The Denver Nuggets suffered a heart breaking 103-94 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in game five of the Western Conference Finals, the question we will not know for a another couple of days is if it was a back breaking loss as well.
The sad thing is it was Denver’s game to lose. After going up 71-64 and 7:23 remaining in the third quarter Denver crumbled like a week old muffin.
The Nuggets would only score 23 more points over the final 19:23. Conversely during that span the Lakers poured in 39 points flipping a seven point deficit into a nine point victory. Denver was able to maintain their seven point lead for a couple more minutes, but turned the ball over on four straight possessions over 1:20 allowing the Lakers to tie the game at 73. Denver would never recover.
Los Angeles, lead by the team play of Kobe Bryant and the determination of Lamar Odom, played with a great deal of intensity on defense and unselfishness on offense. The Nuggets on the other hand struggled with their communication on defense, a big point of emphasis in training camp, and turned more and more individualistic on offense.
The one Nuggets player who tried to will Denver to a victory was Carmelo Anthony. He did his best to carry the team on his shoulders as he ferociously attacked the rim over and over in the fourth quarter, but only had a gaggle of missed shots, a few free throws and some bumps and bruises to show for it.
The biggest problem with Melo’s attacking style was the Nuggets did nothing to set it up. Instead of getting Melo the ball off of a reversal and forcing the defense to try to stop him after getting out of formation from ball movement Denver just fed Melo the ball and forced him to go into the teeth of the defense.
The Lakers deserve credit for doing a great job of packing the paint and the referees were allowing contact in the lane, but Denver made it possible with their unimaginative offense.
At the other end of the floor the Lakers were doing all the things Denver was not and as a result they earned much easier looks.
The Nuggets displayed some defensive incompetence as well from time to time. It was not uncommon to see a Laker player standing alone awaiting a pass for an easy shot. The final example of that incompetence came with just over a minute remaining and Denver down 96-91. Chauncey doubled Pau in the post which required J.R. to rotate to Fisher and Kleiza onto Kobe. Kobe drove a step past Kleiza and Carmelo came over to help. At that point Kleiza retreated over to Ariza, but Melo expecting LK to stay with Kobe backed off as well. This left Kobe wide open for a dagger three, but instead of taking the shot he fired a diagonal pass across the court to Odom. Chauncey had switched onto Odom in all the rotating that took place, but was caught staring at Kobe as he rose for his shot. By the end of the sequence neither Chauncey nor Melo were guarding anyone, but Kleiza was partly to blame as well. The Lakers did not do anything complicated it was just another example of poor or no communication on defense.
However, my biggest question for game one is where was Chauncey? Billups had nine points in the first nine minutes. It appeared we were in for one of his big games, but he completely disappeared in the second half and finished with a mere 12 points.
Chauncey’s second half numbers read like this: 1-3 shooting, all three point attempts, one rebound, three assists, two steals, two turnovers and two fouls. Three points and three assists with two turnovers in what may prove to be the biggest half of the Nuggets’ NBA franchise history. Shannon Brown deserves credit for the defense he played on Chauncey, but a player like Billups cannot disappear in this setting with so much on the line.
Chauncey did deal with a little bit of foul trouble as he was called for his second foul with 2:23 left in the first quarter and had to come out of the game. Chauncey typically plays the entire first quarter so that change in routine may have affected him. Plus that second foul was on a play where he was aggressively attacking the basket on a 2-1 fast break. Chauncey brought his right knee up to jump as is typical, but when he made contact with Trevor Ariza and his knee got caught up on Ariza’s chest. The contact made it look like Chauncey lead with his knee when all he was doing was jumping in a very natural motion. I understand why the call was made, but it was unfortunate nonetheless.
If there is good news out of the game five loss it is that Denver still has two opportunities to prove they are the better team and deserve to be in the finals. As long as the Nuggets win at home in game six they can earn a game seven where even though the home team typically wins, anything is possible.
Additional WCF Game 5 Nuggets
Next Gasol misses the free throw, but instead of stepping back into Lamar Odom to get as much space for the rebound as possible, Chris Andersen just steps forward into the lane. The ball comes off to Birdman’s side, but Odom is able to grab the carom because of those extra few inches Andersen surrendered by stepping into the lane on the shot. Birdman does manage to block Odom’s first attempt, but Odom stays with it and converts his next attempt. The Lakers have cut the Nuggets five point lead down to one in just 13 seconds.
The Nuggets now have the ball with 46.9 seconds left. They can either hold the ball and ensure Los Angeles only gets one more shot or they can try to go two for one which would require a shot between 35 and 30 seconds remaining in the quarter. Carmelo opts for neither one of those options and shoots with 38 seconds left. He is fouled and makes both free throws.
Now Los Angeles can pull off the two for one as long as they get a shot off within six or seven seconds. Kobe had been absolutely killing Denver in the two for one department with his ability to shoot the pull up three. J.R. Smith does a great job of hounding Kobe on the inbounds forcing the pass in to Walton. When Kobe does get the ball AC comes up and coerces Bryant into passing up the floor to Fisher. Fisher drives in and takes a jumper with 31 seconds left, perfect timing for a two for one opportunity, but the shot rims out. Kenyon cannot control the ball cleanly and he falls down in the lane. His solution is to call a timeout. It was the first of two timeouts that Denver called to avoid a jump ball situation and they could have used both of those timeouts in the fourth quarter.
I am sure you all remember what happened next. The Nuggets are set to inbound the ball from the side just a few feet from the baseline. This time J.R. Smith is throwing the ball in with Vujacic covering him. Instead of blanketing J.R. Sasha spins just as Smith receives the ball from the referee and jumps Chauncey who is making his cut to receive the pass. With Billups blanketed Kleiza has to run in from half court to give Smith another option to pass to. Kleiza is being pressured by Odom who is running with him a half a step behind. J.R. puts the pass in the only place Kleiza can get to it without Odom tipping it or stealing it. Kleiza, running full speed ahead, cannot control the ball with his left hand and it bounces out of bounds. Denver had an entire timeout to figure out how to get the ball inbounds and all they did was say J.R. you pass to Chauncey. I have no idea how you cannot have a second option readily available. You cannot blame Kleiza or J.R. Linas did a good job of recognizing that Smith needed someone to bail him out and J.R. made the best pass possible into a small window. If a player did anything wrong it was Kleiza trying to one hand the catch when he probably could have reached out with both hands, but it was clear absolutely no attention was given to the task of inbounding the ball during the timeout.
Los Angeles now has the ability to run the clock down as there is barely more than a second difference between the game clock and shot clock. Kobe dribbles the clock down before driving down the left side of the lane. He picks the left side knowing that the right side is congested with Odom, Gasol and Fisher. A drive to his left will allow him to either get to the rim or suck in the defense and pass to Vujacic in the left corner for an open three. As Kobe drives the defense does collapse. It collapses completely. All five Nuggets are within probably a four foot radius. J.R. Smith, who was guarding Vujacic in the left corner ended up on the right side of the lane. As the self proclaimed Machine goes into his shooting motion there is not a single Nugget player within 18 feet of him. J.R. must realize that both bigs will be there to help on the penetration and he cannot just abandon a shooter, no matter how cold he has been, in the corner.
It was that one last breakdown that allowed the Lakers to tie the game at 56 after scoring seven points in the final minute of the half. The game management and clock management from the players on the floor and the coaches on the bench was nonexistent and the attention to detail was completely lacking. At worst in that situation Denver should have gone into halftime with a four point lead.
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 93.3 – Just about average for the series.
Defensive Efficiency: 110.3 – Again not terrible, but a lot of little breakdowns kept Denver from winning this game with their defense.
Offensive Efficiency: 100.7 – Worst rating of the playoffs for Denver besting, or worsting, the previous low of 106.4 from game three in New Orleans.
