Merry Christmas to everyone. As you come down from your sugar high and get ready for the big showdown between the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers check out the 5-on-5 comparison between the Nuggets and Blazers featuring Henry Abbott, Kevin Arnovitz, J.J. Adande, John Hollinger and David Thorpe. Plus swing by the Daily Dime Christmas Day marathon chat which I will be a part of by tip off.
The Denver Nuggets have announced that Chauncey Billups underwent an MRI today on his strained groin. The results showed that it was a muscle strain and not a tear or something more serious. He is day to day with a status of questionable for tomorrow night’s game at New Orleans.
It will be interesting to see if George Karl gives Ty Lawson his first career start of if he reinserts Anthony Carter back into the starting lineup. Judging by the fact Carter played nearly the entire fourth quarter for the second time in three games I think we have our answer.
The Denver Nuggets played tremendous half court defense against the Phoenix Suns in their 105-99 victory at the Pepsi Center. Below is what was originally supposed to be a few clips that turned into a mass quantity of clips documenting the Nuggets’ successful implementation of their switching scheme.
A couple of things I forgot to mention in the video was that switching defenses are usually employed to prevent a team from getting open perimeter shots. Give the coaching staff and players credit for having the guts to implement the switching scheme and stick with it. Secondly, I forgot to mention that Nene and Kenyon did a very good job of not reaching. It is easier to reach than move your feet and they both expended the additional energy to play defense with their legs and not their arms.
The one comment I will make is I was disappointed that George Karl fell off the wagon and chose to play Anthony Carter over Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo. The Nuggets won and Carter obviously did not make any crippling plays, but I thought Lawson was doing a good job of defending Nash and Afflalo was playing exceptionally well defensively. I would have greatly preferred to see Afflalo in the game down the stretch, but as the Nuggets did pull out the victory it does not make for a very convincing case.
Even so, as was pointed out during the Altitude broadcast, give Carter credit for answering the bell and playing solid basketball.
I also thought the Suns desire to push the pace probably contributed to their downfall. Coming off a tough home game the night before against the Magic, their breakneck pace probably contributed to the outcome in the Nuggets’ favor. The Suns ran Denver out of the gym in the second quarter, but in the second half the Nuggets were much quicker to loose balls and seemed to have a little more spunk to their movements. Plus we have seen the Nuggets settle for jumpers when they become fatigued and I think the Suns played into the Nuggets hands a little bit as they settled for jumpers for much of the second half.
Congratulations to Denver on a good win, but as I pointed out after the loss to the Pistons, the Nuggets do not prove their worth winning home games, but winning road games. Still, a loss to the Suns in that situation would have been devastating and Denver deserves credit for pulling out a hard fought win.
I thought it was interesting Michael at Valley of the Suns mentioned the game last January where Grant Hill lost his balance at the end of a game in Denver. I expected the no call against Nene at the end against Nash would bring back old memories of that finish for Suns fans and I guess it did.
You can find thoughts on tonight’s 101-99 loss to the Pistons in the Daily Dime from both Dan Feldman of Piston Powered and myself. Judging from the quote from Chancey in box five under “Quote of the Night” he agrees with the premise of my comments.
I am not afraid of the San Antonio Spurs.
There is a belief around the NBA that you do not look good if you pick against or doubt the Spurs. They are champions, the big three, Popovich, a tremendous front office, the Spurs seem to have it all. Even with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili battling injuries last season San Antonio tied the Nuggets and Blazers for the second best record in the west.
Here are a few facts. The Spurs are now 9-8 overall and they have played 12 games at home and only five on the road so they have had a schedule loaded with home games. In those 12 home games, they are a respectable 8-4. On the road however, they are only 1-4. They have played road games at Utah, Portland and Dallas, which can be difficult places to win in, but we have seen Denver win at Portland, Oklahoma City has won in Utah and Golden State has won in Dallas. (Of course you can retort that Minnesota won in Denver, but the point is the Spurs have not faced an impossible road schedule that excuses a 1-4 road record.
