Although you guys might not like it if I do not come up with a post dedicated to each and every game this season, I think it gives us a chance to avoid jumping to conclusions over any one singular game. The two games the Nuggets played in this weekend is the perfect example of how looking at two or more games at once can provide a more complete picture than picking apart each individual performance.
Had I concocted a post following the embarrassing loss to the Clippers it would have gone on and one about how the Nuggets lacked heart. The complacency they exhibited during the 19-0 run the Clippers dumped on them was shocking to me. I kept waiting for someone to get angry, and call the team together and demand a more determined effort be put forth. Not one Nugget player did anything of the sort. Either they did not take the Clippers seriously or they did not care. Neither alternative is acceptable, but the lack of any trace of anger about the proceedings made me fear it was the latter more than the former. Even after the run, we did not see any kind of increased effort to show the Clippers that the Nuggets were going to take back control of the game. It was not until the end of the third quarter that Denver showed signs of life and by then it was too late.
Fortunately for Nuggets fans, the story does not end with the loss to the Clippers. The next night Denver faced the Chicago Bulls in a game where the Bulls were the well rested squad. To make matters worse, they were eager to gain revenge on Denver for the one point loss they suffered at the hands of the Nuggets earlier this season in Chicago.
From the beginning the Bulls looked like the fresher team as they rode some hot shooting to an early 14 point lead. Things looked bleak for Denver, especially considering they were victims of the dreaded back to back game where they played a late game in the Pacific time zone only to fly east to the Mountain time zone, losing an hour on the way, to play the next night.
However, the Nuggets were playing hard, just not well. It was a good test to see if the lack of heart they exhibited in Los Angeles the night before was going to be a onetime frustration or an ongoing issue.
Midway through the second quarter the Nuggets announced that they would not be content to lose. They chose to not let the circumstances dictate the outcome of the contest.
Lead by a suddenly red hot Chauncey Billups in the second quarter and an equally scorching J.R. Smith in the fourth the Nuggets took it to the Bulls and by the end of the night, there was no doubt who the better team was.
- Carmelo played two stellar offensive games against the Clippers and Bulls. He did not force shots as he had done earlier in the season, he was doing a good job of taking what the defense was giving him and he passed the ball well. He had four assists in L.A. and seven in Denver versus the Bulls. What I liked best though was seven of those 11 assists lead to layups or dunks. Anyone can get an assist on a swing pass to a hot shooter, but making a pass that leads to an easy score for a teammate is even more valuable. That is part of the nebulous ability great players have to make the men playing with them better. Against the Bulls, Melo was burned more than once trying to cheat over the screen. Doing so puts pressure on your teammates to cover for you if the offensive player sees what you are doing and adjusts. Plus Carmelo has become a little too quick to switch screens. He is trying to get away with putting in the minimal amount of work into his defense as necessary to succeed and it is hurting the team.
- However, as well as Melo played on offense, he was just as miserable on defense. Against the Clippers he was at best disinterested in playing defense. At one point after getting a dunk attempt blocked, he may or may not have been over half court when Rasual Butler hit a wide open three. What I do know is he was not in the picture and he forced his teammates to play four on five. He completely turned his back on Al Thornton at one point allowing him to cut behind Melo for a dunk. Carmelo is completely passive in allowing baseline drives, knowing he has help. He gives up on plays such as after playing solid defense on Thornton for a couple of seconds, he gets beat off the drive baseline and instead of staying with him, he stands back and watches losing a chance to trap Thornton after Kenyon seals off the baseline and Al is forced to spin back to the middle. Instead of running into Melo, he has a clear path to the rim for a three point play. Carmelo is absolutely having an MVP season on the offensive end, but he must play with more focus on defense if he is to truly be an MVP caliber player.
- The Nuggets struggled with their rotations in the first half against the Bulls, but Chicago deserves credit for playing well offensively. The Bulls did a very good job of making unorthodox diagonal passes which made the Nuggets’ rotations more difficult. For example early in the first quarter Derrick Rose had the ball on the left wing past the coach’s box. He dribbled towards the baseline off a screen from Taj Gobson. Melo and Afflalo trapped him near the corner. Chauncey then pre-rotated towards Gibson. This cut off the pass out to the left wing that would normally trigger a swing pass that the defense would rotate to cover as the ball swings to the corner. Rose, having the regular passing lane closed off to him made a pass to the right wing where John Salmons was waiting wide open.
- Chauncey had some very poor shooting nights over the previous week or two. He was still dishing out assists and playing solid defense, but without his scoring Carmelo, Nene, J.R. and Ty Lawson have to carry more of the load on offense. Plus, Chauncey is a deadly threat from behind the arc and his ability to shoot opens the floor up for his teammates. Billups finally broke out of his shooting slump in the second quarter against the Bulls as he nailed two threes and a long two on the way to scoring 14 points over the final seven minutes of the quarter. Chauncey had some poor showings in the preseason and now dealt with a significant slump in the regular season. Maybe Billups is back and will continue to hit shots, but we need to be careful with pronouncing him back after just one game. He is far too good to shoot poorly all season long, but after some slippage in his play last season, we need to be prepared for another slip this season. The question is how big of a slip will we see?
Typically it would take two passes for the offense to get the ball to that point, but because Rose made a direct pass, Nene, who was guarding Joakim Noah on the right block, had no time to run out to cover Salmons. In addition to Nene being a pass behind, Kenyon, who was on the strong side block had one fewer pass to get to the corner to cover Luol Deng. Salmons could have taken the shot, but made the unselfish play to pass to a wide open Deng who nailed the open jumper.
The real mindbender is who do you blame the defensive breakdown on? Did Afflalo and Melo not trap hard enough allowing Rose to see the diagonal pass to Salmons? Does the blame lie with Chauncey for committing to Gibson too soon? Then again perhaps Nene and Kenyon, seeing that Rose had given up his dribble and Chauncey was already covering Gibson, should not have waited for the pass to Salmons to trigger their rotation.
Great defensive teams know how to read each other and react when the unexpected happens. The Bulls took advantage of that diagonal pass two or three times in the first half. If they are going to become a formidable defensive team, Denver has to be able to put up a cohesive front immediately when the opponent does something unusual. It requires communication, understanding of the defensive principles you are implementing and a trust that if you leap, your teammate has your back.
The Nuggets now enter what is probably the easiest portion of their schedule all season. They face the Nets, Knicks, Timberwolves twice and the Warriors. Those teams are currently a combined 8-43 right now and out of those eight wins, four have come against one of the other three teams (the Wolves and Knicks beat the Nets and the Warriors beat the Knicks and Wolves). As long as the Nuggets make sure they learned the lesson from their loss to the Clippers to take every team seriously and do not allow themselves to be complacent, even if they get off to a good start as they did in Los Angeles, they should win all five of those games which would make them 14-4.
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