Nuggets vs. Mavericks

It’s tough to quantify how exactly Nuggets fans must feel right now. After the tumultuous lockout-ridden off-season, watching NBA basketball at all yesterday felt like a revelation. But watching the Nuggets — that’s a whole different experience altogether. For most of the people who follow this website, the Nuggets are life, or at least a very important part of life. Each year thousands of fans across the globe dedicate and invest a countless amount of hours into this beloved franchise with the hopes of one day achieving the infamous goal of winning a championship. Though we’ve rigorously debated recently whether this Nuggets squad has the tools necessary to accomplish this feat, there’s no denying that they will at least be as competitive as they have in recent years. Facing the defending champion Dallas Mavericks will be a tall order, especially considering how motivated Dirk and company will be after receiving a beat down from the Miami Heat yesterday, but the Nuggets no doubt have the pieces needed to score a win tonight. If anyone has comments they’d like to post during this long-anticipated season opener, please feel free to post them here and as always, follow Jeremy, Charlie and I on Twitter as we’ll be posting our thoughts there throughout the night. Thanks again, and GO NUGGETS!!!

Denver Nuggets 2011-2012 Schedule Released (UPDATED)

This post is a compilation of analysis and breakdown of 2012 schedule in the hours after it was released. To view the official schedule visit the Nuggets website at NBA.com. If you prefer a printable version of the schedule to reference click here for a link to the PDF. Scroll down to read updates and new developments on all things schedule related.

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An Overly Verbose Denver Nuggets/Oklahoma City Thunder Playoff Preview

The Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder are both teams who benefited significantly from midseason trades.  Each squad tore through the league over the final few weeks of the season and as a result we have had plenty of evidence for what these teams can do.  To make things even more interesting we have two games worth of film to study, with both teams hosting the other late in the season.

The question is how germane were the results of those two games to the playoff series we are about to experience? Denver played both games against the Thunder without their third big, Chris “Birdman” Andersen and starting shooting guard Arron Afflalo.  Obviously Denver is a better team with those two than without them.  Health is certainly going to be a very important theme in this series and we will address those concerns a bit further down the page.

Despite the Nuggets missing some significant pieces I believe both games gave us some fairly significant insights into what to expect from the upcoming best of seven conflagration.

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2010-2011 Game 50 Preview: Utah Jazz

Media Notes – Jazz | Nuggets

According to Chris Tomasson, Deron Williams will return tonight after missing four games with a wrist injury. Early in the season the Jazz were able to field a consistent lineup and took control of first place in the Northwest division. After injuries not only to Deron Williams but also Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur (both won’t play tonight) the Jazz have slipped and actually sit a half game back of the Nuggets currently.

The Jazz are a bit better than average on offense and slightly below average defensively. Jerry Sloan runs a well rounded team with more emphasis on consistency at both ends than anything. As the Nuggets know, what the Jazz do great is attack with plenty of movement. Utah is third in the league in assist ratio and with Deron Williams back they are a force to be reckoned with. Utah is only 2-8 in their last 10, giving up 120 to the Lakers and 115 to the Spurs in that span. Their game plan will likely be centered 100% around slowing down Denver’s attack and trying to keep them under 100.

These teams know each other well and it’s an important division contest for both. It’s likely to be a battle of wills between two teams with vulnerable defenses. Against a tired Blazers team we saw the Nuggets emphasize defense and half court execution versus getting their running attack going. I’d like to see the Nuggets win the rebounding battle again. Denver has fallen flat on their face in their last two “show-up” games against quality opponents San Antonio and the Lakers, where they were blown out and looked horrible. If the Nuggets want to be taken seriously they have to show up for this one.

2010-2011 Game 42 Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

I don’t buy that the Los Angeles Lakers are struggling. They may be vulnerable yes, but that certainly isn’t anything new. No disrespect to San Antonio, but these are still the defending two time champions with the most proven all-star duo in the league. And for my money still the most difficult team to face in a seven game series.

If the Lakers have slipped at all, it’s probably due to miniscule cracks in their foundation of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Kobe’s averaging his fewest points and shot attempts in seven years, but continues with his trademark intensity and leadership as the game’s best winner. Pau Gasol is again contributing all around production at a high level, but occasionally gets passive and flustered in clutch situations. Andrew Bynum’s return has been strong, but stuttered by injury and yet another adjustment for the Laker bench after losing Matt Barnes.

The Laker defense is what makes them dangerous. They try to defend without fouling and run teams off the threes. When the pace gets out of control, they can be prone to giving up too many steals and offensive rebounds. In a frenzied offensive showdown they can be knocked off their normally steady half-court composure.

If Denver can muster enough pride to defend, they have the weapons. Ty Lawson should get whatever he wants against Derek Fisher and Steve Blake. Against San Antonio Melo let Richard Jefferson force him into awful shot selection all night. If that doesn’t change against Artest this won’t be close. Because Denver looks like and acts like a good team at home, they have a great chance against a team they’ve had a vendetta against the past few years.

Update: In preparation for tonight’s game check out this Q & A between Jeremy and Brian Kamenetzky of ESPN Los Angeles.

