After Kenyon Martin put back a missed free-throw by Nene to clinch the Nuggets 95-90 victory of the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, emotion spilled out of the gritty power forward in the form of expletives aimed at the silicone-infused celebrities strung along the court-side seats at Staples Center. For Nuggets fans, this was a moment when we vicariously said what we’ve wanted to for a really long time, and thanks to Kenyon Martin, we got that opportunity without having to deal with the repercussions.
Many will point and say this is the best win of the year, but I disagree; this was the most telling win of the year, and what it told us is that the Denver Nuggets don’t even have to play to the best of their abilities in order to beat the two-time defending NBA Champion L.A. Lakers. Coming into Sunday’s game the Lakers were by far the hottest team in the league, having only lost once in their last 18 match-ups. You’d think playing on their home-floor with the best closer in the league, best coach in the league (in terms of championships) and best front-line in the league that the Nuggets would have to play nearly flawless in order to win, but that was hardly the case. Instead, the Nuggets came out sloppy to start the first quarter (which seems to be a trend these days) scoring only 21 points, and then duplicated that effort in the second by scoring even less (19). This nerve-racking display caused us to come limping into half-time with a total of 40 while shooting 29 percent from the field. Still, the Nuggets were only down by seven at that point and when the third quarter rolled around we were able to nudge things into a much higher gear (another trend), which resulted in 29 points and a tie game going into the fourth.
Once the fourth quarter began the back-and-fourth battle that had ensued all game long continued to fizzle until about the four-minute mark when Denver went on a timely 9-2 scoring run. It was then, when like we’ve seen so many times recently, the Nuggets seemed to collectively look each other in the eye, give a confident nod and proceed to beat the Lakers into submission. I’m still perplexed as to just how nonchalantly routine we stepped things up to close out the defending Champs on their home-floor. That to me is what was so amazing about this game. All night long we were trading buckets with the Lakers, throwing punches only to see them negated by questionable officiating, which left us susceptible to the counter-attack in which the Lakers then capitalized on and built short leads off. But when it came down to it, when it was time to put up or shut up, the Nuggets revealed they were only playing rope-a-dope by coming back re-energized with a flurry of knock-out blows that connected one after the other. And as you could imagine, the Lakers were stunned. The crowd became hesitant with trepidation, unwilling to fully give away their hearts knowing the Nuggets likely had this victory within their grasp, and the Lakers knew it too. At half-time when Kobe was asked what the difference was between the “new-look Nuggets” and the old Nuggets he replied, “Not much; more of the same.” He might be re-thinking that statement as we speak.
Besides K-Mart’s blustering stroll along the side-lines of the Lakers bench after making a game-clinching put-back, the biggest story of the fourth quarter undoubtedly had to be Raymond Felton and his continuing emergence as the new “Mr. Big Shot” of the Denver Nuggets. After being held scoreless the entire first-half, Felton decided to change his shoes from green (in honor of the NBA’s “Green Week”), to his usual powder-blue color, and with that the comeback began. From the third quarter on Felton shot 6-9 from the field including 3-3 from downtown, and was the primary catalyst in the Nuggets second-half surge. Overall he finished with 16 points, five rebounds and four assists. There’s no question that although Ty is probably the most talented of the mercurial point guard tandem, Felton is far more experienced as both a leader and a shot-maker; but the combination of the two together is proving to be deadly for opponents of every shape and size.
Other than Felton, everybody again had a fairly solid outing. Gallinari played a team-high 41 minutes and put up an impressive stat-line in the process, scoring 22 points on 7-13 from the field to go with seven rebounds, three assists and three steals. Kenyon Martin also had one of his best games in recent memory by netting 18 points, eight rebounds, one assist, one block and of course one nasty tirade directed at the pretentious people of the front-row. From now on we may refer to this moment in Denver Nuggets history as, “The Shining.”
