There is a reason why I frequently watch games twice before I write anything about them. I was bound and determined to blast the Nuggets for their shoddy zone offense. I was going to proclaim the players were completely unprepared to deal with the Mavericks zone defense despite the fact the Mavs throw it on them every time they play. I was only partially right.
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Do not get me wrong, had Rick Carlisle not switched almost exclusively to their zone defense midway through the second quarter the Mavericks would have probably lost the game. However, the Nuggets were not the disaster they appeared to be when I first viewed the game over those final 30 minutes.
Before we get to the X’s and O’s, we must set the scene. Already down Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen the Nuggets had to play without Nene due to a strained groin. Based on that fact George Karl decided to go small starting Gary Forbes at power forward and Shelden Williams at center. The strategy definitely made sense. With players like Tyson Chandler, Brendan Haywood and of course Dirk Nowitzki the Nuggets had no shot to contend with the size of the Mavericks front court.
The strategy worked perfectly for a short time with the Nuggets quick set of swingmen running the floor and penetrating at will. Defensively, they all pitched in on the boards, lead by Carmelo Anthony who ended the game with nine defensive rebounds – as well as six offensive – nearly doubling his regular rebound rate. Things changed as trailing 39-31 with just over five minutes gone in the second quarter a shorn Rick Carlisle chose to slap a zone defense in Denver.
When I played I was always instructed that there were five ways to beat a zone defense. First and foremost, you want to beat it before it sets up, i.e. make a fast break layup. For some reason after running the floor beautifully to start the game Denver slowed down and started ramming their collective head against the Mavericks half court defense.
The next way to beat a zone is through dribble penetration. Either the zone collapses opening up open shots on kick out passes, or the defenders stay put and the ball handler can earn a relatively easy look in the lane. The Nuggets earned most of their offense off dribble penetration that saw both some nice finishes in the lane as well as some converted open jumpers.
The third way to beat a zone is with quick passes and movement away from the ball, ideally on cuts from the weak side into the lane. If you have watched the Nuggets play, you already know this option is pretty much DOA. Denver did display some nifty passing on a couple of occasions, but it was probably by accident instead of design. There was rarely any significant movement away from the ball and that was the largest flaw in their scheme.
Fourth is the skip pass. With the zone focusing their attention on the strong side of the court a quick pass to the weakside is effective. Carmelo did a very nice job of delivering such passes on at least two occasions. He is a good diagonal passer out of double teams when he is posting up and thus was largely the same idea although he did not have to contend with four arms as he usually does when he doubled while is posting up.
The final way to beat a zone is on the offensive glass. Defenders typically have a difficult time boxing out as they are not responsible for any individual offensive player. This provides opportunities to slash to the basket unchecked. The Nuggets first two baskets against the Dallas zone came off of offensive boards, but as you can imagine with a smaller lineup were not able to fully take advantage of this advantage.
The absolute worst thing you can do against a zone is stand around and Denver did have too many players stationary at any given time although upon review it was not nearly as bad as I had thought it to be on my initial viewing of the game. Even so, the Nuggets became much more passive once Dallas implemented their zone and while Denver did a decent job of getting makable shots, they did begin to rely far too much on the three point shot. Most zones entice you to attempt long range shots as that is the easiest open shot to get. Denver fell for it as their three pointers per shot attempt rose from 0.24 versus the Dallas man to man defense up to 0.36 against the zone. A side effect of that was the Nuggets did not get to the free throw line earning only six attempts over the final 31 minutes.
The Nuggets offensive efficiency took a hit once Carlisle called for the zone to be applied. In Denver’s 34 possessions against man to man defense, they scored 39 points. That computes to an offensive efficiency of 114.7, which is very good. Once the zone entered the equation Denver accumulated 62 points on 57 possessions which is an offensive efficiency of 108.8. That is significantly worse than against the Maverick’s man to man defense, but it is certainly not terrible. In my opinion, that should be good enough to win. In addition to the hit in offensive efficiency, Denver’s pace dropped from 94.8, which favored the small quick Nuggets, to a more pedestrian 88.8.
The other difference between winning and losing against the Mavs was Jason Terry. He caught fire in the third quarter and poured in 16 points that helped turn a two point Nuggets lead at the half into an 11 point deficit eight minutes later. In a game where the Nuggets were shorthanded the margin for error was very slim all it took was one very hot quarter from an opposing player to put the game in doubt.
Terry is a known quantity by this point in his career. He is very good at moving without the ball and finding open jumpers in transition plus Dallas has great chemistry and they know how to set him up and when he is hot, they feed him.
It also seemed that for the first time all season the Nuggets lacked a little bit of effort in the third quarter as they were caught up in the negative momentum. Even so, Denver was able to recover and enter the fourth quarter down only four.
Points were difficult to come by in the fourth. After both teams combined to score 62 third quarter points, there were only 39 points in the fourth as the pace dropped to a microscopic 80.0.
The Nuggets were able to establish a four point lead 97-93 with four and a half minutes remaining and appeared to have withstood Dallas’ third quarter surge. However, Denver would only score four more points all night as Dallas saw Dirk compile six of his own and Caron Butler converted a very difficult three point shot with Chauncey literally in his face which put Dallas up three with a tick under two minutes left. Dallas would not score again as Dirk missed three jumpers and Terry turned the ball over.
The stage was set for yet another Carmelo Anthony game winner. This time it was not to be as Melo caught the ball in his favorite spot on the right wing, was able to create some space between he and Shawn Marion with a quick one dribble drive towards the paint that gave him an open 17 footer. The ball sidled down part of the way, but spun out giving Dallas a one point win.
The moral from this loss is Denver has some work to do, especially with their zone offense. The Nuggets tend to struggle against zones when J.R. Smith or Chauncey are not red hot and can force the defense back into man to man. Chauncey did convert on four of his nine three point shots, but two of those four came in the first quarter against Dallas’ man to man defense.
Quite honestly, I cannot remember a time where an NBA team played zone almost exclusively for such a large portion of the game, but playing against an unconventional lineup whose three point shooters had been struggling it was the correct decision and proved to be the decisive tactic in a close game.
I have to wonder how badly this loss stings for Nuggets fans. In years past, it would have certainly been reason to gnash teeth and throw dust into the air as they did in Biblical times. This year is different due to the likely departure of Carmelo. In the back of fans’ minds has to be the idea that ultimately this loss simply does not matter.
Let me know how it affected you in the comments.
Additional Game 4 Nuggets
Amazing Advanced Stats
Pace Factor: 92.2 – As pointed out previously, it was really a combination of two different games, pre zone and post zone.
Defensive Efficiency: 110.6 – not as bad as in New Orleans, but the Nuggets have had two games over 110 and two games under 94 they need some consistency.
Offensive Efficiency: 109.5 – second best efficiency rating of the season although they have been over 105 in all four games.