The Denver Nuggets split a back to back in Los Angeles and Utah over the weekend and despite the loss in Utah, I continue to be impressed with this team and the way they are playing.
Denver started the weekend off in style defeating the Lakers 126-113 (Box Score, Forum Blue & Gold) . Obviously the Nuggets played great on offense lead by Chauncey Billups’ career high 39, 37 of which came in the first three quarters thanks to nine fancy threes. Chauncey was slowed in the fourth quarter after rolling his ankle, but J.R. Smith picked up where BIllups left off dropping in 16 fourth quarter points to close out the Lakers.
It is one thing to be hot on offense. Any team can catch fire for a night and bury their opponent. To me the real story was the way Denver defended the Lakers in the second half. The two Lakers who have had their way with Denver in the past are Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Those two combined to score 33 of the Lakers’ 64 first half points. However, in the second half Denver held L.A. to 49 points and Kobe and Pau only netted 17 between the two of them.
Kobe was red hot in the first quarter producing an impressive 20 points. Kobe is an incredibly competitive individual, which is news to no one. After the credit Arron Afflalo received for his performance against Kobe in the first meeting this season, you knew the Black Mamba would be out to prove Afflalo could not handle him. Despite the big scoring quarter, I thought Afflalo did about as good a job as he did previously. Kobe was just hitting difficult shots. Even with Afflalo playing solid D, the Nuggets chose to double Kobe for much of the second half to prevent him from having one of those nights.
With the double teaming of Kobe, it would stand to reason that Pau would get loose inside and dominate with his touch and passing ability. Not so. The Nuggets also had a new wrinkle for Pau. When Pau caught the ball with his back to the rim, the Nuggets waited for him to put the ball on the floor and then sent a double team at him as well. Gasol tends to take his time in the post and once he starts dribbling, you can expect him to dribble more than once or twice. Knowing that, Denver was able to wait for him to dribble before they doubled him. This prevented him for working to get exactly the shot he wanted and either rush the shot or pass out of the double.
It was a significant change for Denver who generally dislikes doubling anyone, but it was an effective strategy and a big reason why they were able to win the game. With Kobe and Gasol held in check, none of the Lakers supporting cast failed to rise to the occasion. Ron Artest was 3-9 and scored 12 points. Andrew Bynum shot 5-7, but only scored two second half points. Derek Fisher had four points on seven shots. Sasha Vujacic missed all five of his threes and only totaled four points on six shots.
The Los Angeles bench did manage to score 37 points, which is a good total. The kicker is it took them 36 shots to get there. Conversely the Denver bench (J.R. Smith, Ty Lawson and Chris Andersen) racked up 47 points, but did so on a mere 27 shots. Birdman actually outrebounded the entire Laker bench by himself 15-13.
If there is bad news, it has to be that despite Birdman’s aforementioned 15 boards and stout 12 rebound effort from Kenyon Martin L.A. pulled down 18 offensive boards and outrebounded Denver by 7.
The other aspect of the game that I found interesting was Nene was aggressive offensively against Bynum, which has not always been the case. In the past Nene has shied away from attacking bigger defenders such as Bynum, but he went right at him on a few occasions and had success. Now he just needs to pull down a few more rebounds to help reduce the Lakers’ offensive rebounding advantage.
The very next night Denver found themselves in Utah once again playing without Carmelo Anthony, but this time sans Chauncey Billups as well. Denver had already defeated Utah three times this season, the Jazz had been red hot and were sure to be highly motivated to dump the shorthanded Nuggets.
I do not have time to go into detail on that game, (Box Score, Highlights, Salt City Hoops, SLC Dunk) but I will say that I was thrilled with the effort and heart the Nuggets displayed. Playing without Melo and Chauncey and on the second night of a back to back (one of the late game in the Pacific time zone flying east that Greg Popovich thinks are unfair) and with Utah sitting at home for two days waiting for Denver to roll into town, the odds were not in the Nuggets’ favor.
Instead of folding after getting down 18 in the third quarter the Nuggets fought back and were within six points of the streaking Jazz with less than three minutes left.
Denver certainly lacked effort in some games earlier in the season, but they seem to have focused in on how important every game truly is. That bodes very well for the future even as Denver heads into possibly the toughest stretch of their regular season schedule.
In closing, I will say that most people, especially most guys young or old, fancy themselves as being tough. One thing I learned as a father is to never assume you could handle the pain someone else is experiencing. That point was struck home to me when my son was about 12 years old and foolishly decided sun tan lotion was unnecessary for someone who was in the sun as much as he was and returned from a trip to the lake with friends with skin that could easily be classified as well done. When it was time for bed, he was crying because his skin hurt so badly. My first reaction was to tell him to quit being such a baby until I stopped to put myself in his place. Maybe it was his own fault and maybe I would not be crying as he was had I scalded my exposed skin as badly as he did, but would I be able to lay down and fall asleep without uttering a single complaint? I had to figure as tough as I believed myself to be, a sunburn like that was certainly painful and while it was my job to make sure my son was not a sissy, it was not my job to dismiss his pain and label him a pansy.
I am sure you are wondering why I am telling you such a boring story. My point is I am really shocked that Carmelo Anthony has not played since spraining his ankle two weeks before the Utah game. Carmelo himself said the ankle was not as badly sprained as those he has suffered in the past. After seeing video of him working out before the game against the Lakers and knowing he has been practicing I started questioning both his toughness and how badly he wants to play. I do not take making accusations like that lightly, which is why I shared the sunburn story. Perhaps Carmleo’s ankle is much worse than any of us know, or have been led to believe. Perhaps working out is causing more pain than you or I could endure. We simply do not know. While an absence of this length is suspicious, it is not enough to lead me to proclaim Melo is a sissy or is more interested in making sure he can drop 30 points a night when he returns.
I have not seen evidence of Melo skipping out on playing when he was banged up in the past. In fact, if you recall he finished the game against the Indiana Pacers in which he broke his hand last season.
Do I want Carmelo to play? Absolutely. Is the fact he is missing games causing more harm than good? I think that question is up for debate. Maybe the Nuggets go 6-2 or 7-1 instead of 5-3 over the eight games he has missed. However, players like Kenyon Martin and Arron Afflalo have been forced to raise their game and now the team knows that those two are capable of answering the bell should the need arise. That is a good thing and had Melo only missed a game or two Kenyon might not have been such a force against San Antonio and Afflalo probably does not get the opportunity to hit the game winning shot against Sacramento.
The wins in Houston, San Antonio and Los Angeles without Carmelo were big wins for this team and I believe have helped build tremendous momentum for this team and helped them truly believe in what they can accomplish together.