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.
There is no guarantee the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers are going to face off again in the playoffs this spring, but today we got a taste of what a late May matchup between these two teams will be like. If that is indeed the case, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant may not have very much fun during that series.
The two superstars combined to make a mere 10 of their 36 shots. Ron Artest was all over Carmelo on one end while Arron Afflalo was harassing Kobe on the other. The difference in the game was Kobe adjusted his plan to fit what was going on around him while Carmelo did not. The proof is in their passing stats. Carmelo tallied only one assist, an over the head heave to J.R. Smith who was all alone after a steal, while Kobe ended the game with 12 assists. Compounding the problem even further Melo turned the ball over eight times good for a stunningly bad .13 assist to turnover ratio.
The Lakers have had a lot of success defending Carmelo in the past by crowding him with players like Vladimir Radmanovic or Luke Walton to take away his jumper while pre-rotating a defender over, either the power forward or center, to help if Melo chooses to drive. The only somewhat open shot available is a pull up jumper from eight to ten feet which is not a shot most players practice. Today, LA showed how effective that defense can be when the role of Radmanovic or Walton is filled by a motivated Ron Artest.
Artest was able to muscle Melo all over the court, pushing him out to the three point line on several occasions when Anthony was trying to post up. In fact on one play you can see Melo smiling as if to say “You do not bother me” as Artest pushed him towards the sideline only to see Ron jump in front of the entry pass and continue down the floor unmolested for a dunk. It happened again in the second half as Artest pushed Carmelo beyond the three point line and jumped the pass leading to another LA fast break.
When Carmelo drove, Artest guided him left repeatedly and funneled him expertly to his waiting help. Even when Melo drove past Artest, Ron was able to tip the ball away from behind on several occasions. Artest played a great defensive game and executed the Lakers’ scheme perfectly. It was the best defensive game I have seen from him in a long time. Plus his three point shooting helped keep the Lakers in striking distance in the first half.
While Artest deserves credit, Carmelo is not completely blameless. In fact, in some ways he allowed Artest to handle him. Carmelo tried to be a little too cool for school. He did not hold his position well at all and seemed to have a nonchalant attitude about where he received the ball. It almost appeared that he was willing to let Artest have his way in an attempt to prove that he could score no matter where he received the ball, which as we saw was not the case. Early in the game he made an attempt to find the holes in the Lakers defense with his passing, but after a couple were tipped away, he gave up and tried to do too much on his own.
All of the blame for Carmelo’s performance does not fall on the player. The coaching staff failed to put him in the best position. As we have seen in the past, when the Lakers play Melo with the crowd and help style they employed today, the best thing to do is to give him the ball in the middle of the court. That way, help must be ready on both sides of the lane and it gives Carmelo more of an opportunity to pass off. Carmelo repeatedly receive the ball on the left wing. With Artest forcing him left, he was driving with his offhand towards the baseline. On the right side of the court if Artest wanted to funnel Melo to the baseline, he would at least be driving with his strong hand, plus if the Lakers still tried to force him left, he has proven his effectiveness driving into the lane with his left hand from the right wing.
Even with the poor performance from Carmelo I think had Ty Lawson not been knocked out of the game with a bruised shoulder, Denver would have had a great chance to win that game. Anthony Carter played seven nondescript minutes in the second half and Denver clearly lacked the threat for penetration that Lawson provides.
There are some encouraging things to take out of this game. For the second time in three games Denver has done a solid job defending Kobe. Playing Denver is not longer a guaranteed 30 point night for Mr. Bryant. However, the Nuggets still need to find a way to deal with him in the post as he was able to back down and pass off for easy baskets in the fourth quarter.
Nene did a very solid job on Andrew Bynum and the team as a whole did a good job of keeping Pau Gasol from dominating the lane with his excellent post game. In fact Denver’s first half defense was some of their best of the season and they did not drop off much in the second half.
Additional Game 59 Nuggets
By the way, make sure you check out the two podcasts on Land O’Lakers. First off, the interview former NBA assistant Dave Miller on how to stop the Nuggets high powered offense and secondly they talk to Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post about the game and how George Karl is holding up.