The real kicker in my mind is the Spurs are only 3-6 against teams currently over .500.
The truth is these are all just stats that I can spin to try to prove my point. The five road games are certainly a small sample size and the Spurs’ plus 3.3 point differential seems to indicate they are better than a 9-8 team.
Let’s move past the stats and look at the contest between the Nuggets and Spurs.
In a game where very few things seemed to go in the Nuggets’ favor for the first half, Tim Duncan played brilliantly, Tony Parker played very well and the whistle was undoubtedly in the Spurs favor Denver still pulled out a big win.
As far as lucky breaks, the Spurs seemed to get them all, from DeJaun Blair losing control of the ball in the post only to have it soar through the air and end up falling through the rim, George Hill’s running three pointer to close out the first quarter, or the numerous loose balls that rolled or bounced to Spurs players, such as when Melo stripped Tim Duncan on the right wing, only to have the ball bounce behind him allowing Duncan to grab the ball and drive to the rim as the other Nuggets started to run back for the fast break leaving an open lane to the rim. These are only a few examples, there were many more.
As far as the officiating, if you read this blog regularly you know it is very rare I even mention officiating. I hate complaining about officiating and I usually hate listening to people complain about officiating. Hopefully, that lends some credibility to what I am about to type. I thought the Spurs got away with an awful lot of slapping, grabbing and bumping in the lane. You can point to the Nuggets 33 free throws, two more than the Spurs attempted, and dismiss this point, but looking at the number of free throws a team shoots to judge whether or not the game was called fairly. Denver probably should have been awarded 50 free throws. On the other hand, the Nuggets were clearly frustrated by the way the game was officiated, Melo especially, but they kept their composure and fought through it.
In the past Melo would have allowed himself to get taken out of the game by his frustration, but he went on to play a magnificent second half.
In addition to the fortunate bounces and friendly whistle, Duncan was great. He made almost everything he threw up, although it certainly was not luck. He worked for good position and only attempted good shots. In fact the Spurs would have been better served by Duncan taking more than the 12 shots he was credited with. Parker too had his moments in the second half as he carried the Spurs offense for the first part of the fourth quarter.
The biggest difference I see with the Spurs is those two are not getting the support from their other teammates as they have in the past. The biggest culprit is Manu Ginobili. Manu is not a frightening player anymore. He does not seem to have the explosion he used to that allowed him to get into the lane and finish. According to 82games.com after posting effective field goal percentages of 67% and 63% the previous two seasons, his EFG% on close shots has dropped to 50%. Hoopdata.com tells us he is shooting only 45% on shots taken at the rim.
In addition to Manu’s struggles, big offseason acquisition Richard Jefferson does not seem to fit very well with the Spurs. He is not used to being the third or fourth option for a team and I am not sure he is good enough anymore to consistently be a second option.
Before the season I believed the player San Antonio acquired that would keep them in the group of teams chasing the Lakers was Antonio McDyess. Dyess has scored in double figures only three times all season and his zero points against Denver, in 24 minutes mind you, was the third straight game in which he did not score. His struggles is forcing the Spurs to rely on the one dimensional Matt Bonner (OK, he is one and a half dimensional as he is a decent rebounder).
Enough about the Spurs, it is not just their failings that has erased my fear of them, but the way Denver matches up with them. It all starts with Carmelo Anthony who the Spurs have struggled to contain since he averaged 26.8 points per game against them in the 2007 playoffs. Players like Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley who used to be able to crowd Melo on the perimeter and funnel him to help have not been replaced as evidenced by the Spurs decision to hope Keith Bogans could slow Carmelo. Bogans is a find defender, but he does not have the size to deal with Anthony and it was Melo who brought the Nuggets back in the second half as he once again took what the Spurs, and referees, would give him. He hit a series of short to midrange jumpers over top of Bogans or whoever else was in front of him in the final two quarters. Melo tallied 22 second half points and lead Denver to a big win on the road.
