The Denver Nuggets have won six games in a row and are now back above .500 on the road after back to back wins in New Orleans and Memphis. The common denominator in both games was Denver’s ability to make plays in the fourth quarter however both games had different stories to tell.
Through three and a half quarters the Hornets game felt much like the previous loss the Nuggets suffered at the hands of the Hornets in New Orleans earlier this season. A close game where Denver was obviously the better team, but they simply could not get their act together long enough to pull ahead. Then with the score tied at 86 and just under six minutes Denver finally took control of a game that was waiting for one team or the other to claim ownership of the contest.
The Nuggets received a gift when rookie Marcus Thornton drove directly into Darius Songalia, who had just set a screen for him, causing a turnover that triggered a two on one break for J.R. and Melo. The result was a lay in for Anthony. On the other end New Orleans settles for a second jumper by Songalia in about 70 seconds that missed. Chauncey received the outlet, sets up on the left wing, drove left and fed Nene at the rim. Nene is fouled and makes both free throws. The teams trade baskets and then Nene tips two passes on one possession both of which were intended for Emeka Okafor and prevented him from getting an open layup. The ball eventually finds its way to Okafor who misses what is now a contested jump hook instead of a dunk. Nene grabs the rebound and throws a beautiful outlet pass to J.R. who does his best to screw up another two on one break with Carmelo, but Melo is there for the rebound and finishes after adroitly making contact with Okafor to avoid getting his shot blocked. Before New Orleans can catch their breath Chauncey steals the inbounds pass and is fouled. Billups dropped in both free throws the Nuggets then parlay a very good defensive possession into a 30 foot desperation three pointer by Thornton which misses. Chauncey then closed out the game deciding 12-2 run with a drive and dish to Nene for an emphatic dunk that announced to all those watching that it was not going to be the Hornets’ night.
The Hornets were able to stay in the game thanks to a big first half by Thornton and a big third quarter from West. However, once those two options failed to produce in the fourth quarter the Nuggets were able to overwhelm the undermanned Hornets with little plays such as forcing turnovers, deflecting passes, and getting into the lane on offense.
The biggest surprise of the game was the way the Hornets chose to defend Carmelo. New Orleans has typically doubled Carmelo as soon as he would catch the ball and their aggressive scheme has been largely successful. In two games against the Hornets this season Melo had shot only 14-44 and the two teams split two close games, both teams winning at home. For some reason the Hornets decided to go away from that attacking defense and played Carmelo largely one on one choosing to play more of a prerotating scheme that the Lakers have been successful with. The difference is the Hornets do not have the same quality of personnel as the Lakers do. Melo was able to find space for his midrange jumper and scored 32 points on 13-27. The funny thing is as poorly as Denver shot from behind the arc, 3-22 to be exact, had New Orleans been aggressive with Carmelo and not allowed him to play so much one on one they might have cruised to an easy win.
Two other comments that need to be mentioned are, why on God’s green earth do the Nuggets insist on shooting threes on nights when it is obvious none of them can make any? The Nuggets had the advantage all night when they drove into the lane and as I am sure you noticed in the breakdown of their fourth quarter surge above Chauncey was able to get Nene two great looks the two times he drove at the rim. Secondly, J.R. Smith deserves credit for his fourth quarter defense on Thornton. Smith was all over Thornton as New Orleans ran him through and around screens. On one occasion Thronton caught the pass and jumped to shoot only to see J.R. flying at him so close that he had to dump the ball off towards David West and the play nearly resulted in a turnover.
The next night in Memphis instead of a defensive battle, the Nuggets found themselves in a wild shootout.
The Grizzlies jumped out on the Nuggets early on with a combination of layups and dunks to start the game off and then a hoard of threes to close out the first quarter. The Nuggets were obviously out of sync on defense as they allowed the Grizzlies’ bigs to roll into the lane and get great position at will. The Nuggets had just enough offense to stay close while their defense struggled.
Then late in the third quarter the Nuggets found their stride on both ends of the floor. The Nuggets were down 83-77 with two minutes remaining in the third quarter and went on a 20-2 run to smother the any hope that Memphis had for a victory.
The three keys to the Nuggets run were their bigs ability to finally seal off the middle and effectively eliminate the easy shots Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol had been getting all night long. Secondly, Denver got out and ran with Anthony Carter pushing the pace. Thirdly, J.R. Smith turned white hot and splashed three straight threes during the run.
It did not end there though as the Nuggets continued to explode offensively and pushed that 12 point lead up to 24 before taking their foot off the gas. J.R. would convert on five of seven threes over the final 14 minutes including five in a row. Denver wound up outscoring Memphis 48-25 over the closing 14 minutes.
I was growing concerned about Anthony Carter as he has been forced to log minutes in seven consecutive games. I have believed the key to his effectiveness has been fresh legs and with every passing game that advantage dissipates. Against New Orleans I though he was starting to look a little sluggish. Defensively he began reaching which is a sign of fatigue due to the fact it gets more difficult to move your feet. However in Memphis he was very good, especially down the stretch when his desire to push the pace helped earn Denver some easy scores. Now if we can just get him to stop shooting threes…
Johan Petro has continued to play respectably. He did struggled a little defending players like David West and Zach Randolph, but most players do. Petro continues to rebound pulling down ten boards twice in the past four games. Plus he has scored 23 points on 14 shots during those same four games. He has struggled to catch the ball while moving in the past, but has shown some improvement in that area as of late.
One quirky thing to note from the win in Memphis is it was the first game all season where Carmelo attempted fewer than three free throws. In fact, he did not get to the line once. The last time that happened in the regular season was December 12, 2008 in Cleveland although he did have two games in the 2009 playoffs where he did not attempt a free throw, game two against New Orleans and game five against Dallas and somewhat surprisingly both games were wins.
The good news in my mind, apart from winning on the road without two of their top eight players, was that there were no signs of moping or any indication of a lack of purpose as we saw early on in Minnesota. Denver played hard from start to finish in both games. They seem to be comfortable with Adrian Dantley and while Dantley did not have any strokes of genius that swung either game as he did in Minnesota when he went small, he certainly has not done anything to slow the team down.
Denver at New Orleans Stats and Links:
Pace Factor: 96.3
Defensive Efficiency: 97.7
Offensive Efficiency: 105.9
Denver at Memphis Stats and Links:
Pace Factor: 87.2
Defensive Efficiency: 122.2 – not good, but…
Offensive Efficiency: 143.4 – best efficiency rating of the season topping their 139.1 versus Dallas