How long can the Denver Nuggets continue their home court dominance? They have won 16 straight games in the Pepsi Center and so far in the 2009 NBA Playoffs the Nuggets have won each of their six home games by at least 12 points.
Of course the Los Angeles Lakers are not the New Orleans Hornets nor are they the Dallas Mavericks. As Kobe Brant has enjoyed pointing out after game two the Lakers had the best road record in the NBA at 29-12. To put that in perspective there were 20 teams who failed to win as many as 29 games at home.
To expect another home blowout might be presumptuous. Of course, after the four conference finals games that have been played the Nuggets three point win in game two has proven to be the largest margin of victory. One of these games has to be over before the final possession, right? If not health care facilities in Denver, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Orlando better stock up on defibrillators.
After two games I do not know that any of us have a better grip on what to expect. Was the resurgence of Linas Kleiza for real or was it a one night only special event? Are Anthony Carter and Dahntay Jones both going to be restricted to spot duty? Will George Karl trot out the big lineup again? Will either of these teams run? Can the Nuggets keep the battle on the boards even or will the Lakers size slowly wear them down? Is this all we can expect out of J.R. Smith? Is this all we can expect from Lamar Odom? Is this all we can expect from Andrew Bynum? Will Nene be the guy who scored 14 points in the first half of game one or will he be the guy who scored six points in the three halves since then? How long can Kobe carry this team on both ends of the floor? Will Phil Jackson demote Derek Fisher from potential game two hero to watching Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown from the padded folding chairs? Who will blink first Kobe or Carmelo?
Pretty much all we do know at this point is both of these teams seem to be very evenly matched and you do not want to build up a double digit first half lead and end up scoring 103 points. That has not worked yet.
I believe at this point in the series both teams feel just as confident as they did when the series began. They are both laying in their beds right now thinking to themselves that they should be up 2-0. Neither team has landed a blow that has rattled the other. The only way I see that happening is if one team wins both of the games in Denver.
As good as the Lakers are on the road, they do not play better there than they do at Staples Center. On the other hand we can expect the Nuggets to play better than they did in those first two games when they were on the road. While both teams are confident it is clear that the Nuggets have the advantage until the Lakers knock them off in Denver. That might happen tomorrow or it may not happen at all. Plus if there was any doubt in the Nuggets’ heads before game one, they have been obliterated.
I am pumped because tomorrow I will be attending my first playoff game since the 2005 series against the Spurs. If you want to say, “hi” or “you suck, quit blogging” or “go Nuggets” I will be planted in section 342, row 4, seat 1 and I will have my baby blue Nuggets shirt on. I would love to get a chance to meet some of my loyal readers so if you have a minute stop on by. I have a good bladder and no desire to pay what it costs for a hotdog and a Sprite Pepsi so I will be there all game long.
Featured Nuggets Blogs: Pickaxe and Roll | Denver Stiffs | Nugg Doctor | Nuggets Nuggetz | Nugg Love check out the Kobe Stop Crying sign pictures and Chauncey’s inbound pass off the back of a defender from his George Washington days
Take this with you: Some numbers for your consideration:
And now your additional nuggets from game two of the 2009 Western Conference Finals:
Just like that, Billups exploded. Chauncey scored seven points over the final 1:11 of the second quarter, including his brilliant self inbounds pass off Kobe’s back. Even with Melo and Kleiza hitting shots Denver did not get all the way back in the game until Billups went off.
Game two was another matter. Kenyon did provide the bulk of the Nuggets’ offense early on, but defensively he was just watching the game. At 8:28 of the first quarter Carmelo missed a fast break three point attempt and Dahntay missed a tip attempt. The Lakers grabbed the rebound and started down the floor. Both Kenyon and Nene stayed back never crossing half court on the quasi fast break by Denver. Fisher brought the ball up and Kenyon met him at the three point line on the right wing. Chauncey came over to help, but never was able to get in position. Kenyon slid off of Fisher anyway opening up a lane to the rim. Even though he left Fisher he had inside position on Gasol. Fisher drove on to the rim where Nene challenged his shot and caused a miss. For some reason as Fisher drove by Kenyon actually drifted away from the lane sacrificing his position on Gasol and as the shot came off the rim Pau was there to tip the ball in.
Time and again in the early part of the game Kenyon was just watching the action. Martin played every second of the first 14:41 and did not have a single rebound to show for it. Kenyon would play another 2:29 after returning in the second quarter before collecting his first, and only defensive rebound of the game.
Try it with a friend, family member or coworker right now. Get behind them, put your hand on their back while you are both pushing on each other. Then have them spin one way or the other. Next do the same thing with your forearm. Which one do you think is more effective as a defender? If you still doubt that I know what I am talking about I can put you in contact with people who can vouch for me in this area.
Carter played only six minutes. It was the fewest minutes he was on the floor all season behind a nine minute outing against Toronto on December 2, 2008 (fondly remembered in Canada as the game that ended Sam Mitchell’s coaching career). Kleiza definitely ate into Carter’s minutes, but if LK can keep hitting his threes, do not forget he was 7-14 from behind the arc against the Hornets in round one, Carter will not have much of a role in this series. Plus with Denver possibly going big with Melo and Kleiza as the swingmen instead of AC and J.R. as we have seen in the small lineup that had success against Dallas it will relegate AC to strictly the few minutes of backing up Chauncey he received in game two.
While I appreciate Scott Hastings, I think he gets a little too consumed with the officiating. I wish we had the option of watching the game on Altitude, but as far as national commentators go Van Gundy and Jackson are doing a good job of pointing out important details during the game.
I did not realize that Van Gundy had picked the Lakers in five, but in his defense, when you come out and say something, and you know a lot of people are going to hear/read it, you want to be right. If you follow fantasy football and read the work of Matthew Berry on ESPN.com you will know that he would rather be right on a prediction than be wrong and as a result have one of his fantasy teams win that week. There is a high premium on accuracy whether it be in post game analysis or in making future projections. Of course, everyone who prognosticates in public will be proven wrong at some point, but we do not have to like it.
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 91.3 – Not much running with 15 combined fast break points.
Defensive Efficiency: 112.8 – Getting a little high, but not too bad.
Offensive Efficiency: 116.1 – Very solid performance.
Make sure to check out the firsthand account posted by Jezru at Pickaxe and Roll! Good stuff.
A few more game one thoughts as we prepare for game two:
“They did a good job. I couldn’t get it.”
Following Chauncey’s second three pointer with 6.0 seconds remaining Carmelo was all over Kobe trying to deny him the ball, but Kobe ran directly to the inbounder to make sure he received the pass. On the play Chauncey was recounting the Lakers did not defend him any more vigorously than Melo did Kobe. The difference was Chauncey ran parallel to the baseline about ten feet away instead of running to the passer to make sure he could receive the ball.
That is enough of game one. It is funny how I can write so much about something that was so frustrating.
With game two on the horizon I could not sleep last night.
Despite being completely worn out I laid in bed for almost two hours before I nodded off. Game two is not necessarily a must win, should the Nuggets lose I can definitely see them winning both games in Denver and tying the series at two. However, if they go down 2-0 and have to win four of the remaining five games I do not see any way they win this series.
That being said, I think we see the Nuggets play their best all around game tonight and I even went so far as to predict a Nuggets victory. The one disclaimer I will make is if J.R. Smith is clearly limited by his calf strain, which I have still heard referred to as a knee injury in more than one place, it will require Carmelo and Chauncey to both have big nights.
Much of the analysis of game two centers around how Melo will surely not be able to score so easily and that bodes well for Los Angeles. I agree that Melo will not shoot 14-20 and 4-5 from downtown, but I will not be surprised to see him put up another 30 point game. He may have to work harder to get to the rim and not settle for so many jumpers, but he can score on this Lakers defense and on Kobe.