2010-2011 Game 40 Preview: At San Antonio Spurs

For me, the saddest thing I’ll remember about this golden era of Nuggets ball is the fact they never learned how to win on the road.   It seemed every year they dug a hole and fought uphill the rest of the season. This year more than ever, it’s again a tale of two teams. There is currently no playoff team in either conference with fewer road wins than the Nuggets. They’re tied with Philadelphia at five. It’s why these Nuggets teams were regarded as more flash and flare than actual substance. It’s what separated them from being good most of the time but championship worthy only once.

Having won only 2 of their last 9 road games, the Nuggets look to improve their 5-13 mark away from the Pepsi Center against the 34-6 San Antonio Spurs.   Despite losing to the Spurs in both of their previous matchups, the Nuggets have competed and overall played well against them twice. Had it not been for a controversial, but “correct” charge call on Carmelo Anthony, Denver might have turned a one point loss to a win on December 16th. On December 22nd, had the Nuggets managed to avoid getting outscored 29-14 in a fourth quarter collapse against the zone, they would have had their best win of the season. But almost doesn’t count and finishers finish in this league, which is why San Antonio won both times and shouldn’t fear the road weary Nuggets tonight.

Update: Ty Lawson will play, Birdman is still out. For San Antonio Matt Bonner and James Anderson are out.

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2010-2011 Game 38 Preview: Miami Heat

Despite a tough loss against the emerging LA Clippers last night, the Miami Heat are still rolling. They’ve won 20 of their last 22 games, including 13 out of 14 road contests – clearly still playing like the best in the league. Under normal circumstances, the Denver Nuggets catch their first meeting against them at a pretty favorable time – Miami played a late west coast game last night and travel to Denver with Lebron James questionable due to a sprained ankle.

We all know these are not normal circumstances, but from a purely numbers standpoint the game looks like an intriguing offensive showdown. Miami is 2nd in Offensive Efficiency and Denver is tied for fourth. The Nuggets lead the league in free throw rate with Miami coming in second. Miami is 7th in eFG% with Denver in 9th. The teams are tied for second in True Shooting percentage at 56.8, trailing only the 57.3 TS% of Boston.

Where the teams differ greatly of course is defense and pace. Miami owns the second best defense in the league, but they’re solidly first in effective field goal percentage allowed. They play at a slower pace and are built to stop fast breaking teams trying to beat them at their own game. They don’t allow threes and suffocate you with a methodical half court defense knowing they’re gonna get more foul shots and transition buckets than you by relying on D.

It’ll be interesting to see how Denver defends with Kenyon Martin back and looking as spry as he has all season last game. Him and Arron Afflalo can take some of the defensive workload off of Melo. The Heat are not a deep team, and with Lebron out are going to rely exclusively on Dwyane Wade to create offense. Mike Miller stands to get playing time if Lebron can’t go, but he hasn’t gotten into the rotation since returning from injury and Miami’s not sure how he fits in. If the Nuggets have a chance, they have to do it with smart shot selection and transition defense. If Melo and crew fall into their familiar habits of jogging back on defense while jawing at the officials, this won’t be close. They also need to attack Miami’s bench

Trade winds calm as Suns come to town

Throughout days of speculation and swirling rumors, the Nuggets have consistently held their hand close to the vest and chosen to lay low. It now appears that is also the case for all teams involved in the ongoing trade talks as well. On Tuesday, both the Nets and Nuggets intimated their current rosters will play for the foreseeable future, while the Pistons apparently remain committed and patient to facilitating a possible future deal.

The biggest hurdle to a trade likely centers around the fate of Al Harrington. Signed by Bret Bearup in the final days of Mark Warkentein’s tenure as GM, the 30 year old represents the longest and most expensive salary commitment on the Nuggets books when Carmelo is traded. Considering Wark and Bearup both find themselves ousted from Denver’s plans to reshape the roster, Harrington simply has no value if a new era of youth and reduced spending is to be ushered in. It’s confounding that Denver would ship Chauncey to NJ for mere savings, when Harrington would likely be more willing and a better fit on a 10-27 Nets team with Travis Outlaw as their only backup 4. Denver’s stance that Harrington must be included in any proposal shipping out Chauncey along with Melo is not surprising, and likely to be a major hangup in any deal until ultimately resolved.

In the meantime, the 15-20 Phoenix Suns visit the Pepsi Center tonight as Denver looks to avoid their first 4-game skid in 4 years. While the Suns have been struggling to score the ball recently, Denver may have had more trouble defending. The main story of course is how Carmelo Anthony will be received by a crowd who knows Melo’s inevitable departure could cost Denver a lot more than just him. For a man who wants to be traded, Melo’s seemed strangely surprised he could be getting his wish soon – even going into damage control mode by stating he wouldn’t want Chauncey to have to leave home, but it’s the business of basketball. Business is business, but it’s completely ruined a once-promising season of Denver basketball and Melo can no longer hide behind it to escape his part of the blame.

