I honestly have nothing bad to say about Denver’s effort tonight. In the preview, I lamented how the Nuggets have refused to show up in big time statement games like tonights. They were so badly embarrassed by the Lakers and Spurs you just have to assume that when things aren’t going their way against quality opponents, the Nuggets are going to fall apart and just give up – that’s just who they are. Although the Nuggets lost tonight, they fought hard through their shortcomings and gave themselves a great chance to win a game that at times seemed far out of reach. In many ways we’re getting a look at the real Nuggets tonight – a team with questionable front line talent and mediocre defense despite their best efforts. Furthermore, they fall victim to their own emotions again and the lucky breaks just weren’t in their favor either. It’s no knock on the Nuggets, but they need that luck. When they don’t get it, they just don’t have that elite level mindset to execute and win anyways.
The Jazz know how to play the Nuggets. They’re very confident and the Denver defense was clearly stifled by the amount of movement and misdirection the Jazz use on offense. Deron Williams looked to score in the first half and lost Chauncey Billups at will. When the Nuggets switched Utah found the mismatch on Al Jefferson or Deron Williams. When the Nuggets went zone the Jazz ran baseline cutters for layups or simply shot threes over the zone which they made. Denver wasn’t defending horribly; Utah was just out-executing them. Even so, the Nuggets played selfishly on offense as Chauncey and Melo struggled to score in isolations – yet Denver kept close and was only down three at half time.
I couldn’t help thinking the Nuggets were on a slippery slope from the beginning. At the half, the bench had scored basically no points besides a mini 6-0 run by Ty Lawson himself which kept the score close. The Nuggets were getting killed on second and third shot opportunities as nobody boxed out. Furthermore Chauncey and Melo did what they always do in response to adversity which is simply create more for themselves and jack up shots. The Nuggets weren’t sharing the ball and Jazz controlled tempo, yet the Nuggets were only down three. The game was there for the taking.
Carmelo Anthony started the third quarter on fire and Denver raced out to a 19-12 advantage early. Jerry Sloan calls a timeout and then in the blink of an eye, Denver gives up three straight layups and control of the game. The team is so emotionally fragile, a small drizzle of adversity quickly becomes an uncontrollable rainstorm. Kenyon Martin overplays Millsap for a steal, then gives up an offensive rebound and dribbles off his foot for a turnover. Melo stops making tough jumpers in isolation and lets CJ Miles loose for a three.
The Jazz had to work hard in half court sets to score – they made tough shots and drained contested jumpers. For the most part, the Nuggets played tough and physical defense – but Utah matched them. What killed Denver was sulking to the referees after no calls, lazy transition defense and non-existent box outs. The Jazz stayed cool and collected throughout, and pounced when Denver gave them an opening. The Nuggets started trapping Deron Williams in the third and he became a facilitator. The biggest difference in the two teams play on offense was that the Jazz never forced anything. Deron Willaims kept everyone involved and always seemed to make the correct read based on how Denver defended.
In the fourth quarter, Denver struggled to string together stops. Melo cooled off considerably and it seemed Utah might run away with it. However Denver’s defense tightened up and they put up a fine fight against Utah throughout. The story of the fourth was the play of Al Jefferson. He was a beast down low and attacked Nene and Kenyon Martin without fear. The Nuggets played defense as well as they could without double and triple teaming him. He simply overpowered the Nuggets with spin moves, sweeping hook shots and turnaround jumpers. He just demanded the ball in the post and made some incredibly difficult shots. Give credit to Jefferson, had he not carried Utah by turning in one of his best games as a Jazzman(?), Denver might have won this game.
Even through all this, the play of the game came near the one minute mark of the fourth. The Nuggets had clawed their way back and found Arron Afflalo for a wide open three that would have tied. After a miss, the Nuggets still had a chance down three with one more stop against Utah. Williams brought the ball up and Denver trapped him at the 3 point line, Chauncey was cheating off Raja Bell on the weakside near Nene who was protecting the basket. Immediately after the double, Deron Williams found Al Jefferson at the top of the key who flashed towards the basket. Nene rotated off Millsap to help and TOOK A CHARGE on Jefferson perfectly. Chauncey, who had already left Bell wide open jumped in front of Nene and hacked Jefferson before he ran into Nene. It was an incredibly boneheaded foul to make because Chauncey was not guarding anyone and it was not his job to provide help on Al Jefferson. Nene made the game saving play that Chauncey did not trust him to make. It was a complete failure to communicate and a truly awful breakdown.
I hate to put this on Chauncey, but Deron Williams exposes him badly as a point guard and owns the matchup for Utah. In the first half, Chauncey enabled Denver’s poor shot selection and looked for his own shot too often. Denver recorded only 19 assists to Utah’s 29 and had only 3 in the pivotal fourth quarter.
Denver played hard but not smart tonight. They couldn’t make a three and the ball didn’t bounce their way when they needed it. I’m satisfied with the effort tonight, but Denver was out-executed by a banged up Utah team. The other thing that’s striking to me about this loss is the quality of Denver’s front court talent. Kenyon Martin, Al Harrington, and Chris Andersen are all unreliable and at a point in their careers where they can only decline. Denver can’t go far relying on a rotation of those three players against other playoff front courts in the West. They were out-hustled, out-muscled and bullied all night. Even with the Nuggets totally healthy, it’s impossible for me to believe this is a rotation that can get it done in a physical playoff series.
Additional Game 50 Nuggets