What was most impressive about Kobe’s offensive performance in game one was that he was able to do it while working so hard on defense. Even so, there were times, especially when he was guarding Chauncey, that Denver chose to go away from him. In game two, whoever Kobe is being guarded by must attack him and make him expend energy. He cannot carry this team on both ends of the floor over a seven game series.
Los Angeles can only get away with moving Kobe from guy to guy as long as players like AC and Dahntay are on the court who can be covered by Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar or Shannon Brown.
When it comes to keeping the Lakers off the offensive boards it will require a conscious effort by everyone on the floor. We talk about team defense, but seem to consider rebounding an individual effort. Rebounding is also a team skill and against a team like the Lakers requires all five players to do their part. The bigs must do a better job of clearing space, but that is easier said than done. Gasol in particular is very good at prepositioning himself for offensive rebounds before the defender realizes the shot is going up.
The guards need to either crash the lane if the shot is from the lane or get to the elbows if it is a longer shot so that they are in position to chase down a long rebound.
Other than the rebounding both Nene and Kenyon did a solid job on defense. They continually forced Gasol off the block and keeping him a little further out than he likes to operate. They did a lot of switching, which was fine as the Lakers did not look to post Bynum on Kenyon when the Nuggets did so. If L.A. decides to go at Martin when he switches onto Bynum, Denver will probably have to double him.
When it comes to double teams Denver would obviously prefer not to have to double anyone. However, they seemed like they were prepared to double Kobe after he put the ball on the floor and they showed some desire to have a guard come down to dig at Gasol in an effort to force him to pass.
When the Nuggets do double team they must be prepared to rotate. Gasol is an excellent passer and when Odom is in the game the Lakers have four players all capable of hitting three pointers on the floor at the same time.
Another way to keep the Lakers from getting open looks from behind the arc is to get back better in transition. On a couple of different occasions in the second half of game one Kenyon was stuck guarding Fisher in the corner. Of course, Kenyon wants to be ready to help on a drive or rebound so he stays as close to the lane as possible. The result is Fisher is left open and he made Denver pay.
Both team also need to do better at running when the opportunity presents itself. They combined for 14 fast break points in game one. I expect both teams to top that mark in game two. Of course, if Denver cannot garner any defensive boards they are not going to be able to run. That is another reason why limiting the Lakers’ offensive rebounds is so important.
I do believe the Nuggets will win. I honestly had a bad feeling about game one. I was excited before the game, but not the kind of excited you are before opening a birthday present. It was the kind of excited you get when you have to line up to run suicides for conditioning. That is bad excited.
For game two I feel a little more as if I am going to get a present tonight and less like I am going to be sprinting for a good 20 minutes.
Take this with you: Denver was able to get Bynum in foul trouble because they were not afraid to attack him. J.R. and Melo both drew fouls by going right at him. They will need to continue to do so tonight. Nene fouled out in game one and he must do a better job of avoiding contact when he is covering the pick and roll. He uses his hips too much to slow down the ball handler and referees will call that every time.
The highly anticipated additional nuggets from game one of the Western Conference Finals:
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 94.6 – Pretty high considering all of the Lakers’ offensive rebounds prolonged many of their possessions.
Defensive Efficiency: 111.0 – Decent, but not great. The Nuggets held L.A. to 41.1% shooting for the game which goes to show how all of those offensive rebounds let the Lakers off the hook.
Offensive Efficiency: 108.9 – That is the Nuggets’ second worst rating of the playoffs behind their 106.4 in game three at New Orleans.
For the first time in the postseason the Denver Nuggets trail in a series. There are two ways to look at tonight’s 105-103 loss at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers. Either Denver proved that they can hang with the Lakers and good things are ahead or the Nuggets proved that even when Carmelo plays what may have been the best game of his career and Denver outplays the Lakers for a vast majority of the game they still cannot win in Los Angeles.
There is some pretty good evidence to support both sides of the argument.
In the Nuggets’ favor if there was any question that Denver was going to be a match for Los Angeles, the debate is over. Denver is playing at a much higher level than they did at any time during the regular season. There were a couple of points in the game where the regular season version of the Nuggets would have fallen apart and been knocked out early.
On the other hand, this game set up perfectly for Denver. They got out to a quick lead to build their confidence. Andrew Bynum was in foul trouble for most of the night. Carmelo played an absolutely incredible game and they had a lead late in the proceedings. It is difficult to imagine Denver having as good of a chance to win in Los Angeles as they did tonight.
If Denver does rebound and win game two (or game five or game seven) in L.A. it will be because of Carmelo. Melo was nothing short of amazing in game one. Offensively he not only continued his hot shooting, but he went nova.
Carmelo drained 14 of his 20 attempts including 4-5 from behind the arc. Before the series I suggested that Melo and the Nuggets had figured out the Lakers’ defense, but I never expected him to go from completely contained as he was for the first three games this season to finding the cracks as he did in game 80 that was featured in my film room segment to being completely dominant as he was tonight.
Unfortunately, Carmelo was not much of a factor in the closing seconds. Following a charge call at the 2:07 mark, Anthony did not get another touch for the rest of the game. Kobe deserves some credit for that as he treated him like an employee at Cordillera (sorry, I could not resist), but the Nuggets consistently went away from him. Nevertheless, I think we can safely expect Carmelo to have a big series and as a result Denver is going to put up a big fight against L.A.
The sad thing is this game was the Nuggets’ to lose after Chauncey hit his first of two huge threes in the closing minutes at the 1:38 mark to put Denver up 99-97 and they lost it. A monsoon of mistakes down the stretch undid 46 minutes of tremendous effort.
The downslide started when on the ensuing Lakers’ possession the Nuggets forced a bad three by Derek Fisher, but Nene got out of position on Gasol, who of course went to the rim for the rebound, and as a result Nene chose to do the Paso Doble and gave Gasol an earnest embrace. If Nene did not realize it before, he now knows you cannot make a play on a rebound with both hands snuggly attached to a seven foot Spaniard. Nene’s grasp did not prevent Pau from grabbing the ball though, which he did, and was fouled. Pau made both free throws to tie the game.
At the other end of the floor Chris Andersen, in the game for Nene who fouled out in 32 minutes of floor time, missed a short attempt badly triggering a free for all for the basketball. A jump ball was called and Los Angeles gained control. Melo forced Kobe into a missed jumper, but Gasol prevented Chauncey from collecting the rebound giving the Lakers yet another second chance.
They capitalized on that second chance thanks to a bonehead reach by Kenyon Martin. After Melo failed to fight through a screen from Gasol as vigorously as he had on previous possessions and that forced Kenyon to switch onto Kobe. Martin did a good job, but chose to reach for the ball resulting in a predictable foul. Kobe made both free throws putting the Nuggets down two.
Next came the play that made even junior high players queasy. Anthony Carter was inserted into the game for Andersen and it was his job to throw the ball inbounds. There were three huge errors on the play that for all intents and purposes ended the game. George Karl drew up a play for Carmelo who set up on the right block and ran off a triple screen towards the ball. Gasol, he has popped up a quite a bit in these closing possessions, stepped out and covered Melo preventing him from coming open for the pass. Mistake number one occurred at this point as Carter did not turn to look at option two, Chauncey coming off a double screen, soon enough. He was still looking at Carmelo when Chauncey came open.
Mistake number two was the weak floating pass that Carter threw to Chauncey. He was being covered by the 6’ 10” Odom and for some reason Carter decided instead of making a high ball fake to get Odom’s hands in the air and following it up by throwing a crisp bounce pass the best pass for the situation would be a high floater over the head of the lanky defender. It was just an abominable pass, one that a halfway decent junior high player would never think of throwing.
