was from after game four as Kenyon was responding to the fan’s behavior. Still, highly inappropriate, but slightly more understandable. Plus Deadspin has a video of LaLa Vazquez leaving her seat (thanks to Denver Stiffs for the link).
The Denver Nuggets have another chance to close out a series in game five at home in the Pepsi Center. Following their game four loss I fully expect the Nuggets to come out with a strong desire to put Dallas away.
Denver better be ready to play because the Mavs have been slowly figuring out how to beat them. Dallas has done a better job attacking in transition (I cannot believe they have not used J.J. Barea more), swarming Nene in the lane and decreasing the Nuggets dominance in the paint and Dirk has been absolutely on fire. The Mavericks also have tried to ramp up their own physical play committing two flagrant fouls.
Hopefully the Nuggets will respond by locking down on defense, fighting for rebounds on both ends of the floor and playing aggressive and unselfish offense. If the Nuggets just think they will win tonight simply because they are at home, they will surely be booking another trip to Dallas for game six.
I hope that George Karl decides to make an adjustment on how they are going to defend Dirk. If I were in charge I would put a stop to the perimeter switching just as they did to close out game three and double Dirk in the post. Dirk has been destroying any smaller player who has switched onto him and he has broken out an impressive array of fakes and pivots to get to the rim in the post.
Those adjustments will make it more difficult for Dirk to score and it will prevent him from getting to the line so frequently. After averaging six free throws a game over the first six postseason games, Dirk has averaged 15 a game over the last three games against Denver. Part of that has been due to how the games have been officiated, all the complaining after game one seemed to have worked, but it is primarily a product of how Denver has chosen to defend him.
With all the X’s and O’s and change of venue the biggest adjustment from game four to game five will be having Chris Andersen in the lineup. Had Birdman been on the floor for game four I would be stuck watching Lost tonight instead of enjoying a Nuggets’ game.
It will also be interesting to see if George Karl continues to play Linas Kleiza and if so, for how long. When the only thing a guy can do to help the team is score and the tip of his thumb is fractured I would hesitate to play him. Sadly, any hope of seeing Renaldo Balkman hounding Josh Howard all over the place and finding the nooks and crannies in the interior of the Dallas defense is sure to go unrecognized.
I expect the Nuggets to close this series out just as they did against New Orleans and six hours from now we will be celebrating the Nuggets’ first appearance in the conference finals since 1985.
Take this with you: Apparently the key to winning in the playoffs is not to shoot 9-21 from the three point line, which is what the Nuggets did in game three in New Orleans and game four in Dallas.
Both Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups have been named Third Team All-NBA.
Carmelo had two first team votes and had 116 points finishing sixth among forwards. LeBron James (122 first team votes, 610 points) and Dirk Nowitzki (35 first team votes, 383 points) were the first team forwards. Tim Duncan (39 fist team votes, 378 points) and Paul Pierce (27 first team votes, 330 points) were the second team forwards and Pau Gasol (2 fist team votes, 165 points) joins Melo on the third team.
Chauncey had no first team votes, but ended up with 131 points. The first team guards were Kobe (119 first team votes, 604 points) and Dwyane Wade Wade (103 first team votes, 572 points). Second team guards were Chris Paul (32 first team votes, 424 points) and Brandon Roy (0 first team votes, 189 points). Tony Parker was the other third team guard with Chauncey totaling one first place vote and 158 points.
This is the third time Carmelo has been named to the All-NBA Third Team (2005-06 and 2006-07) while Chauncey was named to the All-NBA Second Team in 2005-06 and All-NBA Third Team in 2006-07.
Nene received six points finishing 62 points behind Third Team center Shaquille O’Neal.
Congratulations to Melo and Chauncey on this well deserved accomplishment.
Complete voting results can be found here.
No Denver Nuggets’ player won the NBA Most Improved Player award, but Denver was well represented in the voting. Danny Granger from the Indiana Pacers won the award with 364 points (48 first place votes, 37 second and 13 third) finishing 25 points ahead of Devin Harris.
Nene was the first Nugget on the list finishing fifth with 58 points thanks to seven first place votes, five second place votes and eight third place votes. The players who finished ahead of Nene were Granger, Harris, Kevin Durant (83 points) and Paul Millsap (78 points).
