That’s a Wrap – The Utah Jazz End the Denver Nuggets’ Season

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The season is over. A campaign that held such incredible promise ended in the first round against a division rival missing two starters. The Nuggets just had no answer for Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap. Despite the best efforts of players like Johan Petro, Malik Allen and Joey Graham Denver the Jazz controlled the paint in the second half.

Despite my dire predictions of a blowout by halftime the Nuggets stayed close thanks to a 19 point first half from Joey Graham and a 17 point third quarter performance by Chauncey Billups. While Graham and Chauncey carried Denver through three quarters, no Nugget was able to complete the job in the fourth.

Carmelo looked like he was going to answer the bell early in the final stanza as he tallied six points and an assist over the first five plus minutes of the quarter. Melo’s jumper at the 6:33 mark tied the game at 95. That would be the final important bucket by Denver because before Denver would score their next hoop over two minutes later they would fall behind by 11.

The game and the season were over.

While most fans will look at Carmelo’s 20 point performance on just 6-22 shooting, it does not tell the entire story. Melo Battled on the glass pulling down a team high 12 rebounds and handled double teams well as he racked up five assists. Still, he will receive a good deal of responsibility for the loss and rightfully so. His defense was spotty as always and great players are judged by not only putting points on the board, but doing so with some semblance of efficiency. Carmelo’s teammates did not all play well, but they gave him a shot to win in the fourth quarter and it did not happen.  I commented during the game Carmelo looked like he was going half speed as his usual killer first step was not there.  Typically Melo can fire off at his defender and pull up leaving the sorry sap covering fighting to stop his momentum in an attempt to contest the jumper.  Melo never did gain separation and the result was a hoard of contested midrange jumpers that did not fall.

It is not fair to hang this first round loss on Carmelo’s shoulders. However, as the best player on a quality team the successes and failures of his squad are laid at his feet. We will have plenty of time to explore this over the offseason, but for all the accolades Carmelo has received as a scorer, he is still a deeply flawed player. Converting six of 22 shots on a night where his team needed a star to close the deal is simply not good enough.

As I referred to above, Melo was not the only player to struggle. Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Chris Andersen barely contributed to the effort. Martin was the most effective of the three producing a couple of nice conversions in the lane. He also uncharacteristically passed up chances to score in the lane twice choosing instead of dish off to a teammate in a worse position to score.

Smith was back to his passive self. He only attempted four shots in 20 minutes. It was his lowest single game shot total of the season. He also produced no assists producing a mere three points for the team. It seems like J.R. is trying to find himself as a player over the previous three games. He succeeded in playing a quality game in the fifth contest while producing next to nothing in games four and six. I honestly have no idea what to make of it. No idea whatsoever.

Finally looking at Birdman, he was the Nuggets fifth worst big behind not only Kenyon and Petro, but also Malik Allen, who submitted an acceptable six minutes in the second quarter when foul trouble required his presence on the court, and Joey Graham. That is sobering.

Graham deserves all the credit in the world for stepping in ready to play and producing what would have been an all time performance from a forgotten player had Denver managed to win this game. Sadly, his exploits will largely be glossed over and forgotten.

Adrian Dantley provided a boost with a sudden outburst of activity in the second quarter as he drew his first technical as a head coach after a foul by Carmelo away from the ball. The result was a 15-3 surge to close out the half that made the game a contest again. The common joke is that Dantley blew any chance to be a head coach during this series, but he showed growth, made the right personnel decisions in game six and finally realized what you say to the referees is almost as important as what you say to your team.

After six games there is no question who the better team is. Utah absolutely deserved to win the series and they way they played was very impressive. On the other side of things the Nuggets now face a very difficult offseason where complicated questions must be answered. You can count on Roundball Mining Company to walk with you step by step as Denver must gear up for what will hopefully be a more successful season in 2010-11.

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Denver Nuggets at Utah Jazz – Game Six Preview

The Denver Nuggets face a very tall task. They must win a game in Utah if they are going to keep their season alive. Before the series began, roughly a lifetime ago, I predicted the Nuggets would win in seven games with both teams winning one game on the road. Of course, that was before the injuries to Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur after which I proclaimed Denver would win in five games. In addition to that prediction I also claimed the Jazz would finish the Nuggets off in game five when Denver dropped the previous three games, only to reverse course again prior to tipoff when I claimed the Nuggets would win and force a game six.

File all of that under the if you make enough predictions, one is bound to be right folder.

With all my dirty laundry now exposed, I must say I expect the Jazz to win game six. They have been dominant at home against Denver. The Nuggets really had no shot at winning games three and four, and even in their game five win I did not find Denver’s performance overly impressive. Now add in the loss of Nene for at least game six and Denver certainly has the odds stacked against them.

One thing I do know is all of the talk about Denver being better without Nene is utterly ridiculous. Nene played well in the first two games, and even in games three and four he was able to get to the line, for some reason he was incapable of converting on his many opportunities at a respectable rate, but he still was effective enough to average ten free throws a game. The fact is Denver has struggled with foul trouble when all of their bigs have been available. Things will only be worse with Nene out.

Johan Petro has exceed expectations all season, albeit very low expectations. Petro will have to not only play well, but stay out of foul trouble in game six. Utah is not a team that plays small. Outside of garbage time the Jazz have played a total of about three minutes all series without two big men on the floor. For the most part between Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap and Kyrylo Fesenko two of the three are always on the floor. Asking Carmelo Anthony to guard one of those three in the post will almost assuredly result in Melo committing fouls and Denver needs Melo to be on the floor for at least 42 minutes.

I suspect Kenyon will start out covering Fesenko in order to avoid any early foul trouble from covering Boozer. That will put the onus on Petro to not only keep Boozer from going off, but do so without committing fouls. I am dubious of him being able to accomplish either of those two tasks.

At this point Denver is clearly the underdog. I would recommend they go for broke, set Kenyon on Boozer and hope for the best. If they have to go small, they would be better off with inserting Joey Graham to defend Millsap, there is no way they can go small and expect anyone other than Kenyon, Birdman or Petro to handle Boozer. Melo cannot cover Millsap without fouling and Melo does not need any help in picking up fouls. There is the possibility of doubling to assist Carmelo in defending Millsap, but Denver has struggled to handle Utah when they play them straight up. I shudder to think what Utah might do to them should Denver voluntarily get out of position. Even so, Denver might have no choice other than use Carmelo at the four. The good news is Millsap cannot handle Melo either, however, Millsap is more adept at avoiding foul trouble than Melo has been, though Millsap did foul out in game four.