Merry Christmas Nuggets Fans…and some other thoughts

First of all I’d like to wish a Merry Christmas to RMC’s founder and main man Jeremy Wagner for bringing me on board and running THE best Nuggets blog out there-it’s been a great couple of months and I’m looking forward to many more in the future.

I’d also like to say thank you and Happy Holidays to all of our devoted readers here on Roundball Mining Company. Without you guys all this is just words on a page-here’s to a great 2011 for the Nuggets!

But now for the juicy stuff. A week ago today I had the good fortune of attending the Nuggets-T-Wolves game at the Pepsi Center, and for the first time in my 22 years I got to sit courtside at an NBA game (big shout out to John and Liz Fitzgerald for the seats), right next to Mrs. Chauncey Billups nonetheless! I’ve seen hundreds (probably thousands) of games on TV and many up in the nosebleeds, but let me tell you, if you’ve never seen a game from that up close, you get a chance to appreciate professional basketball like never before.

My girlfriend asked me who she should watch out for on the other team, and I said number 42, aka mister Kevin Love. After dropping a 30-30 game earlier this season, I was hoping for another masterful performance on this night (and a Nuggets victory of course), and he (and the game) did not disappoint. K-Love scored a career-high 43 points to go with 17 boards, but the Wolves rally late fell short and the Nuggets won 115-113, a margin that should have been much larger. No Chauncey, Bird, or K-Mart was disappointing but J.R. had a decent offensive game, Afflalo added 17 and Ty, “The Law”-son was the player of the game, dropping 23 points to go along with 9 dimes and 3 steals. As quick as the guy looks on television, triple it from up close. He had his way with first Luke Ridnour, then Johnny Flynn, getting to the hoop with ease.

But alas, not all was merry on this night, as the Nuggets bigs (especially Nene) were in foul trouble the whole game and were dominated down low by Love and Kosta Koufos. Yes, Kosta Koufos.

Yet the Nuggets did just enough to win, and I will again emphasize a point I made in my last post- this can be an above average NBA team without Carmelo Anthony. If they can get a solid return for Melo, a trade should be the way to go. I know you may want to hold onto those number 15 jerseys for as long as possible, but we have to face the reality that Melo will sign with the Knicks this summer (lockout pending) and that getting nothing in return is not an acceptable end result.

Who Should Denver trade Melo to?

Here’s the rub Nuggets fans. Melo wants to go to New York. New Jersey has the pieces to trade for him but doesn’t want a three-month rental. And the contenders that might (Dallas, Orlando) either don’t have the pieces or won’t part with them. So let’s analyze the possible scenarios:

Melo and Renaldo Balkman to Dallas for Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and Dallas’ 2011 1st-round pick

Looking at this trade on paper it might be as good as the Nuggets could do. Yes it may require another draft pick from Dallas, and yes Denver would probably have to trade either K-Mart or Birdman in a separate trade to free up the frontcourt logjam, but it could work. Dallas adds Melo to an already solid core of Kidd, Nowitzki, Chandler, Terry and Marion and gets rid of Haywood’s contract and uninspired play (and allows youngsters Ian Mahinmi and Alexis Ajinca to see time at backup center). Denver gets a solid starting three to replace Melo (which keeps J.R. as the super-sixth man), and can move Nene to power forward (where he truly belongs) alongside Haywood in the starting lineup.

Melo and Shelden Williams to Chicago for Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver and 2011 1st-round pick

Korver has to be thrown in to make the salaries work, but also gives Denver a three-point shooter off the bench (Korver is much more efficient from downtown than J.R.) that they could throw into another possible trade with K-Mart or Bird. Obviously Nuggets fans would like to see Joakim Noah wear the powder blue and gold but it’s evident that the Bulls will not part with their young center. In this deal the Nugs would get stuck with Deng’s extremely bloated contract, but also get a decent small forward who can score along with another solid player in Gibson who can play at either the 3 or 4 (and is an upgrade over Forbes off the bench). I’d prefer the Dallas trade over this one, but if Chicago offers this before the deadline, Denver might have to take it (if there are no better offers).

Melo to Philadelphia for Andre Iguodala, Darius Songalia and two first-round picks

OR

Melo to New Jersey for Derrick Favors, Troy Murphy and three first-round picks

This is when things get interesting. If you’re Masai Ujiri, would you rather have Igoudala (who becomes the small forward and team headliner for the foreseeable future), Songalia’s $5 million expiring contract (to go along with Smith [$6 million], Martin [$16 million] and possibly Billups [$13 million team option]) and picks, or the young big man in Favors, Murphy’s $11 million expiring deal, and possibly a third first-rounder? I predict New Jersey (who now has five first-round picks in the next two drafts) will throw a third first-rounder in to sweeten their offer, which may end up being as good as Denver will get. It’s either one of these two options, or take 50¢ on the dollar from the Knicks. Which brings us to this:

Melo and Renaldo Balkman to New York for Wilson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Anthony Randolph and Knicks’ 2011 1st-round pick

As each day passes, Nuggets fans get closer and close to this becoming a reality. The Nuggets just don’t have a lot of leverage here (the impending lockout and Melo leaving $65 million on the table being the only reason for Melo to sign an extension) and knowing there’s a 99.9% chance he will bolt to New York this summer, Denver may as well take what they can get from the Knickerbockers. Now, if the Nets can convince Melo to sign an extension with them or the Sixers, Mavs, et al, are interested in a short-term lease then Denver may be able to get a better haul. I just don’t see it happening. Chandler is playing some great ball right now and I see him as a better fit with Denver than Gallinari (who wants to stay in New York); Randolph is getting absolutely no playing time with D’Antoni (surprisingly) and could fill in for Harrington and/or J.R. at the backup forward positions; and Curry’s 500 pound corpse (an exaggeration, but not by much) is clearly a salary dump.