The other Nuggets on the list were Chris Andersen and J.R. Smith who both had six points after each receiving one first place vote and one third place vote.
J.R. Smith is having quite the awards season. He finished second in the sixth man of the year vote, received a vote for the first team all defensive squad and now is in the top 15 of the most improved player voting.
The Denver Nuggets still have not swept a postseason series and the Dallas Mavericks were able to break an eight game losing streak to the Nuggets. Even so, I think I am starting to experience what teams like the Lakers and Pistons have felt over the years. I fully expected Denver to win this game until the final few seconds and when the lost I was not so much upset as I was annoyed. How dare the Mavericks waste our time and energy by pretending this game meant something? They are only delaying the inevitable.
The Nuggets may still be a virtual shoe in for the conference finals, but there are some reasons to be concerned about this team’s performance in games three and four. The problems start with the “vaunted” and “legendary” Nuggets defense. As loyal reader and commenter Beefy Swats pointed out in the game thread just as in the regular season the Nuggets defensive intensity has waned as games pass.
The Nuggets’ defense has slackened against Dallas. After posting a defensive efficiency of 95.1 against New Orleans, Denver’s defensive efficiency has surged to 112.5 against the Mavericks. As George Karl pointed out in the post game press conference, the Nuggets tried to win on offense instead of with defense and Dallas was able to run up the score.
What are the problems? The primary issue I see is they are not playing with the cohesiveness they did against the Hornets. When there is penetration the help is either late or non-existent. After forcing the Hornets and Mavericks to score from the perimeter for the first six games of the postseason the Mavericks are starting to earn some easy buckets. Tonight Dallas actually outscored Denver in the paint 42-36. Conversely, the Nuggets’ points in the paint have been slowly shrinking after posting 58 in game one. In game two Denver scored 50 points in the paint and they totaled 48 in game three. The 42 in game four go to show how Denver’s offense was far too perimeter oriented, but we are supposed to be talking about defense.
If Dallas is going to shock the world and come back to win this series it will be on the back of Dirk Nowitzki. No Nugget player has been able to deal with Dirk apart from Chris Andersen for one quarter in game one and Kenyon Martin for one quarter in game three. The decision not to double Dirk would seem to have worked as Dallas has not gone crazy from behind the three point line and Denver is up 3-1 in the series. I think you can make a good argument that not doubling Dirk is actually not working. The Mavericks are not killing the Nuggets from behind the arc, but from the charity stripe.
During the regular season Dallas averaged .274 free throws per shot attempt. Against the Nuggets Dallas is shooting .430 free throws per shot attempt and that includes game one when Dallas had 13 free throws compared to 82 shot attempts.
With free throws comes foul trouble and Denver has struggled with foul trouble with their bigs in both games in Dallas. Game four was especially difficult as Chris Andersen had to miss the game with a stomach illness.
When Dallas is not scoring from the free throw line they are hitting a high percentage of their shots. For the series Dallas is shooting 46.8%, but Dallas shot 48.8% in game one, 47.4% in game two and 50.6% in game four. Dallas is getting to the line and hitting their shots the hallmarks of efficient offense and poor defense.
I projected the Nuggets would have a more difficult time defending the Mavericks than they did against the Hornets, but I expected them to do better than this.
Another problem apart from the defense is the Nuggets have lost their physical edge. Along with the points in the paint Dallas crushed the Nuggets on the boards. I generally do not make a big deal about rebounds unless the Nuggets get or give up an avalanche of second chance points, but the Mavericks completely controlled their defensive glass giving up only six offensive rebounds to Denver while corralling 41 defensive boards.
Even with all of the Nuggets’ deficiencies in game four, they were never down by more than four and really should have pulled this game out.
Hopefully the Nuggets learn from this loss and bounce back to dominate the next game as they did after their singular loss against New Orleans. Game five is back at the Pepsi Center where Dallas should not be able to get 40 plus free throws and the Nuggets will hopefully rediscover their running game.
There is not much reason to fret about the Mavericks, but if Denver cannot tighten their focus they will be hard pressed to win the Western Conference Finals.
Look for the additional nuggets later this morning.