Once again I am thrilled to be wrong. After posting that the Nuggets should rest their injured players against the Cavs, Denver went on and secured a wonderful 99-97 victory over the red hot Cavaliers. In my defense I was working under assumption that Chris Andersen was not playing and Nene would have been limited if he did play. Obviously Birdman played and Nene did not appear to experience any ill effects from the ankle sprain he suffered in the fourth quarter against Golden State.
Denver is now 3-1 without Carmelo with wins in Utah and Cleveland. Even more importantly the Nuggets are playing team basketball. Sadly it took them a little too long to figure out how to win with a truncated roster. The good news is they are still very much in the hunt for the second seed in the West and are close to getting back to full strength.
As far as their win over Cleveland, they played consistently well on both ends of the floor. Offensively once again they were at their best when they avoided one on one basketball and worked both sides of the floor. Denver typically runs pick and roll right away early in the offense, however against Cleveland they frequently ran a cross screen with one of their guards to get the defense uprooted before running the pick and roll. They also utilized their ability to penetrate to get easy baskets either off the drive or with a dump off to one of the bigs who were always ready for a pass.
Defensively Denver played tremendous positional team defense. For most of the game they were very good on the ball, pressuring the ball handler and helping on penetration. I thought the Nuggets played with tremendous focus and cohesion. Of course, the Cavs are not the kind of team who can take advantage of Denver’s issues in transition, apart from LeBron’s one man fast breaks, and the Cavs are not a big pick and roll team. That is not to say they do not run pick and roll, but the Cavs guards do not attack the basket off the screen, but they come off soft which allowed the Nuggets bigs to lay back and cover the paint. Instead of working to get the ball in the paint off the pick and roll Cleveland seemed more interested in finding their three point shooters on the backside of the play who have room to shoot because the defense is preparing to help in the lane.
They did have some issues covering the weak side and did give up a couple of easy buckets off of basket cuts. Fortunately the Cavs were more focused on their perimeter offense.
Of course, anytime you play the Cavs, you need to give most of your defensive attention to LeBron James. The Nuggets relied on hardnosed man to man defense to make tings tough on James. Joey Graham started off on LeBron early in both halves, Afflalo took over for the bulk of the second and fourth quarters and then to close out the game George Karl called on Kenyon Martin to keep LeBron from getting into the lane. All three of them did a marvelous job. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Afflalo and Graham held LeBron to 5-18 shooting and only 13 points. We will get to Kenyon’s play on LeBron a little later.
Chauncey was very good in his return from a groin injury. He looked quick and it did not take him long to find his shot. I thought he did a good job of picking and choosing when to attack the basket, he had three or four impressive drives, and his jumpers mostly came within the flow of the offense. His penetration set up J.R.’s big three with 31 seconds left.
With Carmelo out of commission, one concern was who would take the big shots down the stretch in a close game. Against Utah there were no clutch possessions because Denver pounded them into submission. Versus Philly it was Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo who provided the bulk of the offense down the stretch. In the Golden State game J.R. and Anthony Carter provided the offense down the stretch.
Last night with the Cavs threatening it was another team effort with Afflalo hitting a big three to tie the game at 91, Kenyon making a short jumper off the glass, both of which were assisted by J.R. and then J.R. hit the game clinching shot, a long three his first of the game, to put Denver up five with just 31 seconds remaining.
Even when the Nuggets were struggling it was never due to a lack of effort or desire. They flat out beat the Cavaliers and it was a very good win.
Additional Game 36 Nuggets