The Denver Nuggets appeared to catch a bit of a break as they prepared to take on the Phoenix Suns. Despite the fact Denver had lost 11 straight games in Phoenix, the Suns were coming off a hard fought game against the Los Angeles Lakers the night before during which they converted 22 three pointers. As the Nuggets learned from the Pacers, cold teams heat up, but the reciprocal corollary is true as well. Hot teams cool off. Surely the Suns would not be as hot from behind the arc as they were the night before.
The law of averages held true once again for Denver as the Suns did not shoot well from the perimeter. However, despite having played the night before, the Suns played with more energy and focus in the second half than the well-rested Nuggets did. The Nuggets were the team standing and watching on defense, playing lazy offense and making unforced turnovers.
The other big story of the game was Denver’s insistence on switching screens and not helping on the mismatch on the block. In the fourth quarter the Suns enjoyed success on switched repeatedly, primarily with Hakim Warrick posting up Arron Afflalo. It has been a while since we talked about switching screens here, but suffice it to say, I find it the most distasteful version of pick and roll defense. If you are going to switch, you must have your guards front the post and then have the weakside big ready to help on any lob pass into the lane. As the Nuggets found, switching and having the guard simply hang out behind the offensive player is a recipe for disaster.
It was frustrating to see Denver play such a stout first half only to fumble the game away through a combination of poor scheme and lack of energy. The Nuggets dominated in every way with the most telling stat being the Nuggets’ points in the paint, of which they accumulated 42 in the first two quarters.
In the second half Phoenix was able to adjust, while Denver failed to do so.
The Suns packed the paint while Denver played in fear of a Phoenix three point attack that never materialized. Perfect example of how Denver defended Phoenix came with 3:42 remaining in the third quarter. Phoenix had Nash up top with Warrick to his left and Frye to his right. Basically the set will allow Nash to pick which direction he goes and allows for the big setting the screen to dive to the lane, or pop out and the other big can do the opposite. Nash went to his right and drove off a screen by Frye. Frye then popped out behind the arc just to the right of midcourt. Nene and Lawson put a soft double on Nash and Harrington, who is guarding Warrick on the weakside chooses to rotate out to cover Frye. Warrick continues his slashing cut through the lane and receives a nice pass from Nash at the rim for an easy lay in. By having Harrington run at Frye, Denver showed they were more concerned with Frye 24 feet from the rim than Warrick at the rim. Of course, it would have helped had Melo stepped into the lane and challenged Warrick before he reached the rim, but the design was clear. Denver defended from the outside in and as a result on a night when the Suns were 4-20 from behind the arc, Denver allowed themselves to be dominated in the paint in the second half.
Phoenix on the other hand, after giving up 42 points in the paint in the first half, played defense from the inside out packing the paint with defenders. We all know when Denver has to work hard to get into the lane, they stop working hard and simply settle for jumpers.
Nene was a major culprit in the loss as well. After being aggressive in the first half, he allowed himself to be pushed around by smaller players. On one telling possession Nene was looking at the baseline referee and complaining about how Hedo Turkoglu was pushing against him while Chauncey was waiting for him to turn around and get position so they could dump the ball into him. For a player with Nene’s size he should welcome a player like Turkoglu trying to be physical with him because that means he can be physical right back. Instead he allowed himself to be taken out of the game. The Suns also doubled him aggressively, sometimes on the catch and others on the bounce, and that kept Nene off balance as well.
With Denver dropping the game the biggest story of the night turned out to be the first 20/20 performance of Carmelo Anthony’s career. Melo actually had double digit boards before he had double digits in points. Carmelo deserves credit for continuing to work hard and he is posting a career high rebound rate.
Additional Game 9 Nuggets
- J.R. Smith did not play a second with rookie Gary Forbes chewing up his playing time. Smith, who played a solid game against the Lakers last Thursday, was late to the morning shoot around and found himself benched. In the same article, Benjamin Hochman makes a great point about Denver’s body language; it was indeed very bad in the second half.
- We mentioned how Denver played defense from the outside in while not doubling Warrick when he as posting up a guard. On what proved to be the decisive possession of the game Warrick was working on Afflalo on the right block. All four Nuggets defenders were sagging into the lane ready to help, but not actually doubling Warrick. Melo sank all the way down nearly to the rim on the play when Warrick made his move into the lane. However, again Melo did not actually double and thus did not apply pressure to Warrick. That allowed Warrick a perfect lane from the right block to the left wing where Melo had left Hedo wide open. Warrick fired a diagonal pass to Turkoglu who drained the three to put Phoenix up nine with 2:49 left.
- I do not know how they did it, but Denver managed to make Turkoglu look like Larry Bird with his shooting and playmaking.
- Once again as we saw in Chicago, George Karl kept Carmelo Anthony at 38 minutes leaving him on the bench in the fourth quarter during a 14-1 Suns run. I lamented the fallacy of coaching to win the second game of a back to back when Denver lost to the Bulls and then proceeded to get blown out in Indiana the next night. Hopefully, that scene will not repeat itself tomorrow night in Denver.
- Chauncey Billups has not been playing well so far this season. He did not play well at the World Championships. He did not play well the final month and a half of 2009-10. I have no doubt that Billups will have a red hot month or maybe two at some point this year, but he is not a player Denver can rely on to play at an All-Star level night in and night out anymore.
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