Nuggets Found Wanting in Game 1

In the Denver Nuggets’ attempt to turn conventional wisdom on its head, score one for conventional wisdom.  After posting exceptional offensive efficiency numbers early in the game, weathering a furious charge in the second and third quarters, and batting tooth and nail in the fourth Denver found themselves leading the Thunder 101-100 with three minutes left.  They would not make another basket the rest of the night.

The only way the Nuggets’ closer by committee would fail was if either no one was hot or if some player tried to force becoming hot.  Well, There was certainly no hot player the Nuggets could turn to.  Instead of attempting to earn a good look by passing and cutting the Nuggets tried to force something out of their bread and butter, the pick and roll.

The final few possessions following Gallo’s nice jumper went like this:

  • Felton runs pick and roll with Nene, misses a contested floater in the lane.
  • Felton runs pick and roll with Nene, misses a forced contested layup.
  • Gallinari runs pick and roll with Nene, faced with a switch by Kendrick Perkins he dribbles out of bounds.
  • After a timeout, which was preceded by what was almost another Gallo turnover as he fumbled a pass, Felton runs pick and roll with Nene, kicks out to Kenyon who misses an open 22 footer (although Kenyon had to shoot with only 3 seconds left on the shot clock).
  • After a timeout they ran a crossing route for Lawson who was supposed to come off two screens across the court and catch the ball on the right wing.  Westbrook jumped it closing off the passing lane and after some confusion they ran a hand off between Nene and Felton, Felton missed a quasi-open 3 badly with three Thunder players in the vicinity.
  • After a timeout Gallo was held on hand off attempt from Nene and Danilo made both free throws.
  • Down four with time expiring J.R. misses shot at the buzzer.

There was confusion and forced shots.  The team seemed to struggle executing the plays drawn up in the huddle after timeouts and they seemed a little too content to run the clock forcing them into shots such as Kenyon’s ill-fated 22 footer when the shot clock was running down.

The Thunder on the other hand rode the hot hand of the player most expected to win the MVP before the season started as Kevin Durant showed his ability to make shots regardless of how little space he has to shoot or how far from the rim he is.  Durant poured in 25 second half points converting 9-13 from the floor and 4-4 from the line.  Combined with Russell Westbrook’s 21 point first half it was enough to carry the Thunder past the increasingly sloppy and discombobulated Nuggets.

After re-watching the game through the power of Synergy it confirmed my belief that the Nuggets actually did a pretty good job on Westbrook.  He was not allowed free access to the lane and scored his points on long jumpers, the weakest aspect of his game.  If the Thunder need Westbrook to play like that every night, it bodes well for Denver.

Regarding Durant, I was surprised the Nuggets chose to cover Durant straight up all night.  They did very little switching and when they did it was a matter of trying to get a better defender on him, not by design.  He was able to get in a very smooth rhythm and Denver did nothing to try to get him out of it.

The Nuggets who took turns checking the Wiry Bomber included Wilson Chandler, Gallinari, Martin and Felton.  It seemed to me that as expected Chandler did the best against Durant as he was most effective of playing with some physicality and pushing KD a little further from the hoop than he would typically like to be, but Chandler did not do so with enough consistency to make a difference.

The bad news for Denver was they were able to get Durant to settle for numerous long jumpers, especially in the second half, and Westbrook was kept out of the lane and off the line plus the two supporting cast provided very little help with only Eric Maynor making a major impact from a scoring standpoint and the Thunder still won.

The good news is while the rest of the Thunder players will surely provide more of a boost in the future, it is difficult to fathom Durant and Westbrook doing this game after game.

Offensively the Nuggets failed completely in two areas I projected they must succeed in to win this series.  First on everyone’s mind is the horrific free throw shooting.  I would like to know what the coaching staff has done to try to solve this problem.  I believe a practice full of nothing other than long sprint sessions followed by free throw shooting sessions followed by long springing sessions followed by more free throw shooting sessions followed by more running and free throw shooting would be in order.  Denver converted on only 21 of 33 free throws and every one of those misses was a killer in such a tight game.

The other area Denver must improve on is their three point shooting.  Denver made only ten of 30 three point attempts in the two previous post trade contests versus the Thunder.  That must improve and early in the game the Nuggets looked like they had their eye from behind the arc back.  Gallinari and Chandler each made shots from downtown in the first 2:08 and when Al Harrington converted a three from the corner on Denver’s second possession of the second quarter the Nuggets matched their biggest lead of 13.  It would also be the final three point shot Denver would make all night going 0-11 over the final 35 minutes of the game.