But back to Randolph for a second. If the kid is given a chance, he could pan out to something. Those glimpses of explosiveness he showed at Golden State were not a fluke, and if his mid-range game can stay consistent, he could be a heck of a player. Could be the steal of this trade if given the chance by Coach Karl.

Anyways, hope you all have a great holiday weekend and hopefully the Nugs can pull out a tough road win tonight at the Thunder. Westbrook has been MVP-caliber at the point so far, Durant is on pace to win another scoring title and their role guys (like Collison, Ibaka, Green) do their jobs really well. These two squads always play each other tough and the outcome usually comes down to the wire (who can forget Melo’s game winner in Oklahoma City two years ago). Again, this one could come down to the play of Nene in the post, whose erratic play ranges from All-Star one game to fouling out with a 5 point, 5-rebound line the next (which he did against Minnesota). No Melo tonight, but J.R. should fill the scoring void nicely, and with K-Mart and Chauncey back in the starting lineup, I predict a Nuggets victory with a defensive stop at the finish-here’s hoping that’s not the eggnog talking! 

Raptors Republic Q and A

With the Denver Nuggets preparing to face the Toronto Raptors Sam Holako of the fantastic Raptors blog Raptors Republic invited me to swap some questions and answers.  Below you can find out how Raptors fans feel about Linas Kleiza and what to think about Andrea Bargnani.  You can see my answers to his questions on the futures of Carmelo and Chauncey and what to expect from the game tonight over at Raptors Republic.

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2010-11 Game 1: Denver Nuggets vs Utah Jazz

For all we know Carmelo Anthony could be playing for another team tomorrow, but today the despised Utah Jazz are in town which means the Denver Nuggets will be focused on one thing, taking them out.

The Jazz have made significant changes to their roster, some voluntary, some not.  Gone are Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews  and replacing them are Al Jefferson and Raja Bell.  Some observers believe the Jazz are better.  I am not one of them.

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Denver Nuggets at Utah Jazz – Game Six Preview

The Denver Nuggets face a very tall task. They must win a game in Utah if they are going to keep their season alive. Before the series began, roughly a lifetime ago, I predicted the Nuggets would win in seven games with both teams winning one game on the road. Of course, that was before the injuries to Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur after which I proclaimed Denver would win in five games. In addition to that prediction I also claimed the Jazz would finish the Nuggets off in game five when Denver dropped the previous three games, only to reverse course again prior to tipoff when I claimed the Nuggets would win and force a game six.

File all of that under the if you make enough predictions, one is bound to be right folder.

With all my dirty laundry now exposed, I must say I expect the Jazz to win game six. They have been dominant at home against Denver. The Nuggets really had no shot at winning games three and four, and even in their game five win I did not find Denver’s performance overly impressive. Now add in the loss of Nene for at least game six and Denver certainly has the odds stacked against them.

One thing I do know is all of the talk about Denver being better without Nene is utterly ridiculous. Nene played well in the first two games, and even in games three and four he was able to get to the line, for some reason he was incapable of converting on his many opportunities at a respectable rate, but he still was effective enough to average ten free throws a game. The fact is Denver has struggled with foul trouble when all of their bigs have been available. Things will only be worse with Nene out.

Johan Petro has exceed expectations all season, albeit very low expectations. Petro will have to not only play well, but stay out of foul trouble in game six. Utah is not a team that plays small. Outside of garbage time the Jazz have played a total of about three minutes all series without two big men on the floor. For the most part between Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap and Kyrylo Fesenko two of the three are always on the floor. Asking Carmelo Anthony to guard one of those three in the post will almost assuredly result in Melo committing fouls and Denver needs Melo to be on the floor for at least 42 minutes.

I suspect Kenyon will start out covering Fesenko in order to avoid any early foul trouble from covering Boozer. That will put the onus on Petro to not only keep Boozer from going off, but do so without committing fouls. I am dubious of him being able to accomplish either of those two tasks.

At this point Denver is clearly the underdog. I would recommend they go for broke, set Kenyon on Boozer and hope for the best. If they have to go small, they would be better off with inserting Joey Graham to defend Millsap, there is no way they can go small and expect anyone other than Kenyon, Birdman or Petro to handle Boozer. Melo cannot cover Millsap without fouling and Melo does not need any help in picking up fouls. There is the possibility of doubling to assist Carmelo in defending Millsap, but Denver has struggled to handle Utah when they play them straight up. I shudder to think what Utah might do to them should Denver voluntarily get out of position. Even so, Denver might have no choice other than use Carmelo at the four. The good news is Millsap cannot handle Melo either, however, Millsap is more adept at avoiding foul trouble than Melo has been, though Millsap did foul out in game four.

