The day after trading away their two best players, the Denver Nuggets officially begin the post-Melo era with a walkover victory against the Memphis Grizzlies. They led by double digits throughout most of the game while handily outplaying the Grizz. I wanted to get that out of the way because while the win is an important one – I’m going to discuss why on a personal level as a fan, this is a game I’ve been waiting for that meant so much more to me than any in recent memory.
Excuse the unconventional recap, but to be this genuinely excited and full of promise after the way this season was unfolding – it’s almost a surreal feeling. I had long been preparing myself for the worst, and to be honest reliving little glimpses of Melo’s talent and this team’s past potential was doing nothing but alienating me further from the NBA. It’s very bittersweet, because at the same time I turned my longtime passion for the Nuggets into a blogging role here, I almost couldn’t care less about the fraudulent season we all knew would be the last in a once-Golden era.
Just a few days ago, this was a zombie team hardly recognizable as the former contenders they once were. The only thing driving them was the undead rumor mill of Melo speculation that manifested itself in a new form after every attempt to kill it. I have to be honest, I no longer cared about the team I love. The games seemed meaningless and the players proved it in their demeanor and team spirit on the court. I felt as empty watching the games as Melo must have after every time he scored 30 points on 25 shots in a losing effort, knowing that each time he put on a Denver jersey would be one closer to his last.
Now, after what in many ways was one of the saddest moments in Nuggets history, I feel as reborn as I imagine this team might feel too. Melo got what he wanted, after a long nightmare that consumed not only the Nuggets’ season but those of all the new players who arrived in Denver tonight via trade. Finally, a vision for a team fully committed to each other. Players who want a future now with the meaningful role and the environment to grow into themselves. The Nuggets are finally fighting for something real and exciting as for the first time in months they are a real team.
This definitely wasn’t the talented but disinterested squad going through the motions to put on a show. Against the Grizzlies, the Nuggets talent was decimated and they only dressed nine healthy bodies, eight of which actually played in the game. Without the quantity, the remaining Nuggets made up for with the quality of their play. Denver’s screen setting, box outs, defensive rotations, and flat out effort was better than it has been in months. Despite having what many now consider negligible talent on the roster, the Nuggets showed the same characteristics and energy on defense that led them to the Conference Finals with a much more talented roster.
That’s what this game was about, the spirit and the energy of the team. It was there tonight – the Nuggets are still a small team with questionable defensive habits, but they can score like you wouldn’t believe and tonight they worked together to overcome deficiencies as a unit. Memphis was out-hustled and out-executed with teamwork.
Back when I wrote my Midseason Progress Report, I listed a road win with Memphis as the best of the season, a game the Nuggets won without Melo, Nene, and Al Harrington. What stood out to me about that unspectacular win was how fun it was to watch a team overcome adversity by hustling for each other. I might have a new favorite game of the season. This one, beyond bringing back my unhealthy enthusiasm about the Nuggets, was just really fun.
You can see the hustle for yourself by taking a closer look at the box score tonight. 28 assists, 13 steals, and 21 forced Memphis turnovers. But again this one wasn’t about stats or strategy or basketball execution. It was about a team, with everyone involved committed to being whatever they needed to in order to help each other and win. Honestly, 58 games into the season it might be the first time that’s happened all year.
Pace Factor: 101.2 – Extremely fast, even for the old Nuggets. Indicating the speed and energy with which the new Nuggets attacked all night.
Offensive Efficiency: 118.5 – This team still has plenty of scoring without Melo. And without Gallo, Felton, Chandler, and Mozgov too.
Defensive Efficiency: 105.7 – Excluding a strange game against Milwaukee (Melo’s last) – this is the best defense the Nuggets have played in five games. If not for a 41 point 3rd quarter by Memphis, this would have been much, much better. It may not look it now, but Denver’s awful 107.2 average should drop with Melo and Chauncey gone.
Additional Game 58 Nuggets
- Al Harrington fouled out in 23 minutes. He had 7 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds and took only one three point shot. He scored two layups on drives to the rim and played acceptable defense despite the fouls. This was one of the best overall games I have ever seen Al Harrington play for Denver
- JR Smith is now a premiere player for Denver. That’s scary for a lot of fans, but this guy is some kind of talent. Like many of the Nuggets adjusting to life without Melo, JR was somewhat tentative and surprised with new offensive freedom Denver is going to play the whole game with. JR had 26 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists in an unspectacular game. He can play a lot better and maybe a lot worse if he keeps getting the minutes he got tonight (42)
- Kenyon Martin played 25 minutes, had 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. He is a role player now and the lone aging veteran on a team that is now suddenly deep and young at the forward positions. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kenyon feels out of place now but I hope he will work hard to carve out a minor role as a leader and defensive specialist on this new team. Denver no longer relies on Kenyon to be a high impact consistent starter and that is a very good thing.
- Ty Lawson will have some growing pains in a starting role but was absolutely fantastic despite some careless passes and ill-advised decision making. His speed basically cracked the game open and gave Denver the big cushion they never surrendered. Lawson seemed a bit taken a back and may not have realized that he needs to be going full speed every minute he’s in the game now. When he figures that out and gets used to it, watch out. I think 21 points and 7 assists could become a normal routine thing. He also had 6 steals
- Denver generated a lot of offense with post entry passes to Melo. I was wondering how Denver might look to run those same sets and they used a combination of Al Harrington, Gary Forbes, and most notably Arron Afflalo in the post. Look for Afflalo to be featured in a good number of Denver’s half court sets on offense and for him to post up guards when he gets the opportunity
- Altitude interviewed the newest Nuggets and Raymond Felton looks to be the de-facto leader of the new regimen. He is a pro’s pro and had his agent deliver a message to Masai Ujiri telling him not to trade anyone because the ex-Knicks all want to win in Denver. Felton, Gallinari, and Chandler were all having career years and were a huge part of New York’s success this season. I hope they come to Denver with a chip on their shoulder thanks to having their great careers uprooted by the Melo drama.
- I love this team, there is talent here and watching them play hard makes me very excited about how they could grow and reinvent themselves as still a very scary offensive team. It all hinges on how the new guys who are about half of the team fit in. But if Memphis is who they will be battling for a final playoff spot, I expect this team to give them one hell of a fight.
- One minor housekeeping note – The Nuggets also acquired Kosta Koufos in the official Melo trade. They gave up a conditional 2015 second rounder to Minnesota in order to get him. So Denver now has 14 on its roster including two 7 footers.