As the ball hung in the air with Trevor Ariza closing quickly there is still hope for Denver. Chauncey simply has to come towards the ball to cut off Ariza’s angle. Doing so would result not only in Chauncey receiving the pass, but probably a foul as well with Ariza running at the ball in fourth gear. Enter mistake number three as Chauncey was actually fading away from the pass. Everything went wrong for Denver and Ariza took the ball up the floor.
There was still hope for Denver as there was roughly a five second difference between the game clock and shot clock. If they could get one more stop, they would have a chance to tie or win in the closing moments. Carter made one last mistake as he lunged at the ball, he did not reach, he lunged, which Kobe was dribble with his right hand. A quick between the legs crossover from Kobe’s right hand to his left allowed him plenty of room to drive past Carter leading to another foul before he could reach the rim.
Two more free throws and the Nuggets were down four. An amazing Billups’ three from the corner brought Denver to within one, but two more Kobe free throws pushed the lead back up to three.
Los Angeles fouls J.R. Smith before he can get a potentially game tying three off. J.R. makes the first free throws and misses the second, but Denver could not collect the carom. Over the final 1:38 the Nuggets made numerous mistakes. Basic principles of boxing out, playing defense with your feet and not your hands and making the correct pass went out the window and little details like that cost the Nuggets a huge game one win.
There is also the little issue of free throw shooting. Denver took 11 more free throws than the Lakers did, but they only converted three more than L.A. That is not good. The two biggest offenders were J.R. Smith who shot 2-6 and surprisingly Chauncey who missed his first three before making the next six. If Denver can just muster shooting 71.5%, 25-35, they get the two points they were missing.
Denver did a lot of things right. Their offense in the first quarter was exceptional with great ball movement even though it fell off quite a bit as the game wore on and the Lakers’ defense awoke. Despite Kobe’s large point total, they did a decent job of keeping him out of the lane for most of the game and Denver did not allow the Lakers to get many easy buckets in transition or in their early offense.
Unfortunately there were some pretty serious things that went wrong too. Even though Bynum did not play much, the Lakers still dominated in the area of offensive rebounds. The Lakers collected over 36% of their missed shots. The league average is right around 25%. Kobe proved to be too much for Dahntay Jones to handle and despite his best efforts Anthony Carter did not get the job done either. Even without trying to double much the Lakers took 25 threes and made 11 of them good for a 44% conversion rate.
The really frightening news is J.R. Smith sprained his knee on the final play where the Nuggets were fighting to gain control of his missed free throw. The official word from the Nuggets is vague as they say his status will be updated sometime on Wednesday.
Look for additional thoughts tomorrow, or actually later today.
Watch the game live online on ESPN360!
I was intending to put together some final thoughts on the series and then post some game one insights in a game thread, but sadly we are running out of time so I am going to have to combine both into one final pre-series post.
In my previous posts I have focused on matchups such as Bynum and Gasol versus Kenyon and Nene and how Carmelo can finally break out against the Lakers, but have not paid much attention to the most important key of all and that is how the Denver Nuggets defend the Lakers.
It all starts with Kobe and filters down from there. No matter who is guarding the Mamba they must make sure he gets nothing easy. On the other hand, if you pay too much attention to him and double and triple team him, you get Pau Gasol roaming the lane scoring on a barrage of dunks and layups.
What is the answer? Denver will trap Kobe off the pick and roll, but when he has the ball look for them to expect Dahntay Jones, J.R. Smith, Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony or whoever is guarding him to play him straight up, keep him out of the lane and force him to shoot jumpers.
The problem with playing him straight up like that is Kobe has an excellent post game and he can take Jones, J.R. and Chauncey down on the block and drain turnaround jumpers over them all night long. If the Nuggets do trap Kobe outside of coming off of a ball screen, look for them to do it when he has the ball in the post.
Denver will need Dahntay Jones to do a very good job on Kobe when Jones is on the floor. If he cannot at least make Kobe work hard for his points, Denver cannot afford to have him in the lineup. I expect Kobe to draw fouls on Jones quickly and do not be surprised to see Dahntay collecting four or five fouls in just ten or 12 minutes.
Even if Jones plays the best defense of his life it is unfair to expect him to put the clamps on Kobe. No one can shut Kobe down and few teams have been successful in even containing him. If Kobe is looking to score, he will get his 30 points and if he is on fire, he will get 40 or more. One thing to keep an eye on is Kobe has only made four of his past 16 threes. Denver will have to hope he remains cold from long distance, but we all know it is only a matter of time before he goes off.
If Kobe is wreaking havoc on Denver and they must adjust their defense to commit more resources to covering him the Nuggets must make sure they rotate perfectly. The Lakers’ shooters will make their open shots. I do not care that Derek Fisher or Jordan Farmar or Sasha Vujacic have been in shooting slumps lately, they will make their shots in the conference finals. If Denver is consistently giving up open looks to those guys the Nuggets will be in trouble. Equally as important as making sound perimeter rotations is ensuring their interior defense remains intact.
Players like Gasol, Bynum and Odom are all great finishers in the paint. If Denver shows cracks in the lane the Lakers are a great passing team and they will feed the ball to one of their big men at the rim. Look no further than Gasol’s 36 point outburst in game one of the Nuggets/Lakers series last season where ten of his 12 made baskets were assisted (he made 14 shots, but only 12 are on record in the play by play at least that I can see).
The other potential issue for Denver defensively is if they have to bring a double team to help Kenyon guard Pau in the post. If you double Pau, it opens up the floor for Kobe and if Kobe drives or is red hot from the perimeter your defense is going to get embarrassed.
Looking at the Lakers’ defense they really struggle to contain penetration. Their guards play hard on defense, but Fisher and Vujacic are just not quick enough to contain athletic guards. Much has been made of how Aaron Brooks shredded the Lakers’ defense in the semifinals although as everyone has pointed out the Nuggets do not have a Brooks type player. Do not let that fool you into thinking that Denver cannot get into the lane against the Lakers.
Chauncey may not have blazing straight line speed, but he is great with the basketball and when he wants to drive, he gets in the lane. You can count on J.R. Smith to find his way into the lane more than a few times and Anthony Carter is also capable of getting into the paint off of ball reversals when there is a gap in the defense.
The Nuggets are not only going to be facing the Lakers, Denver will also have to fight history. To me anything that happened two or five or especially 20 years ago is practically meaningless. The truth is tonight will be the first time these two teams with this mixture of player face each other with both teams fully healthy so who cares who won a series 24 seasons ago?
That being said, a negative history can weigh a franchise down. A team and their fans can get conditioned to expect failure. The Lakers actually have a ten game postseason winning streak against Denver, which is the fourth longest streak of its kind ever behind a 12 game winning streak the 76ers held over the Knicks from 1968-83, a 12 game winning streak the Lakers held against Seattle from 1980-89 and a 12 game streak Boston compiled against Chicago from 1981-87. In addition to the losing streak Denver is 2-14 since joining the NBA in 1976 in game ones on the road. Denver also has to deal with their history in Los Angeles where they have not done well over the previous 12 seasons.
The one thing this Nuggets team has going for them in that area is they are the team that is defying the franchises’ sorry postseason history. They are the ones who are overcoming those past embarrassments. I do not think they will be at all intimidated and I expect them to play well throughout the series.
If you listened to the NBA Today podcast from May 19, you heard me say that my official prediction is the Lakers in seven games. Do not let that disappoint you, I have undersold the Nuggets in each of the first rounds and hopefully I am doing so again. Denver has an excellent shot at winning this series and as long as they can play competent defense and players like Carmelo, Chauncey and J.R. continue to shoot the ball the way they have been there is no reason why Denver cannot represent the west in the NBA Finals.