The bottom line is with the current state of Kenyon and Birdman’s health I do not think you can get more than 65 minutes of floor time between the two of them. That leaves roughly 30 minutes that will need to be picked up by Petro and others. Yes, you can expect a Malik Allen sighting. This is going to be a serious problem for Denver and it increases the degree of difficulty for a win in game six substantially.

Obviously, Denver must have another strong performance from Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith on offense. Utah is going to put points on the board and Denver will have to match. I am encouraged by the way J.R. Smith played on Wednesday. If he continues to play his new brand of unselfish ball where he drives to set up teammates and picks his spots from behind the arc, he can be a game changer. Ty Lawson is going to have to create easy opportunities in transition and generally create havoc in the half court.

As far as intangibles, Deron Williams has been consistently amazing and he has yet to have a poor shooting night. Maybe he is due for one. He cannot keep shooting over 50% from the field and from behind the arc all series can he? Utah will be highly motivated to close out the Nuggets and you kind of got the sense they did not feel the urgency to win game five that they will for game six. Also, after the Nuggets enjoyed a significant advantage at the free throw line we can expect a backlash in that area as well as the natural swing in that area that will come about by switching the venue to Salt Lake City. Also, the Jazz had a very poor shooting night from Kyle Korver. The chances of that happening again are remote. The Jazz will undoubtedly perform better shooting off of screens.

The only intangible I can reach for from the Nuggets’ point of view is Melo has really been working hard to prove he is a star player and will not get bumped from the first round again, although his effort to carry Denver in game four came up a bit short. Still, if he plays like he did in game four and gets some help from his talented supporting cast, Denver can win.

That is right, I said Denver can win, I just do not find a victory to be very likely. The lack of big man depth is going to cause a myriad of issues. If the Nuggets find themselves behind by double digits in the second or third quarter, as has been their wont in the other two games in Utah, will they possess the determination and heart to fight back, or will they fold up the tent and write the season off as a nightmare that can only end by starting a new day?

Every game is an opportunity to prove yourself and when the buzzer sounds on game six, we will know exactly what this Nuggets team is made of.

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The Denver Nuggets versus the Utah Jazz 2010 NBA Playoff Preview

As a good Denver Nuggets fan I am sure you thoroughly dislike the Utah Jazz. It is not difficult to come up with a reason or four. The silly nickname, the we have nothing else to cheer for fans who shriek to the heavens over any call that goes against their team regardless of how correct the call was, the fact they think they have better skiing there than in Colorado and worst of all, the years of putting up with a dominant Jazz team that pounded the Nuggets for years thanks to Stockton and Malone.

Things have changed in the Era of Melo. Denver has been able to get the better of the Jazz more often than not since Carmelo Anthony rode into town on a light blue steed. This is the seventh straight season Denver has made the playoffs and they have now won three of the last five division championships (guess who won the other two). While they have battled each other for division titles and playoff positioning, these two Stalwarts of the Mountain Time Zone rarely face off in the postseason. They have only faced off in the playoffs one other time in the past 25 seasons. In 1994 the Jazz defeated the upstart Nuggets, fresh off their upset of the top seeded Seattle Supersonics, four games to three.

After a 16 year hiatus it is time to shift this cantankerous regular season rivalry into a full blown throwing things around the house and making the neighbors wonder if they should call 911 playoff conflagration.

These two teams are very evenly matched. “How evenly matched are they?” you ask. They have finished each of the previous two seasons with identical records with the Nuggets earning the tie breaker both times. The Jazz have been better over the second half of the season, but thanks to a 3-1 series win in the regular season Denver has the advantage of up to four games on their home court. Both teams are dealing with injuries with Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer nicked up for the Jazz and Kenyon Martin still recovering from patella tendinitis. All three are currently expected to play in game one, but if any one of the three is unable to perform up to the standard they have set for themselves it will be difficult to overcome.

At this point I think it is safe to expect both teams to have all of their players available as we enter the series. The fact that back to back games are now a thing of the past will help Kirilenko, Boozer and Martin continue to recover and get stronger as the series wears on.

Neither team has been particularly good defensively although neither is as bad as Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns made them look in their respective season ending blowouts. I think there is evidence that neither coach feels particularly comfortable with where his team is defensively as can be evidenced by the Nuggets desperate attempt to switch screens against the Suns and the Jazz playing a leaky zone.

I think we can expect to see the Nuggets play the Jazz as straight up as possible. The Jazz have the reputation of being a pick and roll team, but they are a team that sets a bevy of picks on every possession and force you to pay close attention to your man and worry about who might be coming free for an open shot. Denver has better this season helping on screens and cuts away from the ball, than figuring out how to stop the pick and roll. It will be interesting to see if the Jazz play more pick and roll to exploit Denver’s weakness or if they stick to their regular game plan and work to out execute Denver. I would expect the Nuggets to attempt to defend the pick and roll the same way they did against San Antonio and Memphis towards the end of the regular season. Denver did not switch ball screens much against Utah this season and seeing as how that is such a passive strategy I do not expect to see them begin to do so now.