The biggest difference in the game, and possibly the series, was the Thunder made an important half time adjustment on how they defended Ty Lawson.  They pre-rotated help to his side when he had the ball, whether there was a screen waiting or not.  As a result he did not have much room to operate and he grew passive.  By the end of the game Lawson was a mere afterthought and much of the offense was initiated by Felton.   As notated above in our recounting of the final three minutes, Felton was not sharp finishing the fourth quarter having made only one of his five attempts.

Even when Karl drew up an out of bounds play for Lawson, the Thunder bracketed him off the screens to prevent him from getting the ball.  Denver was hurt by Lawson’s passive response to the way he was defended.  Most players who have a play of that significance drawn up for them will circle back and do whatever they can to get the ball.  On that play it was Felton who reacted that way as Lawson stood along the sideline waiting for someone else to make a play.

Regardless of the situation Lawson must be more aggressive in gashing the OKC defense.  Even if help is ready, he is quick enough to exploit the gaps between defenders and he is the lone Nugget who can force the Thunder to overcommit players and open up the floor for everyone else.  Denver also fell into the trap of running one pick and roll and if it did not work the possession turned into a mad scramble.  As I pointed out in my preview the Nuggets need to be more patient and run some action or even a first pick and roll to soften up the defense where they can reverse the ball and hit the Thunder with another pick and roll.

As long as Lawson allows himself to be taken out of the action Denver will struggle to keep up with OKC.  Did I sufficiently pound that point into the ground?

All in all, it was a great effort by the Nuggets and they certainly made a good showing against a very good team on the road.  My primary concern at this point is after Denver had such a great start to the game only to see the Thunder roar back and pull out a third straight win that OKC may have placed significant doubts in the heads of the Nuggets.  I believed this was a crucial game for Denver to avoid such a scenario.  However, as long as Denver can pull off a win in game two, they should be fine as I expect them to play well in Denver as long as they are not demoralized.

Additional Nuggets

  • Denver needs to take Eric Maynor and Daequan Cook more seriously when they are in the game.  Maynor has killed Denver in two of their last three matchups and Cook has gotten too many open looks including a momentum swinging three in the second quarter that put an end to Denver’s double digit lead for good.
  • There has been a lot of talk about how much Arron Afflalo could help on Durant and Westbrook.  I do not think Afflalo will be any better on Durant than Chandler, but he could help provide more length against Westbrook although it would create a bit of a defensive mismatch on whoever OKC has playing shooting guard.  As I stated earlier though, I did not think Lawson and Felton did a poor job against him.  Westbrook knows he can rise up and shoot over either one and that is the shot Denver wants him to shoot.
  • Denver did not run at all in the second half despite Karl imploring them to do so.
  • There was a great deal of consternation about Wilson Chandler not being on the floor in place of Kenyon Martin on the dreadful final possession, but credit the Thunder with forcing Denver into a bad shot.  Had the play worked as designed Kenyon would have been closer to the rim in position to finish off a dump off pass or on a put back.  Chandler displayed some very poor shot selection after hitting his first two jumpers and I do not see any reason why Karl should have felt the need to reinsert him on such a vital possession.
  • The NBA admitted on Monday that the game winning basket was indeed illegal to which I pull out a phrase from my childhood, “no duh.”  The funny thing is during the broadcast the TNT crew gave credit for the basket to Westbrook because it was so obvious that if Perkins did indeed touch it that it was offensive interference.  As difficult as that play was to swallow if Denver does not break down offensively, it would not have mattered one bit.

Advanced Stats

Pace Factor: 93.2 – The second half was played at a much slower pace than the first, 89.0 to 97.3, which was beneficial to OKC with Durant dominating the Nuggets halfcourt defense. Neither team ran much with both earning a mere nine fast break points and there were plenty of possessions that went deep into the shot clock.
Defensive Efficiency: 114.8 – This is more a reflection of how good KD and Westbrook were.  Denver’s defense was not that bad, but regardless of what kind of night your opponent is having, you need to get stops. The Nuggets did pretty well down the stretch holding the Thunder to one legitimate basket and one illegitimate one over the final 3:25.
Offensive Efficiency: 110.5 – By far the best showing of the three recent games against OKC.  Denver should be able to score on OKC, especially once they start making their free throws and threes.