I doubt that the Nuggets are going to get a lackadaisical effort from the Lakers like the Rockets did. Then again, there is no guarantee that L.A. truly sees the Nuggets as a legitimate competitor and they may certainly overlook Denver as they did Houston.
Enough talk. It all starts tonight. If Denver can steal game one that could be the only spark they need to get over the hump against the Lakers and it would be a great step towards winning this series.
Take this with you: The Lakers are the first team the Nuggets have faced in this postseason that provide multiple difficult matchups. It seems Denver has taken a large step forward since the regular season ended, but we will not know if that is truly the case until tonight.
One more thing. It is not fair that I wrote all of this without mentioning Chris Andersen so I just wanted to say, “Birdzilla!”
So far in the 2009 NBA Playoffs the Nuggets have only had to deal with players like Tyson Chandler, Hilton Armstrong, Erick Damiper, Ryan Hollins and Brandon Bass.
Not an overly impressive group, eh?
Next up is Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
If that did not get your attention, I do not know what will. I guarantee those two have the attention of the Nuggets’ scouts, coaches and players. The interior beef that the Los Angeles Lakers bring to the table is quite imposing, especially compared to the parade of overmatched stiffs the Nuggets have battled with in the paint over the first two rounds. Dirk Nowitzki proved to be too much for the Nuggets bigs to handle on their own, but on his own he falls short of the difficulty the Nuggets could, and probably will, have with Gasol and Bynum.
Watching bits and pieces of the Houston Rockets/L.A. Lakers conference semifinal series the one thing that I kept clinging to was Bynum appeared to be either rusty or disinterested. Bynum’s performance in game seven today was disconcerting because he was clearly not rusty or disinterested. If he plays that way against Denver, the Nuggets will be in trouble.
You can talk about Kobe Bryant all you want, the Nuggets biggest concern should be how they can handle Bynum and Gasol. With the starters on the floor Kenyon Martin is going to have to guard one of them and he has a serious length disadvantage against both. Most likely Kenyon will be guarding Gasol and for all his defensive desire and talents he is in a big hole trying to cover Gasol. Pau can shoot his 15-18 foot set shot over Kenyon at will and when he goes into the post his jump hook will be impossible for Kenyon to stop.
Nene is relatively better equipped to cover Bynum than Kenyon is for guarding Gasol, but Bynum still has a significant length and weight advantage over Nene. On the other hand, Nene has done a decent job against Gasol in the past so will Denver choose to stick Kenyon on Bynum and double the heck out of him should he get the ball in the post thus creating one major mismatch instead of two less than desirable matchups?
When Chris Andersen comes off the bench things do not get much better. Andersen is physically a better matchup on Gasol than Kenyon, but his desire to block shots plays right into one of Gasol’s greatest strengths, and that is offensive rebounding. When Andersen leaves Pau to go for a block he better get it or else Pau is converting the miss.
One more thing to worry about is the Lakers’ ability and desire to push the pace. Players like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Kobe, Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza will all look to run every chance they get. That is not all as Gasol runs the floor very well, plus he cherry picks a lot, and Bynum does pretty well himself at least when it comes to earning good post position during the early offense. That all spells trouble and you can count on the Lakers taking advantage of the Nuggets’ sloppy transition defense much better than the Hornets or Mavericks did.
Well, that was the bad news. We got it out of our system. Things are not all bad for Denver.
The best news of all is that we will not have to watch players like Kenyon Martin and Eduardo Najera attempt to cover Kobe Bryant on the perimeter and consequently Allen Iverson will not be attempting to cover Vladimir Radmanovic on the block. The reason is the acquisition of Dahntay Jones.
In the first series against the Hornets, Dahntay was the key defender thanks to his ability to frustrate Chris Paul. As I projected Dahntay played a much smaller role in the second round against the Mavericks because Anthony Carter was much better suited for chasing Jason Terry through screens. Even though Anthony Carter has played plenty of minutes on Kobe in the past, it does not take a rocket scientist to realize Jones will once again be called on to play defensive stopper.
By the way, while we are somewhat on the subject, the fact George Karl decided to have the Nuggets’ power forwards guard Kobe last season in the playoffs showed how badly overmatched he felt the Nuggets were. If he though Denver was even close to being the Lakers’ equal on the court he would not have dreamed up such a cockamamie strategy. This season I think you can be sure he feels much better about this squad’s chances playing straight up.
OK, I was able to get that out of my system.
Kobe is going to get his points, but like we saw with Chris Paul and Dirk Nowitzki, as long as Denver can make him earn them I think the Nuggets will be happy. They need to be mentally prepared for the fact that no matter how good of defense they play against Kobe, he is going to go off in a couple of games. They cannot let discouragement set in because of it.
The Lakers do not run a lot of pick and roll, but they will run it. In game 80 of the regular season Denver, especially Nene, did a very good job of hedging on the pick and roll and keeping Kobe out of the lane. If Denver does not prove to Phil Jackson that they can slow it down, the Lakers will exploit it.
While Bynum is a little too much for the Nuggets to handle defensively, when the Nuggets have the ball, Nene is too quick for Bynum. Nene can get past Bynum with his spin move or by facing up and driving at him. If Nene can go at Bynum early and get him in foul trouble it will be a big bonus for the Nuggets. Nene has shown a propensity to shy away from taking the ball at bigger defenders like Bynum. He almost acts like someone is holding his family hostage and they have told Nene that if he ever gets a shot blocked his family will pay the price. He must go at Bynum and Gasol when he has the ball at the rim.
The Lakers’ other frontline player of consequence is Lamar Odom. Kenyon is definitely highly capable of guarding Odom, but with Odom coming off the bench, Kenyon and Odom will not be on the floor much against each other unless Bynum or Gasol get in foul trouble. It will be interesting to see if Karl tries to work the matchups so that Birdman is on the floor with Gasol as much as possible while Kenyon will play when Odom is in the game.
Another advantage for the Nuggets is Los Angeles does not have anyone who can cover J.R. Smith. Even Kobe will be hard pressed to contain Smith’s ability to penetrate. Sasha Vujacic will be a pest, and it will be important for J.R. to not get baited into giving him a cheap shot, even though we all know Vujacic deserves it. Sasha will get up in J.R.’s personal space, but Smith is too quick for him and should be able to blow by him at will. Smith was one of two Nuggets to have a nice series last season and there is no reason not to expect him to do it again.
Unlike J.R., Carmelo has not done very well against the Lakers and over the next few days you will hear a lot of talk about how the Lakers do a great job of shutting Carmleo down. They certainly have had his number in the past and they completely flustered him in the playoffs last season. This season Carmelo only averaged 14.5 points per game on only 33% shooting. I just finished watching the final matchup of the season between the Nuggets and Lakers, the previously mentioned game 80 in L.A. which the Lakers won 116-102, and Carmelo played very well on offense scoring 23 points on 8-16 shooting.
We will get more into this in the next couple of days, but Denver seemed to find a couple of cracks in the Lakers crowd and force into help scheme they have utilized on Melo the past couple of years.
The other thing in Denver’s favor is Carmelo is having his best postseason ever and he also has a history of figuring defenses out. After struggling against Trenton Hassell and the Timberwolves his rookie season, including a dreadful 1-16 in the decisive game four, a two point loss in Denver that all but ended the series, Melo went on to absolutely dominate Hassell from the next season on. In his second season it was the Spurs and Bruce Bowen who forced Melo into a poor statistical series, but when Melo was covered by Bowen after that he absolutely owned him. Bowen did not stand a chance against Melo one on one and when the two teams met in the postseason in 2007 Carmelo had his only good series until this playoff campaign.
