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
- Kenyon found himself matched up with Lebron twice in the final minute of the game and both times, he got the best of the matchup. After hitting the shot to give Denver the lead for good at 93-91 he switched onto LeBron. LeBron backed out a couple of times almost as if he was expecting a double to come, but when none did he attacked Kenyon. Kenyon covered LeBron’s right and guided him to his offhand. leBron drove left and Kenyon stayed with him. When LeBron pulled up to shoot from about six or seven feet Kenyon got one of his big strong hands on the ball and forced James into a difficult shot off the glass, LeBron missed and J.R. Smith swooped in for the rebound. The other side of that switch was Afflalo covering Anderson Varejao. Varejao had been a force on the glass all night long and had a game high four offensive rebounds (and 15 overall). Afflalo did a great job of boxing Varejao out after LeBron’s miss allowing J.R. to pull down the rebound unchallenged.
- On the Cavs’ next possession after J.R. three to put Denver up five Kenyon came out to cover LeBron who was heading towards the block in position to receive a down screen from Varejao to allow him to flash to the ball and receive the inbounds pass. When LeBron noticed Kenyon was on him and Afflalo was on Varejao he realized the Nuggets expected a screen from Varejao on Lebron and wanted to be ready to switch Afflalo onto LeBron. James recognized what the Nuggets were doing and instructed Varejao to go to the block and he lined up at the free throw line and popped out to receive the inbounds pass without a screen and once again he was looking to drive on Kenyon. LeBron drove baseline and Kenyon once again stayed with him. James could not get Kenyon on his hip and ran out of room stepping out of bounds for his eighth turnover of the game. I am sure LeBron could get past Kenyon 60 or 70 times out of 100, but Kenyon was up to the task the two times that mattered.
- The Nuggets were clearly concerned with the Cavs shooters and I do not recall seeing them double once all night. The tactic caused Nene to get in foul trouble as he struggled to handle Shaq in the post, but the tactic worked. The Cavs had a good night overall from behind the arc, but in the second half they were only 2-8 until LeBron splashed his two contested threes in the final 30 seconds.
- Speaking of those late threes, Mo Williams missed one with 19 seconds left after Chauncey turned the ball over in the corner. Cleveland corralled the offensive rebound and LeBron made the first of his tough threes nine seconds later. Cleveland got their three points on that possession, but the extra nine seconds between Williams’ miss and LeBron’s make may have sealed the Cavs’ fate.
- I chronicled some of J.R.’s late game free throw shooting woes in my post following the win against the Warriors. I think hitting the first two free throws against the Warriors provided a boost of confidence to J.R. and helped him combine focus and execution in a late game situation. It may not seem like much, but the fact he made his first two leaving the third irrelevant allowing him to miss was significant. He did not need to shoot all three to make two. Against the Cavs J.R. was fouled with Denver up only two points and J.R. calmly stepped up and made both. Before the Golden State game I think Smith probably missed one of those two and LeBron’s three at the other end would have tied the game instead of only cutting the lead to one. J.R. has made all of his previous eight free throws he has tried to make and four of those eight were in high pressure situation. Hopefully J.R. has turned the corner and will shoot free throws as well as a player with his ability should.
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