That was freaking fantastic.
Thirty days ago the Denver Nuggets lost in Sacramento. It was their fifth loss in six contests. Their defense was atrocious and Chauncey Billups was injured. Plus that was the game Carmelo bruised his knee and as a result missed the next five games.
Fast forward to today and things could not look more promising. The Nuggets have won 11 of their 13 games since the loss in Sacramento. They weathered a J.R. Smith controversy. They should be at full strength on Friday in Oklahoma City and most importantly, they are looking like a determined team completely different than the bunch that consistently struggled to beat the dregs of the NBA.
With all of the good things the Nuggets have accomplished so far in January tonight’s 97-92 win in Houston might be the most impressive. The Rockets are a solid home team. They play tremendous defense and work together on offense to maximize their somewhat limited talents. Throw in the fact Houston was coming off back to back home losses and the Nuggets had their work cut out for them.
The Rockets, stinging from their recent losses to Chicago and Atlanta, started off the game with a great deal of intensity and they jumped all over Denver surging to a 14-4 advantage. Denver responded getting the lead down to five at 19-14 only to see Houston close out the first quarter on a 12-2 run.
Denver was not shooting well, they were getting outworked in transition and without Carmelo in a building they traditionally struggle to win in, things looked very bleak.
Denver refused to give up and put forth one of the best two or three defensive efforts I have seen from them this season. The bigs did a great job of stopping the dribbler on the pick and roll and the guards were equally as good at fighting around the screen and recovering. Denver did very little switching and as a result their defense was much more focused and aggressive. They also fought hard for rebounds and challenged every shot in the lane.
I wrote after their win against Utah that the Nuggets were the second best team in the west even though their defense was not performing at the level it should have been and that I expected to see their defense return to the level we saw last season making the Nuggets an even stronger team. With what we have seen over the last three and a half quarters against New Orleans and Charlotte and the last three quarters tonight, Denver is well on the way to recapturing the style of play that worked so well for them last season.
The other development was the play of J.R. Smith. Smith’s biggest problem as of late has been his overreliance on the three point shot. In Houston he still fired up eight three point attempts, but only one of them was a poor shot. He went at the rim more frequently than he has in a long time and even hit a pretty floater in the lane with one second on the shot clock to put the Nuggets up 96-89 and only 17 seconds remaining. As far as his shot selection J.R. took five shots and six free throws before he attempted a three pointer, although one of them was a shot with his feet on the line. All eight of his threes came in the final 18 minutes of the game. He made three and one was a desperation half court shot to end the third quarter. All in all I thought J.R. played a very smart and effective game and that is a big relief for Nuggets supporters.
Additional Game 45 Nuggets:
- Scott Hastings pointed out in the post game that the key stretch in the game was a two minute burst in the fourth quarter when Chauncey returned to the game. Denver was behind 80-79 and had been hanging tough ever since the end of the first quarter, but was never able to really take control of the game. On the first play he drove baseline and dumped a beautiful bounce pass to Nene when three Rockets players collapsed on him for a layup. Next he backed down Aaron Brooks and shot a pretty turn around over him from the right elbow. On the third possession he caught a swing pass from J.R., passed up the quasi open three, drove the middle of the floor and kicked out to J.R. for a three. On the fourth possession Chauncey one again backed Brooks down, this time on the left block and when he was doubled thew a diagonal pass to J.R. who made a second long three. Just like that a one point deficit turned into a nine point lead the Nuggets would never fully relinquish.
- Denver was only credited with seven assists, which would lead you to believe they played a selfish, one-on-one game and somehow were able to get away with it. The reality is the Nuggets moved the ball pretty well as a team. If you want to know why their assist total was so shockingly paltry, I give you their 39 free throw attempts. A big reason why the Nuggets were able to earn that many free throws was because they were moving the ball and playing patient unselfish offense. By the way, three of those seven assists came from Chauncey in the four possession stretch we just outlined above.
- We have discussed how there is no doubt that J.R. Smith will bounce back from his shooting slump and have an absolutely red hot stretch. Tonight we saw a correction in the opposite direction with Arron Afflalo. Obviously Afflalo could not shoot as well as he had the past two games, cashing in on 16 of his 23 shot attempts, in perpetuity. Afflalo missed all seven of his shot attempts including two or three layups. For all I know he is still out on the court practicing jumpers still hoping to sink at least one before the team heads to Oklahoma City.
- No matter how well you play, there is always something to improve on. The Nuggets blew a couple of decent fast break opportunities with poor decision making. On one occasion on a three on two break J.R. had Chauncey on his left and Nene on his right. He actually passed the ball to Nene just inside half court and the result was not surprising as Nene drove as far as he could and just before reaching the rim charged into a waiting defender for the turnover. There was another break where Nene caught a pass by the right side of the rim and dumped a pass to Afflalo who was on his left instead of shooting. The pass off gave the defense that extra second to catch up and Afflalo’s layup attempt was blocked.
- I have not gushed enough about the play of Kenyon Martin. Over Kenyon’s previous 15 games where he was not ejected by an insecure referee in the second quarter he has pulled down double digit rebounds in 13 of them. The other two games, he had nine boards. For a player who was never known for his rebounding prowess, that is an amazing stretch. His play is a big reason why the Nuggets are no longer getting demolished on the offensive glass night in and night out. Here is to you Kenyon Martin, kudos on a job well done and keep it up.
- The other reason for optimism is the play of Chris Andersen. He is still not blocking shots at the rate he did last season, which is probably not fair to expect, but he is rebounding very well and looks to be more spry (no Word, I am not going to replace more spry with spryer, is that even a word?) than he was earlier in the year when he was battling knee soreness.
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