The point is Melo is too talented to be completely bottled up by any scheme indefinitely. If the progress in game 80 was any indication of his growth against the Lakers’ defense, the numbers 14.5 and 33% will be completely meaningless over the next few days.
Looking at how these two teams have fared in the 2009 playoffs the one major difference between the Nuggets and Lakers is Denver is yet to mail a game in. They have been wonderfully consistent while L.A. has not shown a great deal of mental focus from game to game. Los Angeles let the first game at home against Houston slip away and after taking a 2-1 lead and seeing Yao Ming go down in game three L.A. lost two more games and neither one was very close. The Rockets played hard, but they had no business taking a team as talented as the Lakers to seven games with Yao in street clothes. There is always the chance the Lakers take Denver for granted enough to give away one of the first two games and the way Denver is playing that may be all they need to win this series.
Sorry, one more bit of bad news to keep in mind. Los Angeles won 65 games this season, 11 more than the Nuggets. Regular season records do not mean squat in the playoffs, other than the fact the lakers’ gaudy win total earned them home court advantage against Denver, but L.A. was clearly better than Denver for 82 games and that is not to be overlooked. The Lakers have been the favorites to win the Western Conference all season and are on a mission to avenge their loss in the 2008 NBA Finals.
Denver is playing very well right now, but they have had very little success against the Lakers. In fact, it would have been difficult to have less success as Denver has lost ten out of their previous 11 matchups against L.A. over the past two seasons. Even with Billups on board Denver has lost two games in L.A. that were not particularly close, although the one win in those previous 11 games came in Denver with Chauncey onboard.
This is going to be an uphill battle and there are plenty of reasons to be concerned, but not all uphill battles are lost.
If you are looking for a reason why the Denver Nuggets struggled to duplicate their relatively easy wins from the first two games of the series against the Dallas Mavericks I will give you three. First Dallas played with more fire and intensity because they were at home. They are a very good home team.
Secondly Dallas finally started running and scoring in transition. In game three the Mavericks were credited with 21 fast break points while the Nuggets only compiled nine. Dallas had only scored 13 fast break points in the first two games while Denver rung up 54. Transition defense has been a weakness for the Nuggets all season and neither New Orleans nor Dallas have tried to take advantage of that aspect of the game.
Thirdly, the game was officiated in a way that was beneficial to the Mavericks. That is not a complaint. I thought the referees were consistent from start to finish, or at least from start through the first 11:57 of the fourth quarter. Dallas needs the referees to penalize Denver from playing physical defense and they did. In my opinion they called the game too tightly. The third quarter seemed like it lasted an hour. Dallas shot 21 free throws in the third quarter alone (all in the final 9:20) and the Nuggets shot 12. Thirty-three free throws in a single quarter is just brutal to watch.
However, it is difficult to be upset with the referees (and not because of the way the game ended). After watching the third quarter again the way the game was being officiated, it is hard to argue with the calls. Many of them were on plays where the Nuggets were reaching. Chauncey picked up two fouls trying to make a steal. At one point Melo had switched onto Dirk, he fought for position in the post and forced Nowitzki out to the three point line to receive the pass. Then he banged with Dirk continuing to fight for every inch he could. Then after working that hard, he bails Dirk out by slapping his arms when he pivoted to shoot. The Nuggets committed fouls due to either lazy defense or getting caught out of position.
Foul trouble became an issue in the third quarter as Chauncey, Chris Andersen and Nene all were called for their fourth foul by the midpoint of the third quarter. Andersen committed two bad frustration fouls which gave him five fouls with over three minutes left in the third. He would foul out after playing less than 11 minutes.
As a result the Nuggets were forced to play with a smaller lineup and with the Mavericks forcing their way into the paint more frequently it forced the Nuggets to foul even more to prevent easy shots at the rim.
As the game progressed it was apparent to me that Dallas was playing with just a tad bit more intensity and intelligence at both ends of the floor. As I have written before it is impossible to manufacture desperation and Dallas was playing with desperation. Add in the poor shooting by the Nuggets in the first half, the lackadaisical defense resulting in the free throw parade in the third quarter, the foul trouble born out of sloppy defense and the Nuggets not being able to put together that decisive run we have become accustom to and it was a very frustrating game to watch. The Nuggets did not play their best and everything I was watching convinced me the Nuggets would not pull this game out. They lost a close game three in New Orleans and they were about to lose a close game three in Dallas.
With 34 seconds left Anthony Carter made the horrible decision, as he frequently does, to run at Dirk from behind Dirk in an attempt to steal the ball. Carter left Jason Terry all alone in the corner and in a play you could see happening before everything actually happened Dirk passed over to Terry who hit the open three to put Dallas up 105-101. Game over, or at least so I thought.
From that point on the Mavericks made four big mistakes. First of all needing to run some clock they allowed Carmelo to score on a dunk in only 2.6 seconds. I realize you do not want to foul, but at least make Melo change directions. If they manage to force just two more seconds off the clock, I think Denver has to foul on ensuing possession instead of playing to get one more stop with time on the clock.
The second mistake was made by Dirk. Not only did Dirk take some terrible shots down the stretch, but he probably lost the game for Dallas by shooting far too early on their second to last possession. There was a differential of roughly four seconds between the shot clock and game clock. Dirk shot with six seconds left on the shot clock. By the time Denver corralled the rebound and called timeout there were 6.5 seconds left. If Dirk shoots that shot with just one or two seconds on the shot clock, Denver is looking at only a second or two to tie or win the game instead of 6.5.
The final two mistakes were the inability to foul convincingly, which I have already written about, and the unimaginative inbounds play the Mavericks ran at the end of the game. I thought the final inbounds play by the Mavericks was pretty weak. The Mavs only needed two points to win and running a play for Dirk or Terry to catch running away from the basket, forcing them to turn and shoot from long range was silly. I think Dallas could have had Josh Howard cutting to the rim. They should have known Denver would be focusing on Dirk and Terry which would have allowed Howard, who set a screen for Dirk, but when Howard curled around the backside he ran towards the opposite sideline instead of at the rim plus Brandon Bass was just sitting on the offside block anyway.
If Dallas makes better decisions or better plays in any of those four situations, apart from the final play with only a second left, that is a tough situation to bounce back from, perhaps the game ends up differently.
If you are looking for one thing that turned the game in the Nuggets’ favor look no further than a defensive adjustment George Karl made midway through the fourth quarter. With Dirk scoring almost at will off of all the defensive switches the Nuggets were employing Karl changed things up during a timeout with 6:22 remaining in the fourth. From that point on Denver started defending screens straight up with the big man hedging to slow down the ball handler and then recovering back to his man. From that point on I believe Denver only switched one more screen the rest of the game. However, Dallas probably did not realize the Nuggets had changed tactics for a couple of minutes because they posted Jason Kidd up on Chauncey for four or five straight possessions.
Dallas ran their last set with Kidd posting up Billups at the 3:17 mark when Chauncey finally kept Kidd out of the lane and forced a bad turnaround jumper. From that point on Dallas ran their regular down screens and pick and pop sets against the Nuggets more stout non-switching pick defense. The result was out of Dallas’ final six shots not one of them came from in the lane. Four of those six shots were badly forced jumpers by Dirk over Kenyon (of course one of them was the final shot of the game where Dirk had no choice, but to shoot a contested jumper).
When the Nuggets switch and Dirk is covered by a guard or Melo, he will back the smaller defender down and get an easy two. If he has a big man on him, he almost always settles for the jumper. By making sure Kenyon stayed on Dirk it ensured Nowitzki will take much more difficult shots.
Denver did hold the Mavericks to 40.0% shooting so from that standpoint it is difficult to say Denver did a poor defensive job, but I will. The Nuggets hardnosed defense we saw against the Hornets has been softened because of all the switching. Denver was forced to foul because the Mavs had the ball in the lane all night long. The Nuggets defensive efficiency in games two and three against Dallas has been their two worst of the postseason.