The bottom line is with the current state of Kenyon and Birdman’s health I do not think you can get more than 65 minutes of floor time between the two of them. That leaves roughly 30 minutes that will need to be picked up by Petro and others. Yes, you can expect a Malik Allen sighting. This is going to be a serious problem for Denver and it increases the degree of difficulty for a win in game six substantially.

Obviously, Denver must have another strong performance from Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith on offense. Utah is going to put points on the board and Denver will have to match. I am encouraged by the way J.R. Smith played on Wednesday. If he continues to play his new brand of unselfish ball where he drives to set up teammates and picks his spots from behind the arc, he can be a game changer. Ty Lawson is going to have to create easy opportunities in transition and generally create havoc in the half court.

As far as intangibles, Deron Williams has been consistently amazing and he has yet to have a poor shooting night. Maybe he is due for one. He cannot keep shooting over 50% from the field and from behind the arc all series can he? Utah will be highly motivated to close out the Nuggets and you kind of got the sense they did not feel the urgency to win game five that they will for game six. Also, after the Nuggets enjoyed a significant advantage at the free throw line we can expect a backlash in that area as well as the natural swing in that area that will come about by switching the venue to Salt Lake City. Also, the Jazz had a very poor shooting night from Kyle Korver. The chances of that happening again are remote. The Jazz will undoubtedly perform better shooting off of screens.

The only intangible I can reach for from the Nuggets’ point of view is Melo has really been working hard to prove he is a star player and will not get bumped from the first round again, although his effort to carry Denver in game four came up a bit short. Still, if he plays like he did in game four and gets some help from his talented supporting cast, Denver can win.

That is right, I said Denver can win, I just do not find a victory to be very likely. The lack of big man depth is going to cause a myriad of issues. If the Nuggets find themselves behind by double digits in the second or third quarter, as has been their wont in the other two games in Utah, will they possess the determination and heart to fight back, or will they fold up the tent and write the season off as a nightmare that can only end by starting a new day?

Every game is an opportunity to prove yourself and when the buzzer sounds on game six, we will know exactly what this Nuggets team is made of.

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The Denver Nuggets Avoid Elimination, Win Game Five

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The Denver Nuggets staved off elimination by winning game five of their first round series against the Utah Jazz 116-102. Denver is now 4-1 against the Jazz at the Pepsi Center and all five games have been tightly contested in the fourth quarter. In the Nuggets’ four wins, they have ridden a hot offense to a safe victory. Tonight, as it was in game one, J.R. Smith proved the catalyst of a strong fourth quarter surge resulting in a double digit victory.

The Nuggets played a more disciplined offensive game in the first half, largely attempting to work the ball inside and running some semblance of an offense in an attempt to earn easy baskets. In the post game press conference Jerry Sloan said Denver did a good job of working the ball inside for easy baskets early in the game.

Even so, the Nuggets found themselves down by two at the half. With Nene slated to miss the second half after being inadvertently being kicked in the knee by Carlos Boozer the Nuggets unleashed a perimeter that was less structured, but thanks to some impressive marksmanship, more explosive. Denver scored 66 second half points including five straight threes that paved the way from a two point deficit to a seven point lead.

Carmelo Anthony was not as dominant as he had been on offense, but he was also more tactful with his play. He earned 15 free throws for the second time in the series and made it through the game with only a single turnover. It certainly was not as spectacular of a performance, but fit perfectly into the more team oriented offensive style the Nuggets had lacked in games three and four.

Denver shared the offensive burden with Melo posting a solid first quarter, followed by seven different Nuggets scoring in the second quarter (the Jazz only had six players score in the entire game). In the third quarter it was Melo and Chauncey followed by J.R. Smith and Carmelo bringing the team home.

Smith played another unselfish game, but unlike game four, he managed to play with aggression while not taking ill advised shots. J.R. was 4-5 from behind the arc and hopefully we have seen him turn a corner. He passed up open threes on more than one occasion in order to drive or continue to swing the ball around to a teammate. He only forced one shot that I remember and finished the game with three assists, which proved to be the first game in the series where he tallied more than two.

Defensively, the Nuggets were better although the Jazz missed several shots that they had been making. Kyle Korver was a nonfactor missing all six of his shots. Look for that to change in game six. Utah only converted on 45.2% of their shots, their worst performance of the series and only the second time they shot less than 52.9% in the five games.

Game five was a step in the right direction, but if the Nuggets are going to avoid elimination in Utah, they are going to have to play much better than they did tonight. I had many people ask me if Denver had a chance in game six or if they had a chance to win the series. My standard response was that the Nuggets chances of winning were much better with a win in game five than a loss.

The Nuggets still face an uphill climb and the Jazz have to be considered favorites to win game six they way they have walloped Denver in games three and four in Utah. When you are trying to come back from being down 3-1, you can only do it one game at a time. So far so good.

