I have to admit, after reliving that incredible fourth quarter comeback against Dallas I almost bought back in. It’s been tempting at numerous times this season when the Nuggets occasionally act like the good team they think they are. Even through the first half of this game I thought it was the best Denver has looked on the road all season. Something just made me uneasy about saying with another half to play and unfortunately it turned into a cruel reminder of why I can’t get fooled anymore.
Despite a 5 point deficit after allowing Memphis 31 first quarter points, I thought the game started with tons of promise for the Nuggets. Denver was the aggressor early and able to contain the frontcourt duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. They forced Memphis to beat them with tough jumpers and Rudy Gay isolations which the Grizzlies were only able to do so long.
Once the benches came in, the Nuggets immediately seized all momentum. They forced plenty of turnovers and a frenetic pace fueled by high energy plays. JR Smith, Ty Lawson, and Chris Andersen showed a brief glimpse of the kind of disruptive defense Denver used to play in order to knock opponents off their steady half court composure. Despite some questionable shot selection the Nuggets bench was so active at both ends they turned a 5 point deficit to a 12-point lead in one quarter.
What happens then shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. After scoring 41 in the second quarter, the Nuggets only manage 41 in the whole second half and turn their big lead of 17 points into a casual 8 point loss to Memphis. At one point, Memphis had gone a 43-18 run spanning the third and fourth quarters. The Nuggets actually ended up losing by double digits if you don’t count a meaningless layup Memphis allowed in order to run out the clock. It was as bad as it sounds.
Even throughout most of the third quarter the Nuggets were pressing their advantage and never had any excuse to lose this. It was remarkable just how quick things went south resulting in a routine Memphis win. I will say this – when you have that kind of turnaround so quickly I have to place most of if not all of the blame on the coach. Every NBA team makes runs, but there’s just no excuse to watch things go so bad for so long and turn a 17 point lead into a blowout loss. Unless everyone on the team is terrible, that just cannot happen without a great deal of help from some awfully poor coaching.
While I can’t fault Karl for relying on Chauncey and Carmelo down the stretch, I have a big problem with doing it at the expense of Ty Lawson and JR Smith, Denver’s two best players on the floor tonight. Neither played much in the fourth quarter, and even with Ty Lawson keeping the Nuggets afloat and in the lead, he was pulled for Kenyon Martin late in the fourth and didn’t see the floor again. JR forced some questionable shots off one-on-one moves that he actually made, which makes his incredibly short leash even harder to understand. Ty and JR already play only the 6th and 7th most minutes of all rotation players, and to hold them back in such minor roles despite performances like this just isn’t excusable anymore.
It should be noted that Carmelo and Chauncey in particular were awful in clutch situations. At a time they were simply needed to execute fundamental basketball, both lost their composure and fumbled away opportunities. I’m still looking for some of the veteran leadership and intangibles on this team to show up. You can blame Denver for not executing at all in the second half, but they were within a possession or two all the way to the final two minutes. Melo and Chauncey stopped the ball every time.
As I’ve vaguely laid out here, I don’t have a good explanation of why Denver didn’t win this game. I will admit, had Denver’s best team played Memphis’ best team when it mattered – I personally believe the outcome would be different. Forget about placing any blame at this point, because no matter who it is every night the result is the same. The Nuggets are 9-17 on the road because they lose games like this, it is who they are. What’s hard to grasp about this season is that the meaning of wins and losses pales in comparison to what will happen with Carmelo. Getting too high or too low on the outcome of games seems a bit foolish with such a big cloud of uncertainty hanging over the franchise.
The Nuggets are 4-6 in their last 10 games. They are basically locked outside of the race for a home court playoff birth (technically not, but I’m taking some liberties based on record). The trade deadline is 10 days away. These are the things of real importance as the Nuggets approach a watershed moment in a decision that could determine whether or not they compete for another decade. Unfortunately, it’s not the games anymore.
Additional Game 55 Nuggets
- Kenyon Martin came in near the 5 minute mark of the fourth to finish the game with the rest of the starters. Although up till that point Kenyon might have been having his best game of the season, he only chipped in 12 points and 7 rebounds. In the crucial fourth quarter stretch, Kenyon wasn’t able to keep up with Randolph and got torched for the final meaningful possession. Kenyon’s production this year (6 points and 5 rebounds a game) is likely where his career is going to wind down as an energy big off the bench. Kenyon looked spent after logging 30 minutes including the final five minute stretch.
- After the best quarter and game of his life, Arron Afflalo might have followed it up with his worst. Karl chose to put him on Rudy Gay and Afflalo had a difficult time all night. What didn’t help was his uncharacteristically bad 1-8 shooting despite getting a number of open looks. JR Smith, despite worse shot selection had his jumper going and also was more effective on Rudy Gay and Darrel Arthur.
- I thought the key matchup for Denver was Chauncey Billups on Mike Conley. Chauncey had seven turnovers and rarely ever posted up Conley or attacked him on offense. Conley was allowed to shoot 7-11 for 17 points and 5 assists. Chauncey allowed himself to be thoroughly outplayed despite Karl sticking with him over Ty Lawson.
- Zach Randolph had 16 rebounds and no Nugget had more than five. Marc Gasol, who did have 15 points and 7 rebounds, was basically a non factor and finished the game a -20. Letting Randolph loose for as long as they did in the fourth quarter is what did the Nuggets in. They didn’t adjust and quite frankly Denver is largely inept on the glass anyways.
- Darrell Arthur is the latest obscure player to join the club of having career nights versus the Nuggets. He tripled his scoring average with 24 points on 11 shots and a game high 10 trips to the foul line. That’s 24 points on 79% True Shooting.