However, the Jazz get most of their shots off of cuts either to the lane or directly at the rim. Williams does not shoot very often driving off a ball screen. If he cannot get the ball to the roll man, he will look to kick out if the defense is collapsing, or simply pass in order to set himself up to run off a screen where he likes to catch and shoot midrange jumpers.

From a personnel standpoint you can expect to see Arron Afflalo start out covering Deron Williams with Chauncey covering C.J. Miles. Afflalo will have to fight over the screens set by the large frontcourt players the Jazz can throw at you. Nene will start out on Boozer leaving Kenyon to cover the much larger Mehmet Okur.

Utah has had success running on Denver and it will be important for the Nuggets to limit easy baskets in transition. You can expect the Jazz to be aggressive in transition, they know Denver struggles in that area and will attempt to take advantage of it. They will not be afraid of a fast paced game.

On the other end of the floor Utah will attempt to have Kirilenko cover Carmelo one on one. Andrei is not the defender he once was and you can expect to see him sag off of Melo to defend against the drive and hope his length will allow him to challenge a jump shot. With AK-47 laying off the Jazz will probably not pre-rotate any help to Melo’s side of the floor and there have been times where I was very surprised to see how little concern the Jazz have shown for Melo’s ability to get to the rim. When Kirilenko is not in the game you can expect to see Utah double Melo mixing their looks up between immediate hard doubles and waiting until he puts the ball on the floor before sending the extra defender.

You can score on the Utah Jazz. If you are patient, move without the ball and share you can get almost any shot you want. It was impressive to watch Phoenix pass the ball five, six or seven times in order to get the defense moving and earn wide open looks, one after the other. It will be crucial for Denver to play with purpose. Utah will try to close off the lane and get Denver to shoot jumpers. If the Nuggets fall into that trap, which they have on a regular basis as of late, it will make for a frustrating series. On the other hand if the Nuggets work the ball around and cut the Jazz will struggle to stop them.

Little needs to be said about the coaching matchup as Jerry Sloan has won more Western Conference Championships than Adrian Dantley has coached playoff games. At this point I trust Dantely has committed to Ty Lawson as the backup point guard and will relegate Anthony Carter to the cushy folding chairs. It will be very interesting to see if either coach will be able to dictate lineups to the other. Dantley loves going small, but asking Carmelo to cover Carlos Boozer or even Paul Milsap is a disaster waiting to happen. Still, Boozer or Milsap would have an even more difficult time with Melo. If the size of the Jazz can relegate the Nuggets’ small lineups to a regular season memory it will be significant. On the other hand should Denver be able to force the issue with a smaller lineup it will be a boon for the Nuggets as they absolutely hold an edge over the Jazz in both quality and quantity of guards and swingmen.

Finally we can move on to the individual matchups where we start off with the Jazz big men. Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur are a difficult matchup for many teams. Okur is the larger man, but has the tremendous outside game that is vexing for opposing bigs who do not want to venture out 24 feet from the rim. However, if you put a smaller defender, such as Kenyon Martin, on Okur he can use his size advantage of score on the block. If Okur can have success against Kenyon on the block Denver will have to start doubling him and that will open up the floor for the cutters to slice and dice the defense for easy baskets.

I like the matchup between Nene and Boozer for Denver. Nene has the size, strength and quickness to contain Boozer. Plus I think Nene can drive by Boozer at will if he faces him up, or he can spin around him with his back to the basket. Chris “Birdman” Andersen is not a great fit to cover either one as he prefers to be in the paint than on the perimeter guarding Okur and Boozer is crafty enough not to let Birdman block his shot when he gets good position. The entire Jazz squad does a pretty solid job of throwing a ball fake or pump fake at their defender so Andersen will have to be ready for that.

As mentioned above, Utah will attempt to have Kirilenko cover Carmelo. I do not think it will end well for Kirilenko who is no longer quick enough to stay in front of Anthony, but seems to lack the explosiveness he used to have as a shot blocker.

J.R. Smith and Ty Lawson bring speed and quickness the Jazz cannot match. Both have had big games scoring and distributing this season against Utah. While I think Carmelo Anthony will be the best player in the series, I think Denver’s biggest advantage is the firepower they have on the bench in J.R. and Lawson. Still, the pressure remains on J.R. to not just shoot, but use his penetration and passing abilities to get his teammates easy looks at the rim. He has been particularly effective running pick and roll against Utah and dropping his smooth bounce pass to the rolling big.

Lawson had perhaps his two best games against the Jazz this season and I expect him to continue to fluster Utah’s guards with his speed and quickness. Ronnie Price is a nice player, but should not be much of a match for Lawson when Ty has the ball.

