There are certainly two ways to look at the Denver Nuggets’ 98-94 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. The positive view is on a night where the Nuggets were missing Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen and acting coach Adrian Dantley suffering with kidney stones and in addition to those issues Denver was struggling to execute on both ends of the court, they made the plays they needed to make and came out with a win. The pessimistic view is the Nuggets did not play winning basketball, but pulled out a victory solely because the Thunder ran out of gas due to playing their fourth game in five nights, including the night after a mentally and physically draining overtime loss in Utah.
Honestly, both of those views have some merit. With playoff positioning on the line Denver had to win this game and they did. Regardless of how winded the Thunder might have been the Nuggets still had to make the shots and come up with the stops to complete their comeback.
The Thunder appeared to take control of the game with a 26-6 run spanning the third and fourth quarters. The Nuggets were 0-14 from the floor and turned the ball over seven times during that stretch. At that point I had tagged the body and was zipping up the body bag. Oklahoma City’s spurt was fueled by too few passes when the Nuggets had the ball. To make things worse, when Denver did pass, it was typically a poor decision, such as a lob by Chauncey Billlups in to Johan Petro who was being fronted on the block resulting in a travel when the help came from the weak side and on a three on one fast break J.R. Smith passed to Chauncey instead of Carmelo resulting in a easy block by Kevin Durant. (I do have to give Durant credit for how he played it. He shaded towards Melo’s side to bait J.R. into passing to Chauncey, then when the pass was made he simply closed in and blocked the shot. Still, it was a three on one and all it would have taken was for J.R. to realize Durant was baiting him into passing to Billups, fake to Chauncey and then dump the ball to Melo, or after KD committed to Chauncey he could have dropped the ball to J.R. or Melo for the score.)
So how did Denver manage to get back in the game? First and foremost, the defense finally made an appearance. After falling behind 89-76 with just over seven minutes remaining the Nuggets forced four turnovers and blocked two shots in the next three minutes and Denver ran off ten straight points. The key in my mind was the help defense. For much of the game OKC players were able to drive the lane and finish without worrying about encountering resistance.
Nene did a much better job of hedging on screens. The one time he was out of position, Chauncey squeezed down and tipped the ball away from Russell Westbrook. On another occasion Nene and Chauncey trapped Westbrook in the corner. Nick Collison cut to the basket, but Melo was in perfect help position. He slid over and was able to force a jump ball, which he then won against the taller Collison.
As the Nuggets picked up steam, the Thunder had clearly lost their legs. I believe every shot Durant took in the fourth quarter was short and jumpers from Westbrook and Green consistently hit the front of the rim. Defensively for OKC, the rotations that had closed off the lane for much of the night became a half step slower.
With Kenyon and Birdman sidelined the group that pulled off the comeback was the small ball bunch consisting of Chauncey, J.R., Afflalo, Melo and Nene. Despite the height disadvantage the Nuggets outrebounded the Thunder by nine. The starting back court of Billups and Afflalo corralled 13 rebounds while Carmelo tallied 11.
Defensively, Denver was simply much more active and they did a great job communicating.
There was some good and some bad by Adrian Dantley tonight. He continues to make the stunningly bad decision to give Anthony Carter playing time instead of Ty Lawson. It blows my mind that especially after the way Lawson played against the Clippers Dantley thinks it is a good idea to play Carter. Lawson is so vastly superior Carter’s stranglehold on playing time is difficult to fathom. I also thought it was odd that Petro started instead of Joey Graham. Oklahoma City plays Jeff Green at power forward so Graham would have been a good matchup to combat Green. Also, if Petro checks in for Nene you avoid the situation where your only big on the floor is Malik Allen.
Sticking with questionable decisions by the Denver coaches I was also blown away that coming out after halftime assistant Chad Iske said that the Nuggets were happy that the game had turned into a “defensive game in the second quarter” adding they wanted to slow the “young fast guys” from OKC down. The biggest advantage the Nuggets had was the fact the Thunder were playing their fourth game in five nights. Add in the fact that Denver was missing two of their three best bigs and I fail to see how a defensive half court game gave Denver the best chance to win.
Both coaching staffs engaged in a bit of a battle around Carmelo. Thabo Sefolosha is a very good defender, but he lacks the lateral quickness that other lockdown defenders possess. The Thunder gave Thabo the opportunity to try to handle Melo one on one. Melo blew by Sefolosha twice for layups and after that the Thunder switched to the pressure and pre-rotate system we have seen the Lakers make famous. For the remainder of the first half Melo was held in check. To start the second half the Nuggets made an adjustment that has worked to negate the pre-rotating defense that has been effective against the Lakers in the past. Instead of feeding Melo on the wing, they started giving him the ball in the middle of the floor. That adjustment allowed Melo to get into the lane again. The Nuggets also started curling Melo off a screen to get him the ball on the right side about 12 feet from the rim. That forced the defense to worry about Melo coming off the screen and shooting, Melo continuing to curl and drive to the basket and the fact that the screener was rolling to the rim. I thought Anthony missed some chances to dump the ball to Nene on the roll and once passed up the open short jumper to fake, spin and shoot a much more difficult turn around, but the set succeeded in getting Carmelo the ball.
I did like the play Dantley drew up with the Nuggets down four and 2:20 remaining in the contest. Afflalo threw the ball in to Billups from the right side of the floor. He then ran around a double screen by Melo and Nene. With the defense shifting to account for Afflalo Nene set a down screen for Melo who popped out to the free throw line wide open. Melo caught the pass and instead of settling for the jumper, drove into the lane and converted a short flip shot amongst four Thunder defenders. Sadly for the home team, three of those four defenders were doing more watching than helping.
With the Jazz losing in Houston tonight if the Nuggets can win their final three home games they will win the Northwest Division and have home court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs. That is easier said than done as the Los Angeles Lakers roll into town on Thursday on three days of rest and smarting after a demoralizing loss to the Spurs in Staples Center on Sunday.
Additional Game 78 Nuggets