I’ll admit, this one was a little unexpected. When I did my piece earlier this past week detailing how the Nuggets might go about wining 50 games for the fourth consecutive season, I had this one pegged firmly as a loss. Quite honestly, I’m still a little shocked at the outcome of this game. We’ve heard rumblings for weeks amongst Nuggets fans about this team truly being a championship contender, but until tonight I never really gave that notion much consideration. From what I could tell, we were a deep, talented team motivated by the big trade centering around thou-who-shall-not-be-named, which brought many players to the Nuggets who felt disrespected and had something to prove. Even after countless wins against some of the best teams in the league, I just figured we were hot. But Sunday the possibility of our Nuggets truly being a championship contender came to fruition. I know it was only one game, but you can’t say that when you’re beating nearly every opponent on your schedule. So please Nuggets fans, take a moment to now stop, inhale deeply, exhale slowly and with that appreciate what a great team you currently have constructed for your viewing pleasure. It’s not often in sports that you get to follow something special, something groundbreaking, something historic; but right now, that’s a very real possibility. Enjoy.
Following segment by Charlie:
For the eighth straight year the Denver Nuggets will be competing in the NBA playoffs. What’s been most impressive to me over this six-game winning streak is the way they have done it – banged up and not playing their best. It’s one thing to win ugly against the Lakers in LA, but what is so invigorating is the way in which Denver has vaulted themselves into the playoffs by outmatching the defending champs with physicality and clutch execution.
As we’ve seen in the past few contests, the Nuggets offense has cooled as their trademark execution and flow is appearing in shorter spurts than we’re used to. In today’s afternoon game in L.A., we saw much of the same with some defensive lapses thrown in as key cogs Arron Afflalo and Chris Andersen were late scratches with injury.
So just how were the Nuggets able to beat the beastliest team in the league right now? A combination of pride and toughness seem to be fueling this team past all of the doubt and consternation surrounding their ability to compete without a closer or superstar threat. Time and time again we are seeing this team share the load on both sides of the ball with the method varying nightly, but the result mostly the same. The Nuggets are winning games by attacking with depth from so many angles it’s impossible for teams to know where they are getting hit from.
Credit George Karl for getting Timofey Mozgov solidly in the rotation with Chris Andersen sidelined. Al Harrington might have thought he’d be next in line for big minutes and a larger role, but it was Mozgov’s size and strength that put Denver in a position to match the overpowering length of L.A. Mozgov made some rookie mistakes and at times was part of a defense that looked uncomfortably out of sync. Once you add Kenyon Martin’s toughness and trademark intensity with the size to match the big bodies of the Lakers, Denver became by far the more physical and aggressive team. It was the biggest factor in the Nuggets win, evident by both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum finding themselves worn down by the strength and quickness of Denver’s front-court at game’s end. The Lakers bigs hit Denver in the mouth early but in the end the Nuggets were the ones doing the punching and Mozgov was a big part of that throughout.
On offense it was uglier than it looked. While the Nuggets moved the ball early and often, rarely did they look to be constantly aggressive scoring the ball. In the first half it was Danilo Gallinari dragging the Nuggets through while Raymond Felton took over that role in the second. Had it not been for Felton’s hot hand late, the Nuggets would have had no scoring punch out of their bench. When it mattered, the Nuggets were able to will buckets in and JR Smith — who struggled to score all night — made two of the best passes of the game to Mozgov for a dunk and Felton for a wide open triple. Like I said, this was an ugly offensive performance out of both teams but when crunch time hit it was Denver with a better commitment to executing and finding the open shots.
What Denver did well all night was force turnovers and challenge the Lakers physically. There was no tough guy bravado or showmanship. It was hard-nosed basketball and a belief that the Nuggets were not only going to compete but outmatch the defending champions in what they do best. The Lakers played to their size advantage all night and fouled Denver to keep them out of a transition game. Instead of trying to force something else the Nuggets responded to the challenge by beating L.A. at their own game. It came down to pride and execution in the clutch against the best finisher in the game. Only this time, it was the team with no closer and a greater collective pride that was doing the finishing.
Pace Factor: 99.1 – Surprisingly fast despite L.A. fouling as much as they could to slow it down
Offensive Efficiency: 95.9 – Not terrible against a solid defense like LA’s, who were able to make Kenyon Martin the focus of Denver’s offense far too often
Defensive Efficiency: 90.9 – Solid, the reason Denver was able to win as the Lakers were unable to get a single easy basket most of the fourth quarter