The Denver Nuggets absolutely dismantled division rival and playoff foil Utah in the opening game of the 2010-11 season. There were several good things to take out of the game, but the number one aspect of the beat down for Nuggets fans to be most excited about is the way the Nuggets defended.
Even at the high point of last season when Denver looked like a contender their half court defense was borderline abysmal. The Nuggets played such solid defense in 2008-09 it was surprising to see them fall off so badly in that area last year. The Jazz are a team who will typically put extensive pressure on their opponent with their system of screens, cuts and ball movement, but tonight it was the Nuggets applying the pressure with intense defense that flustered the Jazz.
The most significant change for Denver from last season was tonight there was always help ready to close things down in the lane. Excellent team defenses have a flow to them just like great offenses do. They are not full or herky jerky reactions based on surprise, but a cohesive synchronized and perfectly orchestrated wave of collective movement. Each player recognizes the action by the offense and positions themselves correctly based on what is going on around them. Denver formed a unified front where every change in position had a purpose behind it.
It was honestly quite stunning to see Denver play at such a high level against a team that has given them fits in the past. The Jazz thrive on getting easy opportunities in the paint. Against Denver the only open looks they could find were on the perimeter and that was like the difference between bacon and lettuce from last season’s playoff matchup. For the Nuggets to look so good against a team like Utah while incorporating three new big men into their rotation was impressive.
I voiced my concerns about what Al Harrington would bring to the defensive end of the floor. We studied some video which showed that he was a decent help defender and would fight hard down low on the block, but his pick and roll defense was less than stellar. Harrington, as well as Shelden Williams and Melvin Ely did a very solid job containing the ball handler when the Jazz did run pick and roll action.
While the Nuggets played very solid team defense, the Jazz seemed passive and even lost from time to time. Denver’s defense deserves a good portion of that credit, but it was more than that. The Jazz turned the ball over repeatedly making mistakes that appeared to be a function of lacking familiarity. Half of the twelve players who suited up for the Jazz last night were playing their first game for Utah.
Of course, the big question for most Nuggets fans is, “How did Melo do?” Carmelo played a decent all around game. He was part of Denver’s success on defense and did a good job of not forcing anything offensively. Melo only attempted 16 shots and received the ball in different areas of the floor working from the middle of the court from time to time as well as the left block. Anthony made a couple of nice passes and showed a willingness to pass up an open jumper to get a teammate an ever better look on a couple of different occasions. As I mentioned above, Melo did his part on defense and at one time even ran a play down from behind and blocked a fast break layup.
Many people wondered how Denver would react as a team to all of the rumors that are swirling. It was obvious that the Nuggets were ready to get on the court and put the media frenzy behind them. If there is any hope of Carmelo staying in Denver it is for the team to win. Melo may want to play in New York, but if Denver is playing at a high level and residing at the top of the standings, how will he gracefully remove himself from the equation? Both Melo and the Nuggets will be forced to stay together in order to play this thing out. After seeing how Denver performed in the opener, for the first time I am willing to admit that may be a possibility.
Getting back to the game, the real surprise on offense was Arron Afflalo. Afflalo had an exceptional preseason from a scoring standpoint, but you had to wonder whether or not he would be able to continue that success in the regular season. All Afflalo did was to score 22 points on 8-11 shooting, including going 3-5 from behind the arc. Afflao has not been the kind of player who would get his own shot, however, he did a great job of picking his spots to drive and was able to not only get to the rim, but finish as well. Afflalo is not going to score 20 every night, but if he can produce 12-14 points while playing excellent defense he significantly increases his value. I am excited to see if Afflalo is simply in a short term groove, or if he can sustain this level of play for an entire season. He definitely has a different mentality which suggests he this could be a big season for him.
It is only one game and there is still a cloud of uncertainty that is rolling in on the horizon. Even so, the Nuggets looked fantastic and dispatched of a team most observers expected to be one of the best in the league. It is a step in the right direction and sure beats the alternative.
Additional Game 1 Nuggets:
By the way, local superstar Andrew over at Denver Stiffs was fortunate enough to spend the night before the season opener with George Karl and his closest associates.
I was on Daily Dime Live earlier this afternoon and after the Nuggets game ended. You can check out the replay here. I will also be on tomorrow, Thursday, at 1:00 Mountain.