Round 1 Game 5 Nuggets

  • As I mentioned in my pre-game five links post, John Hollinger wrote an article about how the Nuggets’ free throw shooting rate dropped precipitously under Adrian Dantley (ESPN.com Insider required). The number of free throws Denver attempted per field goal dropped by 17.7% in games Dantely was the coach of record. Things were even worse in the series with Utah as the Jazz were posting a stunningly high .501 free throws per shot ratio and heading into tonight’s tilt the Jazz had shot 13 more free throws in the series than Denver. Low and behold, the Nuggets were awarded 42 free throws to 25 by the Jazz. Utah fans saw that as the league’s response to Professor Hollinger’s article. I think it was the combination of playing at home, and playing aggressively. The fouls that were called on Utah were mostly clear fouls, reaches and bumps. The Nuggets were aggressive and they earned their way to the stripe. Sadly, the state of officiating has gotten to the point where people expect swings like this when an article like the one written by Hollinger comes to light. With all the attention being given to how the Spurs have been allowed to rough up Dirk Nowitzki when they play in San Antonio, we can expect to see game six officiated differently than the previous two. It happens too frequently to be organic and only goes to convince people that someone is involved in instructing referees how games should be called on a game by game basis.
  • Before the game Dantley said he wanted to play Ty Lawson more and he did not make himself out to be a liar. Lawson logged 20 minutes and played an important role in forcing turnovers, pushing the pace and simply supplying energy. The concern with Lawson in the game is that Deron Williams will simply post him up, but Lawson did an admirable job of fighting for position and largely eliminating that aspect of Williams’ game.  Lawson played well and it is good to see Dantley embrace knowing that Ty deserves to be on the court after not showing much confidence in him down the stretch in the regular season.
  • Chris Andersen played his best game of the series.  Despite apparently reaggravating his finger injury on his left hand and tweaking his good knee during the game, he played hard and looked a little more like the Birdman from 2008-09.  He tallied three blocks and shot six free throws in a single game for the first time in four weeks.
  • The crowd seemed very subdued in the first half and even with a safe lead the Utah Sucks chant was quite muted. I think most fans know Denver faces a difficult battle in game six and it showed in the mood of the crowd in game five. However, should the Nuggets somehow pull out a victory in Utah, the game seven crowd will be much different and with good reason.

Pre-Game Five Links

Here are a few links for you as we get ready for game five.

Chauncey is going to switch from C.J. Miles over to Deron Williams.  Billups will probably get a friendlier whistle than Arron Afflalo, but I doubt there will be much of an upgrade with Chauncey on Deron.  Billups looks gassed and I doubt the extra effort he will have to exert on defense is going to help alleviate that.  I guess Williams is due for a bad game…

Kevin Arnovitz continues to cover this series like no one else.  This article on how the Nuggets are not running their most efficient plays very frequently is as frustrating as it is true.  I have written that when the Nuggets run almost anything other than isos, they seem to be able to get practically any shot they want.  Unfortunately, they are too much in love with their “random” offense.

Faithful reader Bill Holicky has some statistical evidence that Carmelo needs some help if Denver is going to make any headway in this series.  He points out that although there are only 16 teams in the playoffs, Denver only has two players in the top 50 in playoff PER (ESPN.com Insider required).  Melo is sixth with a very impressive 27.63, but the next best Nugget is Arron Afflalo coming in forty-third with a PER of 16.84.

Professor Hollinger also points out that under Adrian Dantley the Nuggets long standing position as the best team in the league at earning free throws has flip flopped.  It would seem officials are not afraid of Dantley’s bark (ESPN.com Insider equired), mostly because he rarely ever uses it.

Rob Mahoney wrote a very good piece on Carmelo for Pro Basketball Talk that I highly recommend.

For some reason I am beginning to feel optimistic about tonight’s game even though my brain is trying to convince my heart otherwise.

Denver Nuggets Film Room – Defensive Breakdowns Versus the Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz are a very sound offensive team and they devour teams that make even the tiniest mental or physical errors on defense. Right now the Denver Nuggets are making some big mistakes and some small mistakes and Utah is gorging themselves on each and every one.

Fortunately, Denver does not have to play perfect defensively to defeat the Jazz, but the clearly must play better. Below you will see clips of individual mistakes that can be easily remedied through communication or increased focus and attention to detail.

When Being Unselfish Goes Too Far

J.R. Smith has been mocked and ridiculed again for something he tweeted. After the Nuggets loss to the Jazz in game four of their first round series Smith said that if you play selfish you lose selfish. Of course, everyone, including myself, thought that such a statement was pretty silly coming from a player who I once said was removed from a game due to a sprained shot selection.

The question is what exactly is selfish? You can be selfish on both offense and defense. You can be selfish in the locker room. The most common way to define selfish play is whether a player, or players, take too many shots. I think it is a very safe assumption that is the kind of selfish J.R. was referring to.

Was Carmelo Anthony selfish when he took 26 shots? I suspect most people would say, “No.” Carmelo made 13 of his 26 shots and his 39 point performance was what prevented the game from becoming a blowout earlier in the contest. On the other hand, Carmelo did take some bad shots, plus he turned the ball over a whopping nine times while only tallying one assist.

You can make an argument that Carmelo played great and was the reason Denver was within seven points in the fourth quarter. However, I think you could also argue that maybe the Nuggets would have been better off if Melo did a little more passing and a little less dribbling off his foot trying to force his own offense.

Was Chauncey Billups selfish when he took four long jumpers in the first quarter? After the game Chauncey claimed that he really focused on reversing the ball. I saw many more jumpers than swing passes from Chauncey.

Kenyon Martin launched three jumpers in the first quarter that he had no business shooting. Was he selfish? Ty Lawson was aggressive in looking for his offense and his play could have been considered somewhat selfish too. Chris Andersen missed a jumper and both Birdman and Kenyon missed shots when they tried to throw down a spectacular follow dunk instead of making an attempt at a safer tip in. Can we classify those efforts as a selfish attempt at style over substance?

In comparison, J.R. was on the floor for 8:14 seconds before he attempted his first shot. Aside from a three quarter court heave at the first half buzzer Smith only attempted four shots in 16:14 seconds of floor time in the first half. One shot was a breakaway layup and second attempt was the shot he took after he rebounded his missed breakaway layup.

Looking beyond shot totals, it was obvious that J.R. was making an effort to play unselfish basketball. He was a very willing passer and never was a “ball stopper” that George Karl has railed against in the past. He passed up open shots in order to give the ball to teammates who were in worse position than he was. I can see why after the game he might have felt like he was playing an unselfish style of basketball and his teammates did not reciprocate.

The flip side to that is J.R. did nothing to set his teammates up. He did not drive and attempt to earn an easy shot or get to the free throw line. He simply passed the ball around the perimeter when it came to him. That may be unselfish, but is it they style of play the Nuggets need from J.R.? It certainly was not particularly effective as all the passing only netted J.R. two assists.

I think it is exceptional that J.R. was trying to be coachable and implement the style of play that we all know leads to success for the Denver Nuggets. It is a small step forward in his development. Unfortunately, his efforts seem to be misguided. Unselfish does not mean passive and J.R. was incredibly passive, especially in the first half.

I understand J.R.’s frustration and appreciate his desire to promote unselfish play. The problem is if J.R. is not being a playmaker, it is bad for the team. Plus I would wait more than one game before I start calling people out on Twitter.