The Nuggets now have a chance at sweeping the Mavericks tonight in Dallas. How amazing has this run been?
Additional Round 2 Game 3 Nuggets
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 90.7 – Exactly the same as game two.
Defensive Efficiency: 115.8 – Exactly the same as game two as the pace factor was the same and Dallas scored 105 points in both games.
Offensive Efficiency: 116.9 – Once again the offense was solid even with J.R. Smith struggling and Melo shooting a poor percentage.
I promised you these the day after the game. Well, I have not gone to bed yet so no matter what the calendar says, I delivered!
I had to rewind it to make sure I saw what I saw, but after Hollins’ dunk to bring the Mavs to within SEVENTEEN he ran down the floor pounding his chest. People get on the Nuggets for showboating, but at least they do not do it when they are getting blown out. What a tool.
The Mavs are supposed to have one of the best benches in the NBA and after the game Ernie Johnson practically had a conniption fit when Charles Barkley asserted that the Nuggets’ bench was killing them. Dallas started the fourth quarter with four or five bench players depending on how you look at it. Jason Terry was out there with James Singleton, Brandon Bass and sometimes starters J.J. Barea and Antoine Wright.
At this point I originally copied down the next few possessions step by step before realizing that not even I would read it so here are the key points.
On the first possession of the quarter Dallas tried to get Terry open flashing out to the left wing, but they could not because Anthony Carter was so close to him on the cut that their breath was combining into one aromatic sent. That ruined the set and Dallas did not get a good shot.
Carlisle saw that group was going to struggle to score so after that singular possession I am sure he put Kidd and Dirk in right? Nope. He put Kidd into the game for…Jason Terry? Wow. Now the only Mav capable of getting his own shot on the court was Barea.
With Terry out Barea is the only player capable of getting his own shot and he is checked by Carter, which is the best option for Denver against the diminutive speedster. Carter and Birdman trap Barea off a screen and forces the ball to go to Singleton who, the offensive force that he is, cannot decide what to do with a wide open lane in front of him so he starts to shoot and then realizes he should probably take advantage of the open space in front of him to drive. The result is a travel. It is probably for the best as Birdman was quickly recovering into the lane and any attempt at the rim would have been difficult at best and embarrassing at worst.
After two empty possessions Carlisle gets Dirk in the game. The ball goes to Dirk on the right wing. He drives left into the lane and jump stops at the charge circle. A pump fake gets Bird in the air (of course), but Dirk misses the short fade away off the back rim.
On the ensuing Denver possession Melo gets mugged at the rim with no call (hey, we have a right to complain about the refs after the 36-13 free throw advantage from game one that was rightfully ours was slashed to a 40-30 advantage, just horrible) Dallas outlets to Barea who flies up the court, draws AC and J.R. into the lane and kicks out to Kidd who misses a toe-barely-over-the-line two pointer. The miss triggers a break the other way for Denver that results in Nene being fouled at the rim.
Now down ten, 93-83, Carlisle reinserts Terry. Carter stays right with Terry on a four day, three night trek from one side of the court to the other that visited some beautiful locations along the baseline and spent some time at a screen set by NBA superstar Dirk Nowitzki. Birdman and Carter trap Terry again leaving Dirk open in the middle of the floor about 30 feet from the hoop. Terry passes to Dirk who drops it like the phone number of a female power lifter from the former East Germany which sets the Nuggets running again. That makes for a 9-0 run and puts the Nuggets up 12, 95-83.
After a timeout Dallas sets up with Terry in the left corner and after a misdemeanor assault two handed shove to free himself from AC’s tremendous defense Terry flashes to the high right wing. Carter was left so far behind due to the push off that Nene has to step out to cover Terry. Terry gets the ball and then passes to Nowitzki after which JET cuts to the right corner. He gets a return pass from Dirk and rises to shoot, but Nene, perhaps having jumped into the future and read my comments about big men guarding little ones on the perimeter, forces him to abort the jumper and desperately pass back out to Dirk who has the chase it down. Terry gets the ball again with Nene blanketing him. Bass, who AC should be guarding after being physically forced to stop guarding Terry at the beginning of the play, clashes to the lane and having been left for dead by Carter makes a little ten footer for Dallas’ shot that put the two in 16-2.
On Dallas’ next possession the Nuggets trap Terry off a high screen by Bass who slips down the lane. Terry delivers the ball and it appears Bass is about to score when J.R., Melo and Nene collapse on him and force a loose ball. Bass collects and passes out to Kidd who misses a semi-contested jumper as Melo recovers from helping in the lane to at least get a hand up on the shot.
As the run grows Denver’s defense gets more and more active. Barea has the ball on the left wing with Dirk setting a screen to his right and Bass doing the same to his left. Barea chooses left for some reason. With the sideline right there and Nene hedging to bottle him up J.J. leaps and throws a wild pass into the middle of the court. Birdman gets a talon on it, but it bounces to Terry. Dirk and Terry run a pick and pop. Bird and AC trap Terry who passes back to an open Dirk. Melo leaves Kidd in the corner to run at Nowitzki. Dirk passes to Kidd as Nene rotates out to the corner and Andersen rotates perfectly onto Bass on the right block who Nene left to cover Kidd. Kidd drives left into the lane and fumbles the ball as if it was a phone with his ex wife demanding this month’s alimony payment resulting in another Denver fast break.
Hang in there we are almost done. Kidd and Hollins run a pick and roll and Melo is forced to switch onto Hollins. Hollins receives the pass from Kidd and Melo fouls him to prevent a dunk. Melo was in foul trouble in game one, but he only had two at this point late in game two which allowed him to make the smart play and prevent the basket. It sure pays to have some fouls available late in games. Dallas then ran Terry off a double screen and he was able to lose AC who lost his balance on the first pick. Nene switched onto Terry and apparently forgot how good of a job he did earlier as he laid back and allowed Terry to take a three from the right wing. Fortunately Terry missed, Nene ran out, Melo caught the rebound and hit Nene in stride with a perfect pass and the Brazilian Gazelle threw down a dunk to wrap up the 16-2 burst that gave the Nuggets the win.
OK, now imagine that only twice as long. Oh, who am I kidding? No one is still reading this.
Anyway, Denver still had a couple of breakdowns and the Mavs missed two or three open jumpers, but the key was the only open shots they could get were perimeter shots. Denver was much more sound on screens and I liked how Birdman and AC have their own little trapping scheme down pat. While Denver played some lethargic defense for much of the game they did crank it up in the fourth quarter and while I prefer the 48 minutes of nasty defense they had been playing I guess I will take it.
I was going to get into the Mavericks’ zone defense, but we are well over 2,000 words so you can all go back to the days when you were in school and the teacher was about to give out an assignment only to have the bell ring and free you from the obligation. Heck, I am not going to even try to proof read this thing until tomorrow.
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 90.7 – Slow for a home game.
Defensive Efficiency: 115.8 – Denver’s worst rating of the season topping 108.7 in the game three loss against New Orleans. The numbers between games one and two are all very similar except for Dallas’ nine fewer turnovers and 17 more free throws.
Offensive Efficiency: 129.0 – Second best output of the playoffs trailing only the 138.7 they posted in the game four blowout in New Orleans.
The Denver Nuggets have a chance to grab their second round series with the Dallas Mavericks by the throat. If they can win game two tonight at home it will put the Mavs in a big hole.
There is only one major adjustment I can think of that will determine the outcome of this game and that is whether or not the Mavericks are capable of matching the Nuggets intensity and, you guessed it, physicality.
