For the second night in a row the Denver Nuggets delivered a feel bad win. For the second night in a row the Nuggets lost a sizeable third quarter lead. For the second night in a row the Nuggets were behind in the fourth quarter and looked like a cooked goose. For the second night in a row the Nuggets made the plays down the stretch and pulled out a victory.
This time it was against the Los Angeles Lakers who were playing without Kobe Bryant and the victory dropped the Nuggets’ magic number for the Northwest Division title down to two. Denver can clinch the division title and seal home court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs with any combination of Nuggets’ wins or Jazz losses that add up to two.
There was some gamesmanship prior to tipoff as word leaked that Phil Jackson just might sit some of the Lakers key players and low and behold Kobe Bryant did not play a second. Early speculation as to why Kobe was held out surrounded the fact that it would provide a built in excuse for L.A. if they lost the game, and thus the season series, Denver would know it was because Kobe did not play. My initial reaction was that the Lakers wanted to do what they could to avoid playing the Nuggets in the first round. You can draw your own conclusion, but while the Lakers should be able to clinch the top seed in the west, they are now tied with the Orlando Magic and may have sacrificed home court in the finals should those two match up again in the NBA Finals.
There was nothing new to Nuggets fans in this game. Denver plays a so-so first half, builds a lead, gives it up after the offense becomes stagnant and perimeter oriented leading to easy baskets at the other end of the floor, and then somehow Denver manages to barely hang on for the win. While I am not thrilled with how the game went, at this point in the season a loss would have been devastating so I will gladly take the W, tainted though it was.
Once again the Nuggets tightened their defense and honed their focus over the final few minutes. Still they found themselves down five, 92-87, with just over three minutes remaining. Melo was a little slow meeting Lamar Odom as he cut into the lane, but recovered well enough to deflect the pass and it went out off of Odom. On the other end of the floor Melo showed some real savvy. He received the ball just left of center above the three point line. He had Anthony Carter on the wing and J.R. smith in the corner. Melo directed Carter to go to the other side of the floor and thus he and J.R. were now alone. Melo then drove left on Odom. Had Melo not repositioned Carter Jordan Farmar would have been in position to help and could have done so without worrying about Carter making him pay by hitting a three. However, with J.R. in the corner Sasha Vujicic was not about to leave Smith to help Odom. With no help available Melo blew past Odom for a layup. Odom was miffed with Vujacic, but he was not about to leave Smith, who had made five threes, alone. Plus any help from the weak side would be shielded off by Odom. Gasol did make an effort to help and block the shot, but he was too late. It was a very intelligent decision by Melo and he then executed it perfectly.
On the next Laker possession Nene, Billups and Carter all collapsed on Derrick Fisher resulting in a deflection and then a rushed shot. Denver rebounded the miss and pushed it up the floor. Carter passed to Melo who drilled a game tying three.
On the next defensive possession Nene hedged beautifully and forced Vujacic into the corner and when Carter recovered he was able to force a jump ball. Los Angeles controlled the tip and Billups was called for a foul when he tried getting a little too close to Fisher on a jumper. Fisher made both free throws, but J.R. drove baseline on Vujacic and hit a little floater to tie things up at 94.
The Lakers once again had the ball, but could not get a shot off thanks to Nene playing strong denial defense as Pau flashed out to the free throw line. Nene tipped the pass into the backcourt and by the time Vujacic recovered it, he ran out of time to shoot.
Denver then ran pick and roll with Chauncey and Nene that was so effective down the stretch in Oklahoma City. Nene only made one, but made up for it by stealing the ball from Gasol. Melo drew a foul on Odom and made both freebies to put Denver up 97-94.
Fisher was able to draw a foul on J.R. and made both free throws to get the Lakers within one. Denver then ran pick and roll, but Chauncey lost picked up his dribble and had to pass to J.R. who had his shot deflected. Denver caught a big break when Shannon Brown flipped a pass up the sideline allowing Chauncey to get in and deflect the pass. After a lengthy video review it was decided the ball was off of Fisher.
At this point I thought Adrian Dantley made a mistake. He had Melo, his second best free throw shooter inbound the ball and when Fisher did his best impression of a coffin on Chauncey, gripping him like grim death, Melo had to pass in to J.R. who has not been the most effective late game free throw shooter. Perhaps Dantley wanted to avoid a replay of what happened in the conference finals from last season when Denver turned the ball over twice on late game side inbounds plays. Still, Melo should have been a one of the potential receivers instead of the passer.
True to form J.R. missed the first free throw and failed to push the lead back up to three.
Down two with 12.7 seconds left Phil Jackson chose not to call a timeout. Melo and Chauncey switched a screen between Odom and Fisher. Fisher chose to try to get a jumper off over Melo. Fisher never threw any kind of a move at Melo to freeze him and as a result when he tried to launch a jumper Melo was able to lunge and block it.
While I would have preferred a 30 point victory, I was impressed with how Denver made the little plays to pull out a win. In the final three minutes alone, they scored at the rim twice, Melo hit a big three, the deflected two passes, stole the ball twice, defended the pick and roll successfully three times and blocked a desperation shot.
Denver now must continue to win on Saturday hen San Antonio comes to town. A victory over the Spurs and Memphis the following outing will clinch the division.