George Karl Interview

Rick Riley interviewed George Karl and watched game three of the Denver Nuggets first round series against the Utah Jazz with him.  Coach Karl is looking better, but is still very gaunt.  You can tell how badly he wants the team to do well and it is sad to see his frustration and helplessness.  He does have enough energy to poke fun at J.R. Smith though.

Patience and Trust

Yes, the Denver Nuggets can still win this series.  However, in order to do so, they will have to exhibit two characteristics that they have as of yet been unable to produce on the basketball court.

Utah far outclassed the Nuggets in game three, but Denver is capable of turning the tide as long as they play with patience and trust.

Offensively, Denver can win a shootout with the Jazz.  The Nuggets have more offensive depth and talent to outscore Utah.  Up until now the Jazz have been displaying the patience and trust on offense and Denver has not.  The Jazz run their sets and do not just jump at the first opportunity to shoot the ball.  They share the ball and believe that whether it is C.J. Miles, Kyrylo Fesenko, Kyle Korver or Paul Millsap who is sprung free that they will do their job and score.

The Nuggets have been far to reliant on creating offense individually.  Both Chauncey and Carmelo had relatively efficient offensive performances, but they generated almost no offense for their teammates.  That has to change.  When the Nuggets run some semblance of an offense, whether it be pick and roll or even simply sending cutters through the lane, they earn easy shots.  The way they played offense in game three reminded me of the Allen Iverson era.

When things got tough AI clearly only trusted himself.  The result was excessive one on one play, bad offense and losses.  Denver has a chance to show that they trust one another.  If they do not, this series is as good as over.

Defensively, Denver will have to possess the same characteristics.  The Nuggets have done a very good job of defending the pick and roll.  Utah has scored very infrequently off that play.  The problem is Denver has had no answer for the second, third and fourth options the Jazz throw at them.  Right now the Nuggets do not trust one another.  On one hand they do not want to commit fully to helping because they do not trust their teammates will cover for them and that creates a downward spiral of horrible team defense.

It may be a cliche, but Denver can win together or lose as individuals.  Right now they are losing, but there is still plenty of opportunities to display patience and trust.

By the way, if you are not following the coverage of this series by Kevin Arnovitz on TrueHoop, you are really missing out.  He is doing a tremendous job of providing first hand info from the coaches and players as well as in depth analysis.

Seeking Consistency Where None Can Be Found

First of all I let’s get something straight. Even after dropping a game at home to a very shorthanded Utah Jazz team in my mind the Denver Nuggets are still the favorite to win their first round series with Utah. However, I am done looking at this team through the perspective of what they can do and from now on I am only concerned with what they have done. They have successfully destroyed my sense of optimism about what they can be.

The arrival of the second season did not prove to be any kind of magic elixir that erased 82 games of up and down play and I will no longer operate under the assumption or hope that any single event can automatically cure this team from its ailments all of which can be summed up in one word, inconsistency.

Game two produced three different phases for Denver. Initially we saw the first half team that was way too laid back and proved to be ineffective ultimately giving up a big run to close out the first half that basically cost them the game. The second half brought a maniacal swarming defensive effort that triggered a run successful enough to demolish a 14 point lead and eventually earn a 102-98 lead with under four minutes remaining. From there Denver collapsed committing two offensive fouls, and one truly offensive foul, Carmelo’s silly sixth foul. Add in some unnecessary three point attempts when the Nuggets were scoring in the paint all night long and we discover that 20 minutes of good to great play is not going to make up for the 28 minutes of absent minded defense, misapplied physical aggression and some shots born out of what can only be described as a hero complex that hounds a couple of Denver’s guards.

In the end their inconsistency put them in a difficult spot and in the end produced some big mistakes.  The loss has cost them home court advantage and any mental edge they may have had due to the Jazz dealing with the losses of Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer.

The fact is inconsistency has hounded Denver for years, and this year, in a season where every game was supposed to be an important step towards earning a high seed to help propel another postseason push, Denver remained wildly inconsistent. Then again it might be said their inconsistency was consistent as evidenced by the gap between their performance against playoff teams versus their performance against sub .500 teams. Despite the fact Denver has a veteran laden team they continue to flounder mentally.

That inconsistency is born of having inconsistent players. You can never be sure of what you are getting from night to night from key cogs like Nene, Chris Andersen and the king of inconsistency, J.R. Smith. Denver can go from a well oiled machine scoring points in bunches to a gaggle of dudes who simply launch the first jumpers that presents itself.  And they can do so for inexplicably long stretches at a time.  Probably the only thing you know you will get night after night is Arron Afflalo will bust his butt every play defensively when he is on the floor, Carmelo will score at least 20 points and J.R. Smith and Chauncey Billups will combine to shoot well over ten threes whether they are falling or not.  How do you build a team around that?  What kind of identity can a inconsistent group produce?

Now consider Utah. They might have nights where their shots are not falling, but you know you are going to get a hard fought smart game from Deron Williams. Carlos Boozer is going to take high percentage shots and rebound. Paul Milsap will throw his body around and rebound. Kyle Korver will at least work hard defense and earn open jumpers. The team as a whole will run their sets and follow the instructions Jerry Sloan provides for them.

The fact that Denver’s style over substance is backed by such tremendous talent they have a good shot at defeating the team that simply goes out and does their thing night in and night out. However, regardless of their superior talent Denver’s EKG like performances put them at risk of ending this season with the greatest sin in sports, unmet potential.

The Night I Lost Faith in the Denver Nuggets

I will have more on the game two debacle later, but for now you will have to be content with my submission to the Daily Dime (box eight) and the replay of Daily Dime Live.

Nuggets/Jazz Game 2 Adjustments

Game one is in the books between the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz and even though both teams know each other very well, there will be adjustments heading into game two.

The biggest adjustment for game two will be the Jazz playing without Mehmet Okur, who is out for the season with a torn Achilles. The easy answer is to have Carlos Boozer and Paul Milsap each play a ton of minutes and I expect them both to play at least 40. The Jazz also have an opportunity to play small with Kyle Korver, C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews all on the floor at the same time. We have seen Adrian Dantley play small ball too so look for more swingmen on the floor from here on out. Playing Korver, Miles and Matthews at the same time will definitely work offensively and would force Carmelo Anthony to be active running off of screens or tempt him to start calling for switches which would work for Utah as well. The problem comes on the defensive end, but that problem is not going away for Utah at any point in this series regardless of who they have on the floor.