Of course Chauncey will be a big factor in the series. The less the Nuggets can have him stuck guarding Williams the better, but he will be up to the task when necessary. Hopefully Billups can curtail his Mr. Big Shot tendencies and demand an unselfish effort on offense.

Ultimately, I think there was a reason why Denver won the season series from Utah this season. I think they are the better team. However, that margin is razor thin. The Nuggets will certainly miss George Karl, but hopefully now that he is done with his treatment he can provide a little boost of moral. Still, I am a little disappointed Denver has been more distracted by the coaching situation than motivated by it. Even so, I think home court will loom large in this series although both teams are capable of stealing a game on the other’s floor.

In the end the Nuggets’ talent, athleticism and desire to push further into the postseason than they did last season will carry the day and Denver dispatches the Jazz in seven hard fought and entertaining games. And at the end, you will so despise the Jazz you will want to punch Branford Marsalis in the face.

The Denver Nuggets Take Care of the Memphis Grizzlies, the Phoenix Suns Await

The Denver Nuggets 123-101 blowout win over the Memphis Grizzlies had a kind of preseason feel to it. It was Kenyon Martin’s second game back from injury and he is still working his way into shape (although he needed the practice, I was relieved we did not have to watch him try to shoot free throws again). The Nuggets seem to be working their way through a transition from switching ball screens to a combination of hedge and recover and trapping the ball handler. As a team Denver had been struggling to get to the line at the rate they are accustomed to and the offense seemed to be not only stuck between first and second gear, but the clutch was grinding like drunks at a dance club.

In many ways the contest with the Grizzlies was simply a tune up for the big matchup against the Phoenix Suns that could decide the fate of the Nuggets season.

After a shaky first quarter that saw Memphis exploit some minor defensive breakdowns in defending the pick and roll and failing to aggressively rebound numerous misses by the Grizzlies, the pieces stated falling together.

Defensively, Denver began to tighten up the pick and roll defense. The lane was successfully sealed off and thanks to some aggressive trapping the Nuggets started forcing turnovers. Turnovers lead to a plethora of fast break points and for the first time in weeks the Denver Nuggets began to resemble the team that was the favorite to finish second in the West and challenge the Lakers.

On offense, Nene was fed early and often and he delivered in a big way. On the heels of his thee point two rebound stink bomb against the Spurs Nene tied a career high by fighting his way to the line 14 times and he made 12, which surpassed his old career high of ten. Denver was able to get the ball in the lane thanks to displaying much more patience on offense than they had in the previous several games combined. J.R. Smith found his shooting stroke, at least temporarily, as he made four threes in the first half and for the first time in five games the people of Colorado can get four tacos for a dollar and the purchase of a drink at participating Taco Bells as the Nuggets finally broke the 100 point barrier.

While it was good to see the Nuggets surge to an easy win they now face a red hot team in Phoenix. As I noted after the loss to the Spurs the Nuggets are making progress in the quality of their pick and roll defense (including video evidence) thanks to both a change in tactics as well as increased effort and focus. Now the real test comes in the form of Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire.

I have long thought the Suns provided the most difficult matchup for Denver this season thanks to their abilities to run the pick and roll, make threes and score in transition. The question is will the two game crash course refresher course the Nuggets just completed against San Antonio and Memphis on how to properly play pick and roll defense be enough. Can Denver really execute their hedge and recover and/or trapping scheme against the best pick and roll point guard in the world?

Despite their improvement against Memphis, Mike Conley lit Denver up for 18 first half points, all of which came off of ball screens or transition, suggesting the Nuggets will still have problems dealing with Nash. The flip side of that coin is Denver was clearly more worried about Zach Randolph than Conley in the first half and after shifting their focus in the second half Conley was held to only four points. The Nuggets will be focusing on Nash from the second they set foot in Phoenix, but Conley is clearly not Steve Nash. The Nuggets must do better.

In addition to the difference between Conley and Nash, Memphis does not have a player who is in any way comparable to Amare. No big in the league is as dangerous rolling to the basket than Amare, largely thanks to the artistry of Nash. One way to prevent Amare from catching the ball in the lane with a head of steam is pressure on the ball. The Nuggets did a good job of forcing bad passes against Memphis, but Nash will not be as easy to fluster. In addition to pressuring the ball handler, Denver must have weak side help to make sure any pass intended for Amare is challenged. What they cannot do is just stand behind him because that is a surefire way to give up an and-one.

If you can manage to keep Nash out of the lane, prevent him from getting an open jumper and shield him from passing the ball to Amare, you still must worry about Jason Richardson, Channing Frye and Jared Dudley. They are all deadly thee point marksmen and if you can manage to slow the pick and roll, your recovery and rotations must be crisp and instantaneous to prevent open three point attempts.

I feel confident Denver can trap Nash, I feel slightly less confident they can keep him from passing to Amare in the lane, I am highly dubious of their ability to do both of those things and prevent Phoenix from earning those deadly opportunities from behind the arc.

