I owe a big thank you to one of my least favorite shows, The Bachelor. When my wife found out it was the final episode of the ridiculously hokey show where we find evidence that no matter what the last man on earth is like, he will clearly have his choice of women, especially if he spends more time on his abs and pectoral muscles than helping children or old ladies.
The Bachelor saved me from having to watch the second half of a very depressing outing by the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets were coming off of a rough loss against the rival Lakers and playing their fourth game in five nights. Add in the absence of Ty Lawson and the fact that Chris “Birdman” Andersen was a ghost of himself before leaving the game early because his chronic patella tendonitis ended his night early. Ultimately, I do not care how badly the chips were stacked against the Nuggets their collapse in the second quarter was simply inexcusable.
Teams go through cold patches on offense where the shots just do not fall. Denver certainly hit one of those cold patches. The problem was not that the Nuggets could not hit shots, it was that the lack of quality shots that ruined them. The source of the offensive collapse was nothing other than a 2-3 zone defense.
There is a reason why zone defenses are the exception rather than the rule in the NBA. A zone defense in the NBA is working from a disadvantage from the beginning because of the defensive three seconds rule. The central defender is forced out of position before the offense even has to do anything. In addition to that, there is much more floor to cover because of the difference in the three point lines. While it is true NBA defenders are bigger, faster, loner and quicker, those physical advantages are not enjoyed solely by the defense.
For the Nuggets to struggle so mightily against a zone defense, with all of their talent, is inexplicable. They have been much more effective since Chauncey Billups returned to Denver thanks to his ability to shoot from distance and ability to drive when pressured.
There are several ways to beat a zone. The best option is to get to the rim before the defense gets set. That did not work because Denver did not exert the energy necessary to run and Phoenix did a good job of getting back on defense.
Option two, the option the Nuggets always immediately fall back on, is to shoot the zone into oblivion. We already mentioned how the Nuggets’ shooting ability went bye-bye so they had to find another way.
A third option is to penetrate the zone, forcing all the defenders to collapse into the lane, thus leaving their area of responsibility allowing for a quick pass to an open teammate. The Nuggets rarely attacked the lane and when they did, their decision making was subpar at best.
The other option for defeating a zone is to utilize quick passes to draw the defenders out of position and once again open lanes for driving, or to free a teammate for an easy shot.
Instead of employing any of those techniques, apart from missing a few three point attempts, the Nuggets drew a couple pages out of the what not to do against a zone. Namely, standing around, playing passively and missing open shots.
The coaching staff bears some blame as well for Denver’s performance against the zone as they did not seem prepared to handle it at all. Although at this level, players should not need much coaching in order to overcome a zone. I did notice on one occasion that Chauncey Billups was looking at the bench and shrugging his arms and shoulders in the international symbol of confusion as if to say, “What do you want me to do?”
The fact the Nuggets abided a 33-11 quarter and then came out after the half and gave up a 16-7 run, which was fueled by a 14-2 stretch after Denver scored on their first two possessions of the half.
The sad thing was the Nuggets played with such intensity and purpose in the first quarter on their way to building a 13 point lead early in the second. Their pick and roll defense was stout and they were active on both ends of the court. As was pointed out on the broadcast, as soon as the game was handed over to the respective benches in the second quarter the Suns simply exploded and Denver did not have a response.
After playing four games in five nights Denver only has two games over the next five days and three over the next eight games, all at home. I certainly expect a much better effort on Wednesday against Oklahoma City although the Nuggets have to be concerned about their depth with Birdman and Lawson both nursing injuries.