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.