I have said it before and I will say it again. Phoenix is the one team who can go toe to toe with Denver and win a Wild West shootout. That being said, they really do not have any player who is capable of handling Carmelo Anthony. Jason Richardson is too small, Dudley is too slow and Grant Hill is too old. Carmelo must be aggressive going to the basket and Denver has to take advantage of the fact Robin Lopez will not be patrolling the paint. Plus Amare has been known to get into foul trouble and if Denver can bait him into committing some early fouls it could change the complexion of the game significantly.

The other factor in the Suns favor is Denver will be playing their fifth game in seven days on Tuesday. The last time Denver played in that situation they were demolished in Dallas. There is a difference between those five games in late March and these five. Denver has only had to fly twice as their last three contests have all been in Denver. That should surely help prevent the kind of fatigue that plagued them against the Mavericks. It also helped that no player had to be on the floor for more than 33 minutes because of the nature of the Memphis game. Still, five games in seven nights is draining for anyone and Phoenix has a distinct advantage because of it.

I will add one other note and that is look out for Anthony Carter. At first I was thrilled that Ty Lawson received all the minutes backing up Chauncey until I realized that Adrian Dantley was quite possibly saving Carter’s legs for the Suns game. If that turns out to be the case, it will make things ever more difficult for Denver should their point guard who is best suited for a fast paced game and is the best pick and roll defender out of the three ends up watching the game while AC is on the court.

The Nuggets may have blown their chance to win the division, earn the third seed and possibly match up with a Portland team who suffered yet another injury, this time to Brandon Roy, by losing at home to the Spurs. Still, all it will take to redeem themselves is one final herculean effort in game 82. They have the talent and ability to beat the Suns in Phoenix. Their fate is in their own hands.

For some insights on the Phoenix Suns check out Valley of the Suns and be sure to stop by Bright Side of the Sun as well.

Nuggets/Grizzlies Box Score | Highlights | Thee Shades of Blue

Nuggets/Raptors Q & A with Raptors Republic

Heading into what has become the first must win game of the season I had the opportunity to get the lowdown on what is going on north of the border with Sam Holako of the sensational blog Raptors Republic.

Roundball Mining Company: The Raptors are 3-7 since Chris Bosh returned from his ankle injury.  Is that record indicative of the quality of the team or are they just in a slump right now?

Sam: It’s indicative of the quality of team. The Raptors have assembled a group of quality scorers, but they can’t defend to save their lives. Turkoglu has been a bust, and Bargnani has seen his production actually drop as the season has progressed (and has admitted to being lazy, swear to God). There is no commitment to defense, and it just seems as though people are going through the motions. They weren’t as bad as how they started the season (7-13), or as good as when they went on that tear up until the All-Star game (22-10), or as bad since the All-Star game (6-12); they are somewhere in the middle (give or take a game or two) and are on pace to finish right around where they should be, in the low 40 win range.

RMC: Jose Calderon was supposed to be the Nash to Bosh’s Stoudemire.  While some of his statistics compare favorably to Nash he seems to be on the downside of his career at the age of 28.  Are his struggles simply due to injury or is he no longer the player he was just a season ago?

Sam: He’s exactly the same player. With the additions of Turkoglu and Jack, he no longer has to produce as much on offense, since the three share the playmaking load. This has translated into less minutes, so his numbers are down. On a per 36min basis though, his numbers are almost the same as last season, so he’s producing at the same rate per minute. Simply put, Jose was overrated last season, and underrated this one. Full stop.

RMC: The Denver Nuggets traded Sonny Weems this offseason and he ended up on the Raptors. Weems was the lone youngster with potential on the Nuggets last season and his progress in the D-League and performance during Summer League was big doings amongst Nuggets fans.  I always thought he had the midrange game and athleticism to be a rotation player and he is getting minutes in Toronto.  Does he have a future in Toronto?

Sam: He definitely has a future here, and in fact, many folks think he should be our starting shooting guard. I personally think his energy and talent are better suited as that spark coming off the bench, which is his role now. His mid-range game has been a pleasant surprise, but his willingness to attack the rim every chance he gets, and his crashing of the boards are what will give him a career in the league if you ask me. He’s easily one of the best deals in the NBA when you consider he gets paid $736k.

RMC: Zach Harper wrote a fantastic comparison of Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh that was posted on Raptors Republic Thursday.  I know Raptors fans want to see Bosh play for a winner in Toronto, but are the fans nearing the point Timberwolves fans reached with KG where they practically wanted him to leave so he could be free from the organization that constantly failed him?  If he signs somewhere else this offseason, will fans hold it against him?

Sam: If he signs elsewhere this summer, the fans will hold it against them for the rest of his playing career; much like how they do with Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter (VC played himself out of this team, he didn’t leave – although he would have if he was a UFA). The Raptor fans that want him to leave, are the few who (incorrectly) think that Bosh isn’t worthy of a max deal, and can’t lead this team to post-season success. The rest of us (myself included) are a selfish lot who want him to stay here forever because we can’t stomach watching a team headlined by Bargnani,  flanked by an aging Turkoglu and an overrated Calderon.

Make sure you swing by Raptors Republic to see my answers to Sam’s intriguing questions.  Both of these teams are struggling right now so we will find a little something out about both of them tonight.

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