With the exception of a lethargic fourth quarter against the Blazers, the Nuggets are immediately showing promise in an area we’ve seen them struggle for years – closing games. In tonight’s ten point victory over Atlanta, the Nuggets willed themselves forward with key runs to close out quarters and stifle the Hawks momentum long enough for them to succumb to the dreaded mile high back-to-back factor.
After stumbling out of the gate offensively as they have for three games, the Nuggets fell behind by 8 before an 8-4 run brought them within four, which would have been an 8-1 run had Jamal Crawford not sunk a cold blooded difficult three at the first quarter buzzer. In the second quarter, it was a 9-4 run to briefly take the lead and close the half down one, even after Atlanta had battled fatigue to own all the momentum of the first half. In the third, it was an 18-12 Nuggets run to close and take a one point lead of their own. By the fourth, the Nuggets completed what they were building on by rarely losing the lead and using a 10-5 run to close out a double digit win. That’s how you finish a game.
It was Raymond Felton who keyed many of Denver’s crucial runs. In his best game as a Nugget, Felton came off the bench for 16 points on 7/12 shooting, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and only one turnover. The majority of Felton’s early struggles with Denver were an inability to find his shot in rhythm leading to some truly ugly attempts. Raymond operated a little more in the pick and roll tonight and took advantage of the space he’s been given by taking a majority of his shots in the paint. He’s still struggling to get a feel for his teammate’s tendencies and create the kinds of easier looks we want this team to be taking. However when the pressure was on to win the game Felton simply attacked the paint off the dribble and it paid off.
One of the reasons Denver is struggling on offense is the lack of a reliable post presence. Nene met his match tonight in Al Horford, a like-minded player who specializes in efficient play out of the extended post. Horford mixed in a mid-range game as well which was something Denver simply had no answer for. Nene gave his best effort but was bullied down low by Atlanta, getting his shot blocked four times and pushed aside as a non-factor in the rebounding battle. Nene also had some questionable fouls called on him which affected his aggressiveness on offense. Without anything to work with in the post the Nuggets had to rely on dribble penetration and outside shooting which, while ugly at times, got the job done with solid execution down the stretch.
After losing Danilo Gallinari to a toe injury tonight, Karl elected to start Wilson Chandler at small forward in an effort to keep some continuity in the starting lineup thanks to his stellar early play as a Nugget. Gallo’s loss was big as he is a talented offensive player who can draw a lot of attention through his outside shot or his slashing. The burden immediately fell on JR Smith and Arron Afflalo to create shots and provide an offensive threat that Atlanta would have to pay attention to. JR Smith was the player who answered the call. He played under control, finding his own shot when needed and mixing in drives to the rim and free throw attempts. He took only two three point shots, both in rhythm and assisted, which he made easily. JR was consistent at both ends for the majority of his 25 minutes and more importantly showed great chemistry with Nene on the pick and roll, allowing him to get through what was a very difficult game for Nene at the start.
We may be seeing a blueprint for the way Denver is going to win games with this roster. The Nuggets had no twenty point scorer, but five were in double figures and all of them nearly scored 15. That’s pretty incredible for a team that is still having so much trouble creating for each other. What’s more intriguing is the fact Denver looks a lot more comfortable winning games like this and only selectively pushing the pace when they can. If the Nuggets can mix in a little more movement and some post play into their game, we could see them become even more efficient while strengthening their constant solid defensive effort as well.
Pace Factor: 93.3- Traditional and close to what Atlanta plays at. Surprisingly, the Nuggets looked more comfortable than Atlanta at this speed.
Offensive Efficiency: 107.3 – Impressive, even more so because Atlanta played pretty good defense until the fourth quarter.
Defensive Efficiency: 96.5 – I did not expect this. For Denver to be posting a rating like this and winning by double digits is encouraging. It’s very early but still, the Nuggets have done this twice now.
Additional Game 61 Nuggets
- After giving up 50 points in the paint to Portland, the Nuggets got Kenyon back and returned things to order. After a two day rest they looked much fresher and limited the Hawks to 28 points in the paint, forcing them to work an unhealthy amount from outside. Atlanta only shot 2-19 on threes as well.
- Al Harrington has been playing himself out of the rotation for a while and we are finally seeing some results. My contention has been that playing him in a small lineup at Power Forward or Center is a no-win situation. What he gives up defensively cannot possibly be made up for with his offense as he is a very limited third or fourth option. Big Al leads the Nuggets in fouls per 36 minutes and he is left without a true position on this roster. Expect him to see some action with Gallo out but hope he is relegated to mop up duty as Denver has more talented scorers and defenders languishing on the bench.
- Chris Andersen was part of a better defensive effort in 17 minutes tonight, but more importantly was able to make all 3 of his field goal attempts. Birdman is still struggling to have an impact. In his rebirth with the Nuggets the last two seasons he has been good for over 2 blocks a game. This season he’s only played 28 games and averages less than one block per contest. Birdman can still be a positive force by switching onto smaller players he can defend and making every shot he takes from the field. He did that tonight.
- Arron Afflalo had his worst shooting performance in a long while, making only 2 out of 10 attempts that included a bevy of open looks. He does deserve praise for making life difficult for Joe Johnson, who was limited to 22 points on 10/23 shooting and had to make some awfully difficult shots to even get that.
- Losing Gallo to a broken two for seven to ten days is a big loss. Expect Wilson Chandler to start and JR Smith to shoulder a much bigger role in the offense going forward. Denver should be able to score well enough if they can mix in another post presence to work off the guards. Karl has hinted he is intrigued by Mozgov’s potential and I can’t think of a better time to get him some limited action. With the way Denver plays now, going small is going to hurt them a lot more than it could potentially help.