With the Jazz likely going small it will allow the Nuggets to stick to their eight man rotation that thankfully Dantley uncorked in game one.

Utah is also much more susceptible to foul trouble now that they are down to only two legitimate big men. If Sloan decides to give Kyrylo Fesenko I expect to see the Nuggets attack him with pick and rolls and Nene facing him up. Fesenko is a big boy and his on and off court numbers suggest the Jazz are better with him on the floor than on the bench, but his fouls per 48 minutes total of 9.6 shows he has not learned how to stay on the floor for very long.

Getting to more of the X’s and O’s Denver did a fantastic job on Deron Williams in the first half as they trapped him well of the pick and roll. The second half was 180 degrees different from the first though as Williams started getting more chances to shoot playing off the ball in the half court and he was relentless in attacking Denver in transition.

I do not think Denver is going to solve their transition issues at this point so we might just have to live with four or five easy layups for Williams as he races up the floor. Look for Deron to be much more aggressive in those situations all game long.

Clearly Denver needs to continue to play the pick and roll well, but they cannot slack off on Williams when he is running off of screens just because he does not have the ball. The bigs need to step out and make sure Williams cannot simply catch and shoot in those situations so that the guard has a chance to recover. If they do that the screener is open to cut to the rim. The weakside defender will have to be ready to help out in that situation. The Nuggets one weakness in defending the pick and roll was help from the weak side on the roll man. They will have to tighten that up as well as be ready to help on the screener when Williams comes off his screens.

The Nuggets also got into early foul trouble by not respecting Miles as a threat to drive. I do not expect to see Denver make that same mistake in game two.

With the loss of Mehmet Okur Denver will not have to worry so much about the pick and pop game that Okur brought. With Boozer and Milsap likely both playing over 40 minutes from here on out the Nuggets must box out defensively. They held the Jazz to only four offensive boards in game one and they will have to repeat that effort throughout the series. Utah is going to score and limiting them to one shot on offense will be key.

Utah is going to have to do something different defensively. However, different does not necessarily mean better. After the first game Jerry Sloan said he was afraid to double Carmelo because Denver was scoring too easily in the paint and he was afraid that the Nuggets would get even more easy baskets by sending an extra defender at Carmelo. If Utah decides to continue to single cover Melo for most of the night they are going to have to be content with Melo scoring 30 to 40 points and the question becomes, can they contain Nene? Can they contain Chauncey? Can they contain J.R. Smith?

I believe the answer for the Jazz is to play more zone. Denver had some good possessions against the zone in the opening contest, but having watched Denver all season long, I do not think they will be disciplined enough to move without the ball for more than a few possessions at a time. Eventually they will start settling for jumpers and that will give Utah a chance of competing.

The one thing we know for sure is there is no way the Jazz can stop Denver consistently playing man to man. There are just too many mismatches for them. If they do not want to double, zone is the answer.

The one thing Utah has in their favor is Carmelo will not shoot over 70% again. He took, and made, some tough midrange jumpers. The chances of those shots all falling again in game two are low. As long as C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews can coax Melo into shooting from 15 to 18 feet that will help Utah as well. They would have to sag off of him a little more than usual, but I think Utah has to hope Melo takes the bait and misses a lot more shots than he did in game one.

These two teams know each other very well and Utah played the defensive scheme they thought would work best and the result was not good the result was a ton of buckets for the Nuggets. There were very few possessions where Denver did not get the shot they wanted, and those possessions usually involved Kenyon Martin. Obviously Utah wants to get one of these first two games in Denver, but even if they lose game two, they can get right back in the series by winning games three and four in Utah. That gives Utah a little leeway to tinker in game two in an attempt to find something that will slow Denver down.

Offensively, I would like to see the Nuggets continue to pound the ball inside as they did in the first half. As mentioned above Melo settled a little too frequently for his jumper. It was excusable in game one because he made nearly every single one. I would love to see Melo force the issue by posting up more often, especially he will have a significant advantage over every defender the Jazz throw at him. He is bigger stronger and quicker than both Miles and Matthews. Utah did double Melo when he was within eight or ten feet of the basket and if he were to post up more frequently, I think you would see him doubled consistently. That would put a lot of pressure on the Jazz defense and open up a lot of options for Denver, both with Nene, Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen cutting to the lane, and with Chauncey, J.R. and Arron Afflalo on the perimeter.

I would also like to see more pick and roll between J.R. and Nene or Birdman. J.R. has really hurt the Jazz with his ability to slip a bounce pass to the rolling big man and Denver did not take advantage of that enough in the first game.

For Utah there will probably not be many adjustments offensively. They do their thing and do it very well. They may let Williams play off the ball a little more and I think they can have a lot of success playing Phoenix style by running the high pick and roll between Williams and Boozer and surrounding them with the three point shooting threats of Korver, Matthews and Miles. I thought Utah’s three point shooting was what kept them in game one and I think that will be a major factor for the rest of the series. They will need to shoot lights out from beyond the arc, and they have the shooters to do it.

2010 NBA Playoffs Denver Nuggets Win Game 1 126-113

Box Score | Highlights

Momentum and confidence cannot be measured. In retrospect you can always find a moment where momentum shifted and confidence blossomed. For most of the 2009-10 season the Denver Nuggets were seen as the primary challengers to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference. After suffering significant setbacks Denver arrives in the playoffs with a full complement of players. Denver then faces off against a Utah Jazz team in the first round missing their best one on one defender. They overwhelm the banged up Jazz and face the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round. With the additions of Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo, as well as the return of George Karl, who may not be coaching from the bench, but is feeling well enough to be around the team and help strategize for the Lakers series, Denver plays the Lakers even tougher than in 2009 and force a seventh game.

At that point anything can happen. After seeing the Nuggets blow out the Utah Jazz in the fourth quarter of the opening game of the series would that scenario surprise you? I guarantee you they are not hurting for confidence and we might look back at the barrage of threes that J.R. splashed in the final stanza as the point where momentum swung into the Nuggets’ corner.