The other player the Spurs have struggled to deal with is J.R. Smith. San Antonio has no one who can stay in front of J.R. and Smith usually makes them pay by attacking the rim mercilessly. He did not have his best game Saturday, but he did find holes and gaps in the Spurs defense.
Beyond Melo and J.R. Denver now has a third player whose perimeter speed is just too much for the Spurs to handle and that is Ty Lawson. Lawson played a huge role for Denver in the second and fourth quarters as he was able to get into the lane at will. He even went toe to toe with former Finals MVP Parker in the fourth as the two combined to score 15 straight points. Even more impressive than his physical attributes is Lawson’s mental toughness. He did not shy away from the pressure of facing Parker and the mighty Spurs for the first time in his NBA career.
The Nuggets actually have an advantage in the paint over the Spurs as well. With McDyess struggling and Blair not quite ready to battle night after night the Nuggets won the battle of the boards 38-31 and San Antonio only had five offensive rebounds. Nene may have only nabbed one rebound, and it was late in the fourth after the game had been decided, but Kenyon pulled down 13 while Melo and J.R. collected seven each.
Now that poor Greg Oden is out for the season again I think the race for the second seed comes down to Dallas, Phoenix and Denver and I firmly believe the Nuggets are the better team of the three. After the Suns 20 point loss to the Lakers tonight, Denver is in sole possession of second place in the west only a game and a half behind the Lakers who have only had to play a league low four road games so far.
One more thing, it would not be right of me to rail on Chauncey’s shot selection one day and then ignore the fact he showed a great deal of restraint in San Antonio. Chauncey made his first two three point attempts in the first six minutes of the game and surprisingly only shot one more the entire game. Kudos to Chauncey for not cranking up transition three after transition three because he hit a couple.
The Denver Nuggets are approaching the quarter pole in the new season. There is only one team in the west with fewer losses now that Phoenix has lost two in a row. Denver just finished an incredibly easy five game stretch with a 4-1 record. It is difficult to say that only losing one out of five games is a disappointment, but the manner in which the Nuggets folded at home against a bad Timberwolf team was difficult to swallow.
So what conclusions can we draw if any at this point in the season?
The Nuggets have had a very easy schedule
When the schedule was first released I remember thinking how difficult the Nuggets first few games appeared because of all the back to back sets and knowing they would be without J.R. Smith for seven games. The fact is, Denver has had a very easy schedule so far. The only elite team they have faced is the Lakers and it was at home. Plus they have looked bad on the road against quality opponents like the Hawks and Heat.
The win against the Lakers was the signature win of the season, but the second best win, game two in Portland, does not look quite so impressive anymore. The Blazers lost seven home games all last season, but have already dropped four this year in only 11 chances.
Looking at the schedule Denver has played compared to the other top teams in the west, it is clear Denver has had an easy road so far. Even looking through December Denver only has two daunting road games, at San Antonio on Saturday and then at Portland on Christmas and we have documented the Blazers’ struggles already. Going further, Denver only has one more clearly worrisome road game, at Utah, until January 25. The 13-5 start is nice, but if the Nuggets are not safely atop the division on January 25, they will struggle to have home court advantage in the playoffs. One key to earning a high seed is to avoid bad losses and the Nuggets already have two of those.
Even though the schedule gets more difficult, if the Nuggets truly are the second best team in the west, they should still win a good number of games over the final three months.
Carmelo is living up to expectations on offense
Any way you slice it Carmelo Anthony is having a great offensive season. He is the leading scorer in the league by 1.5 points over LeBron James thanks to his 30.7 average. The good news is his increased scoring is not simply due to playing more minutes or taking more shots. Melo’s success this season is proving that his horrible field goal percentage last season was due to the nagging injuries he dealt with for much of season.
