Sometimes it was frustrating, it was frequently ugly, but the Denver Nuggets held onto a double digit lead for all but 2:32 of the second half against a scrappy Minnesota Timberwolves squad on the way to a 105-94 victory.
Denver had sequences where they played very well on offense and others where they played very well on defense, but they rarely played well on both ends of the floor at the same time. In the first quarter the Nuggets seemed a little flat, but they still played very good defense keyed by their ability to rotate and cover for each other. They held the Timberwolves to only 15 first quarter points.
The best example of the Nuggets strong first quarter defense came just over two minutes into the game. Al Jefferson had scored two buckets over Nene on the left block. Damien Wilkins entered the ball into Jefferson as Jonny Flynn and Corey Brewer made parallel cuts from the baseline out to the three point line in an effort to dislodge the defense and make it more difficult for the Nuggets to double Jefferson.
Wilkins cut through the lane after dumping the ball into Jefferson. Chauncey sagged down to dig at Jefferson leaving Flynn and leaving Afflalo in the eye as the Nuggets call it at the top of the circle responsible for the pass out from the double.
Jefferson passed out to Flynn and Afflalo was immediately on Flynn leaving the pass to Brewer open. Kenyon left Kevin Love on the right block to stop any chance of Brewer penetrating. Billups briefly started running towards Brewer, but angled towards the corner when he saw Kenyon closing out Brewer. Brewer then swung the ball to Wilkins in the corner. Carmelo, who had sagged in on Love jumped out to cover Wilkins in the corner as Chauncey seamlessly stepped in front of Love to ensure the ball could not be entered into the post. Melo forced Wilkins baseline and Chauncey quickly jumped the drive stopping Wilkins 16 feet from the basket and triggering a double with Carmelo.
Kenyon slid over to cover Love who floated away from the block to give Wilkins an option to pass the ball out while Afflalo was ready to jump the lob pass back out to either of the two Wolves players outside the three point line at the top of the circle and the opposite side of the floor.
Wilkins only option was to fling the ball into the middle of the floor and Afflalo was in position to pick it off. Unfortunately, Billups was called for a reach on the pass and Minnesota retained possession, however, it was a tremendous defensive possession by the Nuggets and an example of the way they played in the first quarter.
The Wolves also played solid defense in the first quarter. They doubled Melo while pre-rotating a third player in position to help if Melo was somehow able to drive towards the middle of the floor. With both teams struggling to score someone had to create some offense. Enter J.R. Smith who I think dominated the second quarter although it was not with his shooting, but his passing. Denver started going with their most unstoppable play, the pick and roll between J.R. and Nene. As we have noted before, J.R. is very adept at threading bounce passes to the roll man and he ran the high pick and roll with Nene to perfection to spark a 38 point second quarter.
They key sequence began after a timeout at the 8:33 mark of the second quarter. J.R. fed Nene for a layup off the high screen. The next time down J.R. dropped another nice pass to Nene in the lane. Minnesota sunk three players in the lane to stop Nene giving him an easy kick out pass to Afflalo who splashed the three. A minute and a half later J.R., Nene and Afflalo combined to complete the very same play.
After Afflalo showed he was hot the Nuggets ran a play for him where they posted J.R. up on the left block, Nene entered the ball to J.R. and AC, Nene and Birdman all converged setting a three man wide screen for Afflalo who ran off the wall his teammates built to the right wing. J.R. threw a perfect pass from the left block across the court hitting Afflalo, who was on the move mind you, directly in the shooting pocket and Arron drained the jumper. It was a beautifully designed and executed play. Denver ran it a second time shortly after and Afflalo floated to the middle of the floor and sadly missed the three.
All of that happened in just 3:03 and the Nuggets’ lead ballooned from two points to ten points and it was all fueled by J.R.’s passing. Smith went on to show how he is still a frustrating player by reverting to his three point chuckingest best later in the game. J.R. has been struggling with his shot and I can see how a home game against the Wolves is as good a time as any to try to shoot himself out of it. Even so, he is such an all around talent you still wonder when he will realize he can change a game without taking a shot.
The big story of the night though was the return of Carmelo. I thought it was good that the Nuggets did not just start force feeding him the ball right from the start. Still the Nuggets only had six points seven minutes into the game and Melo had only taken two shots, missing both. On a night when Nene was and Kenyon were struggling offensively they needed Melo to put up some points. Melo managed to get to the basket a couple of times over the final four minutes of the first quarter and along with Chauncey was able to get the Nuggets up to 20 points for the quarter.
Melo did appear a little rusty though getting called for a couple of offensive fouls and was never really able to get his post up game going due to the Wolves’ double teaming. He did score eight straight points in the fourth quarter on two threes and a layup and ended up scoring 24 points on 9-17 shooting. It was not a dominant performance, but a solid one.
The Nuggets offense lacked some of the flow they had while Melo was out, but they were able to avoid the sequences where Melo was holding the ball and the other four Nuggets were standing around and watching, which is something I feared might happen upon his return to the lineup.
There was one area where the Nuggets were very disappointing as they were completely unable to keep the Wolves off the offensive boards. Even with Kenyon pulling down 12 defensive rebounds on his own Minnesota collected 21 of their missed shots. Kevin Love corralled an impressive five offensive rebounds, but was easily outdone by teammate Al Jefferson who earned eight. When you consider Minnesota missed 58 shots from the floor it slightly reduces the sting of sacrificing 21 offensive rebounds. Even so, you are not going to win many games only collecting 62.5% of all defensive rebounds.
Additional Game 38 Nuggets