Denver’s offense had dropped off considerably over the final month plus of the season. Offense does not appear to be very high on the list of concerns for Denver against the Jazz. Despite J.R. Smith’s fourth quarter performance it was Carmelo Anthony who announced his presence in the 2010 playoffs with authority by hitting six of his eight shots in the first quarter. Melo went on to finish the game with 42 points on a shockingly good 18-25 from the floor.

In a move that I find difficult to understand Jerry Sloan chose not to double Melo although Carmelo rarely had the ball on the block. However, in Sloan’s defense most of his offense came from the wing making it more difficult to double because he was further away from the basket and doing so would open up too much of the floor for cutters and making rotations more difficult because of the extra ground they must cover. Still I thought it was odd that Utah was not prepared to double him when he made his move and got into the lane. There were only a handful of occasions where they did send a second defender at Melo and Carmelo either made a smart pass or was still able to get a quality shot.

Utah saved their zone for the second half did switch in and out of a 2-3 zone in the second half. Zones have given Denver problems in the past and the way Utah would jump from zone to man and back again every few possessions seemed to keep the Nuggets a little out of sync. I was a little surprised they did not apply the zone more often, but I doubt Sloan has much confidence in it after the Suns absolutely demolished it on Wednesday.

Kudos to the Nuggets coaching staff as Denver was clearly prepared for the zone and showed good patience as they worked to break it down. Instead of simply chucking long jumpers they moved without the ball and did a very good job of getting the ball into the middle of the floor either through penetration or cutting into the lane. On one possession Nene was able to slip directly inside of Boozer right at the rim. He received the pass and easily laid the ball in for a gift layup.

Regardless of what defense the Jazz played they had no answer for Carmelo who is too big and strong for C.J. Miles, but is also too quick for him on the perimeter. Melo had his midrange shot falling and rained a hurricane of jumpers on the Jazz. He also drove to the rim just enough to make sure whoever was defending him could not get too tight on him.

Carmelo is not the only player the Jazz cannot cover, but J.R. Smith is a very difficult match up for them as well. J.R. played very well against Utah during the regular season and that continued in game one, at least in the fourth quarter. After a very slow shooting start, J.R. caught fire in the fourth and provided the boost Denver needed to create a cushion. Smith is capable of playing a much more complete offensive game and Utah will be in trouble if he begins to drive and dish or work the pick and roll with Nene or Chris Andersen more often.

Nene was another star for Denver as he was able to post up and earn easy shots on one end while playing very good one on one defense against Boozer and on the pick and roll at the other. He was more aggressive in looking for his shot and on more than one occasion he went to the rim when he would have gladly passed during the regular season.

The other key offensive player for Denver was Ty Lawson. Lawson hit a couple of early threes and I think it settled him down quite a bit. He pushed the pace and was aggressive in going to the rim. Lawson played so well that Dantley kept Chauncey on the bench for the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter. Deron Williams did take advantage of Lawson on defense in the fourth quarter getting into the lane and either making a layup or getting fouled on several occasions. Still, Lawson played great in his first career playoff game and he will continue to be a key for Denver as the playoffs progress.

Defensively, Denver played better than the numbers seem to indicate. They shunned switching screens and did a good job of challenging Williams on the pick and roll. Williams was held in check in the frist half with only six points and two assists. He exploded in the third quarter partly because he was much more aggressive in transition and partly due to the fact he played a little more off the ball. In my preview I mentioned that he gets more shots off of screens set for him as a runner than through the pick and roll and Utah had him running off more screens in the second half than the first.

While it was good to see so much pressure on the ball handler on pick and rolls, the weak side defenders did not do a good job of stopping the roll man from getting shots at the rim. The one or two shots Boozer got at the rim were off the pick and roll and it was due to the lack of help from Kenyon and/or Birdman. Denver also must improve their rotations as C.J. Miles was able to get off early due to late arriving defenders in the first quarter. Look for Denver to improve on those two areas going forward.

The big story of the night though is Denver looked like the Nuggets team that was a contender for much of the season and for me it is easy to envision a battle in the second round against the Lakers that could easily go either way.

Still, there is a lot of work left to do in this series, but if Denver plays as well as they did tonight, the depleted Jazz will struggle to keep up with them for very long.

Additional Game One Nuggets

  • It was truly sad to see Mehmet Okur go down with a potentially serious achilles injury. I honestly feel horrible for both Okur and Jazz fans who deserve better than this.  Hopefully he can return to play again in this series.
  • For anyone who was wondering how Kenyon looked, he threw down a nasty dunk early in the game and in the third quarter pulled down a very impressive offensive rebound between two Jazz players. On the first play he looked athletic and on the second he looked confident in the sense that he trusted the stability of the knee. It is good that both of those are present as he does continue to deal with pain. Kenyon did not shoot well, but was great on the glass pulling down a game high 12 rebounds in 35 solid minutes.
  • All three of the long range bombs J.R. dropped to open up the fourth quarter were catch and shoot threes. I know J.R. can hit pull up and step back threes, but his percentage would be much higher if he would be content just shooting off the catch.
  • I projected that Nene would draw the assignment on Boozer instead of Kenyon and Nene did a fantastic job. Practically all of Boozers’ offense came off of jumpers and if that is the only shot he can consistently get, I think the Nuggets will live with it.
  • Both teams shot over 50% with Denver dropping in an insane 57.1%. Denver shot over 40% from behind the arc, 42.3% to be exact, but what was even more impressive was their 63.8% shooting on two point attempts. The Nuggets were very good and they never had a stretch where they fell in love with the jumper.
  • The Nuggets dominated in the paint for most of the night. They easily won the battle for points in the paint 52-34 and outrebounded the Jazz 42-31. Utah only had four offensive rebounds, and I think all four came in the first half, I know for sure at least three did. Their 91.3% defensive rebound rate was easily a season high.

Advanced Game Stats

Pace Factor: 89.3 – relatively slow for a game in Denver

Defensive Efficiency: 123.8 – Pretty shaky although Utah deserves credit for the way the executed their offense

Offensive Efficiency: 141.1 – Wow, that is a huge number

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The Best of the Net – Previewing Nuggets vs Jazz

I decided to compile the previews of the various Nuggets blogs out there, but continue to be disappointed over the lack of Nuggets blogs out there. If you have a Nuggets blog that I do not have a link to or know about, please send it to me). Come on Nuggets fans grab a keyboard and start typing. Anyway, here is what the internet has to offer when it comes to the first round series between the Denver Nuggets and the Utah Jazz.