Melo is converting on a career high 49.5% of his attempts, he is also making a career high 86.8% of his free throws on a career high 10.1 attempts per game. Carmelo has seen a slight drop in his three point percentage which is currently at 34.0%, but it sure seems like he is hitting a much higher percentage than that. I expect every catch and shoot three he takes to go in.
Not only is Melo healthy, but he is working for better shots. According to HoopData.com there are two big changes in Melo’s shooting from last season. He is attempting nearly two more shots a game at the rim and he is finishing a high percentage of them with his percentage on those shots back up to the mid 60’s after seeing it drop to an uncharacteristically low 57% last year. The fact that Carmelo is getting to the line three more times per game than last season also shows his determination to get to the rim more frequently than last season.
However, scoring is only one part of the game. Melo seems to be passing more frequently and setting his teammates up with better shots than in the past. Melo’s 2.2 assists a game at the rim are behind only Chauncey’s average of 2.9 on the team. Oddly enough, Carmelo’s assist rate of 11.1 is the lowest he has had in four seasons. I think we will see that number climb as the season goes along though. Not only is his assist ration down, but so is his turnover rate. Right now Melo is posting a career best 8.8 turnover rate and that has helped him be more efficient.
If I have any concerns about Melo it is his rebounding and defense. After making a concerted effort to be a better rebounder in 2007-08 and posting a career high 7.4 caroms a game Melo has seen his rebounding average drop to 6.0. Some of that can be attributed to the relatively slower pace the Nuggets now play at, but his rebound rate has dropped to 9.6 after being over 11 the previous two seasons.
Defensively Carmelo seemed determined to raise his level of play and early in the season he was getting low and looking like a player who wanted to get dirty on that end of the floor. That enthusiasm was short lived and Melo has slipped back into his more lackadaisical attitude when the other team has the ball. It was very frustrating to see Melo give up easy baskets to players like Ryan Gomes and Damien Wilkins late in the fourth quarter against Minnesota two games ago.
Nevertheless, he is still better than he was a couple of years ago, but he has still not taken that next step as a defender that would put him in the MVP conversation. Then again, if Marcus Camby can win the Defensive Player of the Year award I guess anything is possible (no I will probably never let that go).
Even with the slightly disappointing effort on defense, Melo is still in position to have his finest performance to date.
The most deserving players are playing
Entering the season I was very concerned that players that George Karl liked in training camp would see more time on the floor than better players on the roster. More specifically that Anthony Carter’s presence would ensure that Ty Lawson would be glued to a padded folding chair on the bench. After getting six starts while J.R. Smith was suspended Carter has not been a threat to Lawson’s playing time. I think we all expected a lot from Lawson, but he has blown those expectations out of the water. All I can say is thank God that Lawson and his 17.60 PER is playing instead of Carter who sports a PER of 7.23.
I was also concerned about Joey Graham stealing time from Arron Afflalo which also proved to be unfounded. Afflalo also has also exceeded expectations on both ends of the floor. He is much more effective on offense and has shown a newfound ability to get to the rim. Afflalo is shooting a surprising 49.2% from the floor and is proving his 40.2% from behind the arc last season was not a fluke.
J.R. Smith no longer has the worst shot selection on the team
Chauncey’s play in the preseason was worrisome to me. He was turning the ball over and missing shots. Coming on the heels of his poor showing against the Lakers in the conference finals, it appeared age may have been catching up with Chauncey. Billups had a couple of nice shooting games to start the season and his turnovers have remained at the same level as they have been throughout his career. However, Chauncey has been very streaky from behind the arc and at this point he is attempting a career high 44.5% of his shots from downtown.
I have lamented Chauncey’s desire to launch threes at inopportune times in the past, but he reached a new level of poor decision making during the embarrassing loss to Minnesota. In the second half when Denver was struggling to figure out that they had a better chance of scoring by getting as close to the rim as possible Billups fired up five threes and two more long two point jumpers. What is worse, is he only made one of those seven long jumpers and it was obvious to everyone but him that it was not his night.
