Already with an entirely new cast of characters on hand, starting their four game road trip without Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari was not the ideal way for the Nuggets to kick off the most crucial and difficult stretch of season yet. Yet the way we’ve seen this team respond to the twists and turns of a truly bizarre season keep reminding us that unconventional is hardly uncomfortable anymore. Despite a horrible start and a substandard defensive effort the Nuggets still manage one of their most impressive road wins with the fifth seed on the line against the Hornets.
The game probably couldn’t have started any worse, with quick turnovers only worsening the blow of a passive road defense that’s earned the playoff-contending Nuggets their woeful record away from home. Time and time again it’s hard to remember that these aren’t the same Nuggets stuck in their old ways – there’s actually no old ways to speak of. After falling into an 11-2 hole early, the turnaround after George Karl’s first timeout was remarkable and unlike any road effort we’ve seen all year.
The one constant Denver could rely on all game was their half court defense. That statement alone is indicative of the major strides this team has made in a short time playing together. Despite a barrage of second half threes cracking the game open, the Nuggets were without a cohesive offense or hot-handed scorer all game. Their strong pick and roll defense coupled with an outstanding rebounding effort was the hallmark of Denver’s success in a game that’s speed and style appeared to favor the Hornets.
Without Arron Afflalo available controlling the penetration and speed of Chris Paul seemed a tall order for the rest of the team. As they have before, Denver trapped him off ball screens a few times but generally played solid straight up defense, with the bigs doing an excellent job hedging against rolls to the basket. With no inside game to speak of Chris Paul was limited to looking for his own shot and relying on the Hornet role players to make long jumpers. It was a solid plan executed well which led to Denver’s superior supporting cast outclassing the Hornets in nearly every facet.
Not surprisingly, the Gary Forbes experiment as a starter continued unsuccessfully leading to the horrible opening stretch. Forbes has found limited success backing up Melo earlier in the season, but he is not a shooting guard and I’m not sure what part of his game suggests that he deserves to be starting at that position. With JR Smith playing as well he has with Afflalo out, I have to think that force feeding Forbes these minutes in a position he is clearly uncomfortable in can’t possibly turn out well. It didn’t and after Forbes threw the ball away three out of the first four times he touched it he did not see the court again.
Raymond Felton played early and often, actually leading the team in minutes and splitting point guard duty with Lawson quite frequently. Often times both point guards set up on opposite wings and took turns running the plays. It is confusing and drives me crazy to a certain extent, but I can’t deny it worked pretty marvelously after Denver started the game in a bad offensive funk. Raymond is showing remarkable timing being able to connect with the roll man on well timed passes, in particular to Chris Andersen. After Ty Lawson struggled turning the ball over early, Felton was able to settle the Nuggets down and get them into their sets more comfortably. He also did his job as the shooting guard when needed by popping out for open jump shots and drilling them in rhythm. Felton made a career high six threes on nine attempts, adding 12 assists and only one turnover for good measure. It was a fantastic game Raymond dominated much in the way we saw Ty Lawson do to Phoenix last week. New Orleans simply wasn’t prepared and had no response to covering both him and Ty.
After witnessing JR Smith drop seven threes in the fourth quarter against Detroit, I was intrigued by our readers’ comments following Kalen’s recap of the game. JR finally answered my criticism with a solid game on the road. He broke the game open along with Felton and when the Nuggets sputtered down the stretch, it was Smith taking and making the biggest shots of the game. His talent is undeniable and while he often seems incapable of harnessing that potential due to his decision making, the game almost seems unfair for the other team when he gets rolling. It wasn’t the prettiest, most fundamentally sound performance but when called on for offense JR delivered big time. With Gallo and Arron Afflalo out it’s becoming clear the Nuggets need to stop kidding themselves and play him big minutes as they are just not going to win without it.
In addition to the fantastic defense played on Chris Paul, both Raymond and Ty finished with more assists than him. The two point guards each had double-doubles, with Ty Lawson notching his third in a row. That’s pretty incredible to have two point guards outduel someone many consider to be best in the league at that position. Although the Nuggets were not consistent on both ends throughout, the fact they won this easily despite not playing their best is mighty impressive. This is a team that’s no longer making excuses and instead adapting to whatever it takes in order to get wins they absolutely need to have at this point. With this win, Denver stays in the number five playoff seed and moves two games up on New Orleans with the rest of a difficult road trip and schedule still looming.
Pace Factor: 95.5 – Average, maybe a bit slower than normal to the Hornets preference
Offensive Efficiency: 119.9 – Fantastic against NO. Team efficiency key as the Nuggets rain threes and record a blistering 67.3 TS%
Defensive Efficiency: 108.3 – Actually not a good performance marked by inconsistency, though Denver did force a lot of jump shots
Additional Game 67 Nuggets