The Denver Nuggets 123-101 blowout win over the Memphis Grizzlies had a kind of preseason feel to it. It was Kenyon Martin’s second game back from injury and he is still working his way into shape (although he needed the practice, I was relieved we did not have to watch him try to shoot free throws again). The Nuggets seem to be working their way through a transition from switching ball screens to a combination of hedge and recover and trapping the ball handler. As a team Denver had been struggling to get to the line at the rate they are accustomed to and the offense seemed to be not only stuck between first and second gear, but the clutch was grinding like drunks at a dance club.
In many ways the contest with the Grizzlies was simply a tune up for the big matchup against the Phoenix Suns that could decide the fate of the Nuggets season.
After a shaky first quarter that saw Memphis exploit some minor defensive breakdowns in defending the pick and roll and failing to aggressively rebound numerous misses by the Grizzlies, the pieces stated falling together.
Defensively, Denver began to tighten up the pick and roll defense. The lane was successfully sealed off and thanks to some aggressive trapping the Nuggets started forcing turnovers. Turnovers lead to a plethora of fast break points and for the first time in weeks the Denver Nuggets began to resemble the team that was the favorite to finish second in the West and challenge the Lakers.
On offense, Nene was fed early and often and he delivered in a big way. On the heels of his thee point two rebound stink bomb against the Spurs Nene tied a career high by fighting his way to the line 14 times and he made 12, which surpassed his old career high of ten. Denver was able to get the ball in the lane thanks to displaying much more patience on offense than they had in the previous several games combined. J.R. Smith found his shooting stroke, at least temporarily, as he made four threes in the first half and for the first time in five games the people of Colorado can get four tacos for a dollar and the purchase of a drink at participating Taco Bells as the Nuggets finally broke the 100 point barrier.
While it was good to see the Nuggets surge to an easy win they now face a red hot team in Phoenix. As I noted after the loss to the Spurs the Nuggets are making progress in the quality of their pick and roll defense (including video evidence) thanks to both a change in tactics as well as increased effort and focus. Now the real test comes in the form of Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire.
I have long thought the Suns provided the most difficult matchup for Denver this season thanks to their abilities to run the pick and roll, make threes and score in transition. The question is will the two game crash course refresher course the Nuggets just completed against San Antonio and Memphis on how to properly play pick and roll defense be enough. Can Denver really execute their hedge and recover and/or trapping scheme against the best pick and roll point guard in the world?
Despite their improvement against Memphis, Mike Conley lit Denver up for 18 first half points, all of which came off of ball screens or transition, suggesting the Nuggets will still have problems dealing with Nash. The flip side of that coin is Denver was clearly more worried about Zach Randolph than Conley in the first half and after shifting their focus in the second half Conley was held to only four points. The Nuggets will be focusing on Nash from the second they set foot in Phoenix, but Conley is clearly not Steve Nash. The Nuggets must do better.
In addition to the difference between Conley and Nash, Memphis does not have a player who is in any way comparable to Amare. No big in the league is as dangerous rolling to the basket than Amare, largely thanks to the artistry of Nash. One way to prevent Amare from catching the ball in the lane with a head of steam is pressure on the ball. The Nuggets did a good job of forcing bad passes against Memphis, but Nash will not be as easy to fluster. In addition to pressuring the ball handler, Denver must have weak side help to make sure any pass intended for Amare is challenged. What they cannot do is just stand behind him because that is a surefire way to give up an and-one.
If you can manage to keep Nash out of the lane, prevent him from getting an open jumper and shield him from passing the ball to Amare, you still must worry about Jason Richardson, Channing Frye and Jared Dudley. They are all deadly thee point marksmen and if you can manage to slow the pick and roll, your recovery and rotations must be crisp and instantaneous to prevent open three point attempts.
I feel confident Denver can trap Nash, I feel slightly less confident they can keep him from passing to Amare in the lane, I am highly dubious of their ability to do both of those things and prevent Phoenix from earning those deadly opportunities from behind the arc.
I have said it before and I will say it again. Phoenix is the one team who can go toe to toe with Denver and win a Wild West shootout. That being said, they really do not have any player who is capable of handling Carmelo Anthony. Jason Richardson is too small, Dudley is too slow and Grant Hill is too old. Carmelo must be aggressive going to the basket and Denver has to take advantage of the fact Robin Lopez will not be patrolling the paint. Plus Amare has been known to get into foul trouble and if Denver can bait him into committing some early fouls it could change the complexion of the game significantly.
The other factor in the Suns favor is Denver will be playing their fifth game in seven days on Tuesday. The last time Denver played in that situation they were demolished in Dallas. There is a difference between those five games in late March and these five. Denver has only had to fly twice as their last three contests have all been in Denver. That should surely help prevent the kind of fatigue that plagued them against the Mavericks. It also helped that no player had to be on the floor for more than 33 minutes because of the nature of the Memphis game. Still, five games in seven nights is draining for anyone and Phoenix has a distinct advantage because of it.
I will add one other note and that is look out for Anthony Carter. At first I was thrilled that Ty Lawson received all the minutes backing up Chauncey until I realized that Adrian Dantley was quite possibly saving Carter’s legs for the Suns game. If that turns out to be the case, it will make things ever more difficult for Denver should their point guard who is best suited for a fast paced game and is the best pick and roll defender out of the three ends up watching the game while AC is on the court.
The Nuggets may have blown their chance to win the division, earn the third seed and possibly match up with a Portland team who suffered yet another injury, this time to Brandon Roy, by losing at home to the Spurs. Still, all it will take to redeem themselves is one final herculean effort in game 82. They have the talent and ability to beat the Suns in Phoenix. Their fate is in their own hands.
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