There are certain games at certain times of every season that I get a funny feeling about and just dread having to watch. In the past, it was the predictable slumps and offensive hell the Melo-era Nuggets so often fell into during big-time road games. After losing to Orlando in nothing short of heartbreaking fashion, it was an unwelcome case of déjà vu giving me that oh-so familiar feeling that tonight’s back-to-back in Miami would not be a fun one. It’s not that I haven’t been a believer in the remarkable strides this team has made in a short time playing together, I am just naturally skeptical of the Nuggets in big time “show up” games on the road. With that said, attempting to stay grounded about this team’s progress brings a certain understanding that maintaining an identity with grit and determination in a loss to a premiere team is nothing to sneer at. Call it complacency, but in my mind these last two losses are a sign that the NBA is taking notice and adjusting to a surprisingly tough team that is not without flaws – and crashing the new-look Nuggets party like this might be something that needed to happen.
For all the consternation and hoopla surrounding the Miami Heat, this is still a team with the best scoring margin in the league, not to mention a starting five that is a nightmare to deal with. Then on the Nuggets side, they just lost to a soul-crushing jumper where not only did they struggle all night but also lost Raymond Felton to injury just as Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari eased back into the rotation. That is why all things considered, I look at the way Denver fought through this game and the last without a whole lot of surprise or despair that they ended up losing. There are certain things the Nuggets have been getting away with that are easy to overlook when you’re winning in blowout fashion. On the other hand you have to think they are begging to get exposed and whether it’s now or in the playoffs, the Nuggets will need to address them at some point if they want to better.
My first feeling is that Denver has benefited from playing a lot of unorthodox small lineups that teams are failing to adjust to and exploit defensively. After finally seeing obvious flaws in the Lawson-Felton backcourt against Orlando, the Heat were able to break down Denver’s defense tonight to the tune of 50.7% shooting and an efficient 30 a piece for Lebron and Wade. The past two nights we’ve seen teams force tempo against Denver and exploit them with size. The Heat and Magic were in a position to give up lots of rebounding opportunities by running so many back in order to slow Denver’s transition offense. Both times the Nuggets failed to capitalize and lost the rebounding battle.
That ties into my second thought which is that Chris Andersen and Kenyon Martin have been playing far above their heads during this stretch. As the only real size on Denver’s roster playing actual minutes, they are sorely needed to spearhead the team’s rebounding effort. While neither has played a totally bad game the last two nights, their rebounding production has come back to earth and we’ve seen the likes of Brandon Bass, Joel Anthony and Chris Bosh outmuscle them on the glass. Of course, not to go un-noticed is the pathetic two rebound effort from Nene in his 29 minutes tonight. It simply raises the question of whether Denver has the frontcourt that can match up with the best teams in the league and whether or not they may be making a poor decision by continuing to force small lineups despite having more size available.
While the Nuggets haven’t been consistent on defense, they have been good enough to win. Just as the poor rebounding has ruined their chances, the turnovers and the stalling of Denver’s offense have played an equally large role. After recording only 19 assists against Orlando last night, the Nuggets managed a paltry 14 against the Heat. They are playing unselfishly, but still falling victim to teams who can bottle up Nene and take away Denver’s transition game. While it bears repeating that Nene’s flat out refusal to be an aggressive scorer is a big factor, both the Magic and Heat have put him in foul trouble and that is what teams are going to do to him in the playoffs. Denver needs to overcome and while they have a plethora of decent shooters and scorers, it’s hard to find consistency out of anyone. Against natural scorers like Lebron and Wade, it’s something that became painfully evident. The Nuggets bench dominated Miami’s yet all Denver lineups seemed mired between frustrating extremes of hot and cold shooting. When the Nugget shooters aren’t getting hot at the right times the Nuggets are screwed and it is an area they need to develop a more structured offense.
While it’s easy to focus on the bad, these are flaws and strategies the Nuggets have been getting away with. Naturally against really good teams who play defense and rebound, they are struggling and not adjusting as well as they should. It’s part of the growing pains that come along with such a radical change to the team.
There are still plenty of good things to take away from these performances in which the Nuggets have not gone down without a fight. Gallo is about five games into his career as a Nugget and is frequently showing an ability to be the best scorer on the floor. With Afflalo and Felton hobbled and hurt, Denver’s perimeter defense is naturally starting to suffer as a result. JR Smith is finally learning to act like a decent player away from the Pepsi Center. Above all, Denver’s defense is giving them chances to win. The Nuggets are not melting down, imploding on their own and being outmatched on the road against great teams. They have building blocks and it’s a matter of adjustments and execution that keeps them from making the next step.
While the Nuggets don’t have any superstars who make life so laughably easy for mediocre players like Mike Bibby and Joel Anthony, they have a gritty team that is playing respectable ball. Ty Lawson continues to learn on the job and does at least one or two things every game that are jaw-dropping amazing. Despite a really tough loss last night which Denver arguably deserved to win, this was a game lost to a better team that should be a valuable lesson to a team that still needs to prove they can contend. While I’ve been impressed and inspired by the new brand of basketball this team has adopted, I will never be sold that these guys are good enough to skip the speed bumps and gut-wrenching losses that are part of becoming a great team.
Pace Factor: 93.5 – Really slow and bad for the Nuggets offense
Offensive Efficiency: 104.8 – Solid against Miami, misleading as they were hot and cold but trailed by double digits more often than not.
Defensive Efficiency: 110.8 – Bad, mostly due to Lebron exploding for a great game
Additional Game 70 Nuggets
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