We all poke fun at J.R.’s shot selection and it can be horrible. Earlier in the season I made a joke that he was out of the game due to a sprained shot selection. J.R. may take some incredibly tough shots, but he is making a much higher percentage overall than Chauncey right now and for a player who is supposed to be the coach on the floor, Billups tends to add to the problem instead of demanding a new solution when the Nuggets get jumper happy.
I realize that Chauncey will find his shot and his three point percentage will climb back up towards 40%. I just would like to see him worry more about getting good shots than being Mr. Big Shot.
Nene is playing out of his gourd
If you read this blog on a regular basis you will know I think John Hollinger is the member of the national media who is most attuned to the Nuggets. I had to respectfully disagree with him before the season when he cited Nene as a player who was likely to see a dip in performance this season. As solid as Nene was last year, I expected to see him improve his game seeing as how he did not have to worry about thinks like the effects of chemo over the summer.
So far Nene has been even better this year than last. In my opining Nene has been the most consistent Nugget this season at both ends of the floor. Not only is he proving that his field goal percentage last season was no fluke, but he has improved his passing posting an insanely high assist rate (for a center) of 17.7. On top of his offensive play, his defense has been very good. He is starting to block shots, he made two blocks that should have swung the momentum of the loss to the Wolves, and he has taken three charges over the previous two games.
His rebounding is much improved and his rebound rate is now in line with what you need from your starting center. Plus he has seemed to get his tendency to foul under control. After fouling out the first two games of the season, he has rarely had to be pulled because of fouls. He is cutting back on the silly reaches that get many big men in trouble.
The bad news is that Nene is only getting 8.9 shots a game. The Nuggets must do a better job of making sure he gets the ball in the post. There are very few bigs who possess both the strength to keep him from getting great position and the quickness to defend him when he drives. Nene has an advantage over almost any player that covers him.
Has anyone been watching a Nuggets game this season and thought to themselves, “Gosh dang it, they really missed Linas Kleiza tonight!”? Me neither.
I continue to believe Denver has as good a chance as anyone in the west to face off with the Lakers in the conference finals. It is clear they have talent at every position and can beat anyone anytime. So far this season their defense is not up to par to reach their goals. They have had some good efforts, but the inconsistency is very frustrating. Denver is in the middle of the pack in most of the important defensive statistics and the reason is they are lacking cohesion. I was hoping that having a second training camp of focusing on defense would help them build on their improvements from last season, but that has certainly not been the case.
From a personnel standpoint, the lack of depth in the frontcourt is very concerning. As long as Nene, Kenyon and Birdman stay healthy the Nuggets should be OK, but if one, or God forbid two, go down for a prolonged period of time Denver will be in a world of hurt. In fact they have yet to win a game this season when all three do not play (OK, so that sounds worse than it really is as they lost in Atlanta without Kenyon and in Los Angeles against the Clippers without Birdman, but still, they will struggle to win without all three available).
The bottom line is if the Nuggets want to truly be contenders, they need another big, and not a Johan Petro big, a truly capable one. The bad news is Denver has very little to offer to acquire a player of that ilk. Denver has already forfeited their own first round pick and (wisely) traded away Charlotte’s for the rights to Ty Lawson. As far as expiring contracts, they only have a pittance. I will not put it past Mark Warkentien to find a way to add a player like that, but if he can pull it off, it will take a Festivus miracle.
I took part in the ESPN.com Daily Dime chat last night during the Denver Nuggets’ 135-107 blowout win over the Golden State Warriors. I would have mentioned it sooner, but my neighbor’s unsecured wireless disappeared and my DVR did not want to record and those technical issues set me back. Like any good Nuggets fan I persevered and I encourage you to check out the DD chat for some good Nuggets dialog as well as thoughts on which Michael Jordan draft pick was the worst and the news of AI possibly signing with the 76ers.
New post coming tomorrow, I promise.