For all the relevant ESPN.com coverage check out the Jazz vs Nuggets series page. If you are an Insider, make sure to check out the Scouts. Inc preview. I will be a part of Daily Dime Live tonight so come by and submit your questions or comments during the game.

Andrew over at Denver Stiffs has an all encompassing preview that I highly recommend.

The disturbingly talented Zach Harper over at Hardwood Paroxysm has some good insights into the series, and his own unique way of thinking of the series.

Kurt Helin at Pro Basketball Talk hopes the Nuggets can be contenders.

Nugg Love has a good preview for Nuggets fans to check out.

Basketball John at SLC Dunk chimes in with his always solid coverage.

The Basketball Jones has a very good series of mini-previews, I recommend you check them all out here.

The gang at Bal Don’t Lie has decided to back the Jazz, albeit before the news that Kirilenko will miss the series broke, but I recommend you read the preview anyway.

If you are looking for some motivation this time of year, the guys over at the Chris Andersen Files has you covered (trust me you will want to click on this link).

If you are looking for a place to watch the game online, ESPN3 has you covered.

One last thought from me before game time.  This playoff season may very well be a defining one for Carmelo Anthony.  We all know about his many struggles in the playoffs.  Last season he broke through and produced what I believe was his best all around season this campaign.  If he can lead the Nuggets to another deep playoff run, his career can continue an upward trend.  On the other hand, a first round loss to the Jazz would make for yet another playoff flame out.  The fact is Denver has never lost a series when they have home court advantage since Carmelo arrived.  The sad aspect of that fact is they have only had two such series.

The NBA has a long history of talented players who never made much of themselves in the playoffs.  Melo needs to prove last season was not a fluke and that he does not belong in their company.

The Denver Nuggets versus the Utah Jazz 2010 NBA Playoff Preview

As a good Denver Nuggets fan I am sure you thoroughly dislike the Utah Jazz. It is not difficult to come up with a reason or four. The silly nickname, the we have nothing else to cheer for fans who shriek to the heavens over any call that goes against their team regardless of how correct the call was, the fact they think they have better skiing there than in Colorado and worst of all, the years of putting up with a dominant Jazz team that pounded the Nuggets for years thanks to Stockton and Malone.

Things have changed in the Era of Melo. Denver has been able to get the better of the Jazz more often than not since Carmelo Anthony rode into town on a light blue steed. This is the seventh straight season Denver has made the playoffs and they have now won three of the last five division championships (guess who won the other two). While they have battled each other for division titles and playoff positioning, these two Stalwarts of the Mountain Time Zone rarely face off in the postseason. They have only faced off in the playoffs one other time in the past 25 seasons. In 1994 the Jazz defeated the upstart Nuggets, fresh off their upset of the top seeded Seattle Supersonics, four games to three.

After a 16 year hiatus it is time to shift this cantankerous regular season rivalry into a full blown throwing things around the house and making the neighbors wonder if they should call 911 playoff conflagration.

These two teams are very evenly matched. “How evenly matched are they?” you ask. They have finished each of the previous two seasons with identical records with the Nuggets earning the tie breaker both times. The Jazz have been better over the second half of the season, but thanks to a 3-1 series win in the regular season Denver has the advantage of up to four games on their home court. Both teams are dealing with injuries with Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer nicked up for the Jazz and Kenyon Martin still recovering from patella tendinitis. All three are currently expected to play in game one, but if any one of the three is unable to perform up to the standard they have set for themselves it will be difficult to overcome.

At this point I think it is safe to expect both teams to have all of their players available as we enter the series. The fact that back to back games are now a thing of the past will help Kirilenko, Boozer and Martin continue to recover and get stronger as the series wears on.

Neither team has been particularly good defensively although neither is as bad as Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns made them look in their respective season ending blowouts. I think there is evidence that neither coach feels particularly comfortable with where his team is defensively as can be evidenced by the Nuggets desperate attempt to switch screens against the Suns and the Jazz playing a leaky zone.

I think we can expect to see the Nuggets play the Jazz as straight up as possible. The Jazz have the reputation of being a pick and roll team, but they are a team that sets a bevy of picks on every possession and force you to pay close attention to your man and worry about who might be coming free for an open shot. Denver has better this season helping on screens and cuts away from the ball, than figuring out how to stop the pick and roll. It will be interesting to see if the Jazz play more pick and roll to exploit Denver’s weakness or if they stick to their regular game plan and work to out execute Denver. I would expect the Nuggets to attempt to defend the pick and roll the same way they did against San Antonio and Memphis towards the end of the regular season. Denver did not switch ball screens much against Utah this season and seeing as how that is such a passive strategy I do not expect to see them begin to do so now.

However, the Jazz get most of their shots off of cuts either to the lane or directly at the rim. Williams does not shoot very often driving off a ball screen. If he cannot get the ball to the roll man, he will look to kick out if the defense is collapsing, or simply pass in order to set himself up to run off a screen where he likes to catch and shoot midrange jumpers.

From a personnel standpoint you can expect to see Arron Afflalo start out covering Deron Williams with Chauncey covering C.J. Miles. Afflalo will have to fight over the screens set by the large frontcourt players the Jazz can throw at you. Nene will start out on Boozer leaving Kenyon to cover the much larger Mehmet Okur.

Utah has had success running on Denver and it will be important for the Nuggets to limit easy baskets in transition. You can expect the Jazz to be aggressive in transition, they know Denver struggles in that area and will attempt to take advantage of it. They will not be afraid of a fast paced game.

On the other end of the floor Utah will attempt to have Kirilenko cover Carmelo one on one. Andrei is not the defender he once was and you can expect to see him sag off of Melo to defend against the drive and hope his length will allow him to challenge a jump shot. With AK-47 laying off the Jazz will probably not pre-rotate any help to Melo’s side of the floor and there have been times where I was very surprised to see how little concern the Jazz have shown for Melo’s ability to get to the rim. When Kirilenko is not in the game you can expect to see Utah double Melo mixing their looks up between immediate hard doubles and waiting until he puts the ball on the floor before sending the extra defender.