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  • DHinNYC

    I have to agree with Karl. That horrendous no-call on a hand-in-freakin-net goaltend put Denver in a terrible funk and shook OKC out of a cold spell. Karl should have called a timeout at that point, as he admitted. Three players were ranting to the refs one second and botching their execution the next. It was a serious momentum shift. And I know this sounds ridiculous but I tend to think we win if the right call is made there. Why not allow replays on those pivotal calls in the last minute of the game?

    I couldn’t help but think at the time that this devastating non-call and the absurd “respect for the game” technical on Felton, were perfect examples of the Scorecasting theory that home-court advantage is mostly based on favorable officiating. That the energy of the crowd has a subconscious effect on the referees’ subjective decisions.

  • nordmoose

    “No duh.” … pulling out the phrase from your childhood?
    Jeremy, my Nuggets-fan and roundball comrade…tell me it’s not true. Tell me you don’t use that more regularly than it just being a phrase you only rarely “pull out” from your childhood!
    “No duh.” needs life, my friend! It’s as applicable today as ever! Let it out; shout it out! The odds of there being increasing opportunities to which it’s applicable are great!

    “No duh.”

    The Nuggets were close, all things considered. The FT shooting *absolutely. drives. me. CRAZY*. Three+ hours of wind-sprints and free throws is a minimum.
    “No duh.”
    The missed call sucks but it’s no excuse. At all.
    “No duh.”
    The Nuggets could’ve and should’ve but didn’t. Period.
    “No duh.”

    I really don’t mind having dropped that first one. Would have rocked getting it but I don’t think it puts the team in a significantly bad position. As well as the already-inducted Hall’o’Famers KD and Westbrook played, with a bit more ‘head’ and execution, that game doesn’t get away from the powder-blue. I think the fans and the Thunder have that in the back of their minds. It may not be a crushing defeat but I think the Nuggets take it tomorrow and head Mile High tied 1-1 for the series.

    “No duh.”

    Go Nuggets!

  • Kalen

    Agree entirely about the free throw thing. Karl has got to acknowledge that he can do something about it, and even doing what you suggest Jeremy, would at least pound into the players heads the concept that free throw shooting does indeed matter. Thing is, Karl just isn’t that type of coach. You mention the pick-and-rolls, well, that’s a direct outcome of the type of offense Karl runs. There are not many plays in our playbook and as fun as it makes the game to watch, during crucial stretches of the game it can come back to bite us in the ass. That many pick-and-rolls towards the end of the game is just inexcusable. It makes our offense predictable for the other team and limits our chances of making a basket.

    Here’s my little theory: Game 2 is going to tell is a hell of a lot more than Game 1. How we bounce back matters WAY more than how we played in the first game. If we can go back to Denver with the series even: mission accomplished. Plus, once in Denver I see the Thunder struggling. We’re one of the best home teams in the entire league and play like we’re possessed half the time at the Can. I don’t see any way even if we win Game 2, that OKC wins Game 3, but that’s just my opinion.

  • Tom

    Up with less than a minute left in the game on the road against one of the hottest teams in the league and losing because of a missed goal-tending call is not much cause for concern. We missed too many FTs (again) and OKC made tough shots all night, and still, if that goal-tending call is made, we probably win. Personally, I wouldn’t change much for the game Wednesday. I would take the game we played on Sunday (with maybe a better FT %) 9 times out of 10. There is no way OKC will shoot like that again in this series (regression to the mean).

    I predict that Westbrook will be over-confident from this game, and start to take more possessions away from Durant; if Durant finishes with a higher usage rate than Westbrook in the next game, I will be very surprised. Lawson should be able to frustrate Westbrook with his offense, and if he does, Denver will win on Wednesday.

  • Luke

    I just needed to say that George Karl is a jackass of a coach and doesn’t know what he has in JR Smith. Smith should DEMAND a trade ASAP to get away from this dog shit coaching staff so he stops wasting his golden basketball years. He got like 8 minutes tonight and he is BY FAR the nicest offensive player the nuggets have. Gallinari is worthless in the playoffs, K Mart look like he just straight gave up, Chandler was like 0 of 7, Nene is terrific at the free throw line, and George Karl will consistently sub all their wack asses in the game, but not JR Smith because he might have a little “attitude and off the court issues”. My opinion- I would have an attitude problem too if I was the best player on my team comin off the bench and gettin the shaft by a horrible coaching staff.

    JR- GET OUT OF HERE! They will never let you fulfill your true potential.