You can score on the Utah Jazz. If you are patient, move without the ball and share you can get almost any shot you want. It was impressive to watch Phoenix pass the ball five, six or seven times in order to get the defense moving and earn wide open looks, one after the other. It will be crucial for Denver to play with purpose. Utah will try to close off the lane and get Denver to shoot jumpers. If the Nuggets fall into that trap, which they have on a regular basis as of late, it will make for a frustrating series. On the other hand if the Nuggets work the ball around and cut the Jazz will struggle to stop them.

Little needs to be said about the coaching matchup as Jerry Sloan has won more Western Conference Championships than Adrian Dantley has coached playoff games. At this point I trust Dantely has committed to Ty Lawson as the backup point guard and will relegate Anthony Carter to the cushy folding chairs. It will be very interesting to see if either coach will be able to dictate lineups to the other. Dantley loves going small, but asking Carmelo to cover Carlos Boozer or even Paul Milsap is a disaster waiting to happen. Still, Boozer or Milsap would have an even more difficult time with Melo. If the size of the Jazz can relegate the Nuggets’ small lineups to a regular season memory it will be significant. On the other hand should Denver be able to force the issue with a smaller lineup it will be a boon for the Nuggets as they absolutely hold an edge over the Jazz in both quality and quantity of guards and swingmen.

Finally we can move on to the individual matchups where we start off with the Jazz big men. Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur are a difficult matchup for many teams. Okur is the larger man, but has the tremendous outside game that is vexing for opposing bigs who do not want to venture out 24 feet from the rim. However, if you put a smaller defender, such as Kenyon Martin, on Okur he can use his size advantage of score on the block. If Okur can have success against Kenyon on the block Denver will have to start doubling him and that will open up the floor for the cutters to slice and dice the defense for easy baskets.

I like the matchup between Nene and Boozer for Denver. Nene has the size, strength and quickness to contain Boozer. Plus I think Nene can drive by Boozer at will if he faces him up, or he can spin around him with his back to the basket. Chris “Birdman” Andersen is not a great fit to cover either one as he prefers to be in the paint than on the perimeter guarding Okur and Boozer is crafty enough not to let Birdman block his shot when he gets good position. The entire Jazz squad does a pretty solid job of throwing a ball fake or pump fake at their defender so Andersen will have to be ready for that.

As mentioned above, Utah will attempt to have Kirilenko cover Carmelo. I do not think it will end well for Kirilenko who is no longer quick enough to stay in front of Anthony, but seems to lack the explosiveness he used to have as a shot blocker.

J.R. Smith and Ty Lawson bring speed and quickness the Jazz cannot match. Both have had big games scoring and distributing this season against Utah. While I think Carmelo Anthony will be the best player in the series, I think Denver’s biggest advantage is the firepower they have on the bench in J.R. and Lawson. Still, the pressure remains on J.R. to not just shoot, but use his penetration and passing abilities to get his teammates easy looks at the rim. He has been particularly effective running pick and roll against Utah and dropping his smooth bounce pass to the rolling big.

Lawson had perhaps his two best games against the Jazz this season and I expect him to continue to fluster Utah’s guards with his speed and quickness. Ronnie Price is a nice player, but should not be much of a match for Lawson when Ty has the ball.

Of course Chauncey will be a big factor in the series. The less the Nuggets can have him stuck guarding Williams the better, but he will be up to the task when necessary. Hopefully Billups can curtail his Mr. Big Shot tendencies and demand an unselfish effort on offense.

Ultimately, I think there was a reason why Denver won the season series from Utah this season. I think they are the better team. However, that margin is razor thin. The Nuggets will certainly miss George Karl, but hopefully now that he is done with his treatment he can provide a little boost of moral. Still, I am a little disappointed Denver has been more distracted by the coaching situation than motivated by it. Even so, I think home court will loom large in this series although both teams are capable of stealing a game on the other’s floor.

In the end the Nuggets’ talent, athleticism and desire to push further into the postseason than they did last season will carry the day and Denver dispatches the Jazz in seven hard fought and entertaining games. And at the end, you will so despise the Jazz you will want to punch Branford Marsalis in the face.

The Denver Nuggets are the 2010 Northwest Division Champions

Thank you Phoenix.  The Denver Nuggets may have blown their shot at the third seed and a matchup with the battered Trail Blazers, but things could have been much worse.  The Utah Jazz will be a difficult opponent, but add in home court advantage and the fact Utah has not been great down the stretch, and Denver has more than a good chance to advance.  Chris Tomasson is reporting the Nuggets will open at home on Saturday at 8:30 Mountain (Editor’s Note:  It was apparently changed to Sunday – see below).

You can count on an avalanche of coverage over the next few days as we prepare for game time.  Head on over to Salt City Hoops for all the Utah Jazz info you can stand.

Update: Here is the preliminary schedule:

Game 1 – Sun April 18 Utah at Denver 10:30PM TNT
Game 2 – Tue April 20 Utah at Denver 10:00PM NBATV
Game 3 – Fri April 23 Denver at Utah 10:30PM ESPN2
Game 4 – Sun April 25 Denver at Utah 9:30PM TNT
Game 5 * Wed April 28 Utah at Denver TBD TBD TBD
Game 6 * Fri April 30 Denver at Utah TBD TBD TBD
Game 7 * Sun May 2 Utah at Denver TBD TBD TBD

The Nuggets and Avalanche are both scheduled to play at the Pepsi Center on Sunday and Tuesday.  Could be interesting.  I smell a steel cage match between Stern and Bettman before both games to see who gets the arena.

Update to the update: Games one and two have been moved up a day (these times are Mountain):

Game 1 – Sat April 17 Utah at Denver 8:30PM ESPN
Game 2 – Mon April 19 Utah at Denver 8:30PM TNT
Game 3 – Fri April 23 Denver at Utah 8:30PM ESPN2
Game 4 – Sun April 25 Denver at Utah 7:30PM TNT
Game 5 * Wed April 28 Utah at Denver TBD TBD TBD
Game 6 * Fri April 30 Denver at Utah TBD TBD TBD
Game 7 * Sun May 2 Utah at Denver TBD TBD TBD

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