Until the Mavericks prove to me I am wrong I will consider them the mentally fragile squad who blew the 2006 NBA finals, were spiritually demolished in the 2007 playoffs by the Golden State Warriors and were run off the floor by the Hornets last season.
I have written all season about how the style of defense the Nuggets play can determine their mindset for the game. A passive defensive strategy led to a passive effort. In game one the Mavericks play a reactive style on both sides of the floor and that perpetuates a collectively passive team atmosphere. That type of team mindset is not conducive to winning in the playoffs.
For Dallas to change their team mindset now would be nearly impossible and that is the greatest obstacle for them right now.
At a more tactical level I wrote yesterday that Dallas needs to utilize the high screen with Dirk more often. That is the set he rode to his 6-6 start, but they got away from it as the game wore on. When they returned to it in the fourth quarter Jason Terry chose to keep the ball rather than give it back to Dirk. I remember reading that some people thought the Mavs were better because Terry took over more often in crunch time to make up for Dirk’s well documented late game shortcomings. In game one Terry forced it and the Mavs suffered.
Another adjustment I am tempted to recommend is to play Terry for 40 plus minutes or to start Antoine Wright and leave J.J. Barea on the sidelines. That might be an example of overreacting to the limited returns from only one game. While I understand the temptation to get Terry out there more frequently or to play Wright I think it might be a mistake. Barea can still be a thorn in the Nuggets’ side if Carlisle releases him to attack in transition. There is not a Nuggets player who can stay in front of him and just as much as the Mavs need Jason Kidd to throw the ball to teammates and not the upper crust of Denver society seated at midcourt they almost equally as badly need Barea to play well.
I am also a little worried about how well Chris Andersen can do against Dirk. The Birdman was amazing when pressed into duty on the big German in game one, but I think Dirk can drive on him. If Dirk throws a little pump fake at Birdman to get him to at least raise up on his toes will free Nowitzki to drive past him and get to the rim. I still believe Kenyon is the best option to defend Dirk.
Apart from their slow start the Nuggets played a very strong game. I have very few recommendations for the Nuggets. They should keep pounding the middle with pick and rolls by Nene. J.R. Smith needs to be relentless going to the rim. Melo needs to be aggressive as well both in the post and driving from the wing.
Defensively I believe they can do a better job of fighting over the high screen from Dirk. There were instances where they just switched without forcing Nowitzki to set a strong screen. Dirk typically sets very strong screens, but do not let him off the hook by anticipating that he will do so. Force him to set a strong screen and absorb the contact.
From a rotation standpoint the only way Kleiza should be in the game is if Josh Howard is not. Of course, it will help if Melo can avoid foul trouble. I would also cut Dahntay Jones’ playing time from 18 down to the 10 or 12 minute range to get J.R. Smith and Anthony Carter more floor time.
However, everything comes back to which team is going to play tough playoff basketball. So far the Nuggets have raised their game to the perfect level of aggressive physical play while their opponents have not been willing or able to do the same.
I have never felt so confident about the Denver Nuggets in my life. They are nearly unbeatable at home where they are playing with supreme confidence and being pushed to new heights by great crowds. I do not need to hope Denver will win, I know they will and I can get used to it.
Take this with you: I am going to pass on a couple of links here. First George Karl is not a big fan of the NBA’s decision to fine Kenyon Martin. Secondly, celebrate Cinco de Mayo with LaPhonso Ellis. It has been exactly 15 years since Ellis’ 27 point 17 rebound game in the first round series against the Sonics in 1994. Oh Yea and one more. Footage from the lockerroom right after the Nuggets won game five to beat the Hornets.
Thanks to Brandon from BallerBlogger for the link.
Once again I simply do not know where to start. There were so many great storylines for the Denver Nuggets during their game one 109-95 win over the Dallas Mavericks I do not think I can do them all justice.
Carmelo was in foul trouble for much of the game, but came alive in the fourth quarter. George Karl went small in Melo’s absence and it worked marvelously. Nene was simply a beast in the paint. The play of Chris “Birdman” Andersen and Anthony Carter off the bench was nothing short of amazing and of course the team defense played by the Nuggets was exceptional by the end of the game.
I have to start off with the defense.
As was pointed out before the series started defending the Mavericks will be much more difficult than shutting down the Hornets. Early on the Nuggets’ plan to switch the high screen set by Dirk Nowitzki seemed disastrous. Dirk started the game 6-6 from the floor and despite the switching Dirk was getting very open looks and the Nuggets were clearly struggling with matching up with him.
Things changed when Kenyon Martin leveled Dirk with a forearm along the baseline. I think that play triggered a response from both the Nuggets and Dirk. For Denver, they started playing Dirk much more physically and the open space he was enjoying early on disappeared. For Dirk he was no longer as aggressive going to the rim. Over his final 17 shots he only took four at the rim. Was it a result of the hard foul or the Nuggets’ increased pressure? My guess is it was a little of both.
Aside from Kenyon’s hard foul on Dirk I had a difficult time picking out exactly why the Nuggets defense was able to improve so much between the first 12 minutes and the final 12 minutes. To me the other keys that led to the defensive awakening were the play of AC and Birdman and I think it took the Nuggets a quarter or two to adjust to the completely different scheme from what they implemented against New Orleans.
There was a lot of talk about how Kenyon and Dirk would matchup in this series, but it was Birdman who played Dirk the toughest. Andersen has the length to challenge the shot and for some reason Dirk never really challenged him with the dribble drive. There were two instances where Dirk tried to drive on Birdman. On one Andersen drew a charge (more on that later) and on the other Dirk blew past him into the lane, but simply dropped the ball as he tried to gather it to shoot. I still think Kenyon is the best option to defend Dirk, but it was very encouraging to see how well both Bird and Nene stuck with him. Plus the guards, even J.R., became very physical with him. The plan to single cover Dirk no matter who it was on him worked very well to start the series.
Regarding AC, before the series started I pointed out that I thought AC would play a bigger role than Dahntay Jones because he was a much better matchup for the Nuggets to check Jason Terry. That certainly proved to be the case in the second half as Carter hounded Terry all over the court and even forced a couple of turnovers when Terry tried to run him off of the baseline double screen.
Offensively Denver was spectacular, or at least after the first quarter they were. With Melo in foul trouble players like Nene, J.R., AC and Birdman all stepped up and produced very efficient games.
Nene ran the floor well in both directions as he was threw down two fast break dunks in the second quarter and also did a good job of retreating in transition, as did all the Nuggets, to prevent the Mavs from running on them. The Mavericks had no answer for Nene in the lane. Dampier was too slow and no other Mavs player is strong enough.
With Melo on the bench for much of the second quarter Nene piled in 14 big points to keep Denver in the game. Nene scored on an easy dunk after a pick and roll with J.R. thanks to a beautiful bounce pass from Smith and he made a layup off a drive and dish from Chanucey where he drew a foul after elevating over Dampier who hit him on the arm as Nene finished at the rim with the left hand. Nene also scored off a really nice set I did not remember seeing this season where he set a screen for Chauncey on the left wing, but instead of driving Chauncey threw a pass across the floor to AC. Nene then rolled off the screen and AC delivered the pass for an easy lay in. It was a beautiful play.
J.R. started out by launching a couple of long jumpers, but soon after that switched into attack mode and the Mavs could not keep him out of the lane. J.R. penetrated in transition, off of isolations, off of screens and he even split the double team a couple of times. The result was a handful of nice finishes at the rim and six assists. J.R. took 13 shots and only two of them were three pointers. It was only the third time all season that J.R. attempted more than ten shots while putting up two or fewer threes.
Carmelo had a very frustrating first half as he only played 12 minutes in the first half. Still when he was in the game he was aggressive offensively. Melo was credited with 10 shots, but he had another three attempts that resulted in free throws that were all at the rim. That makes 13 shots and seven of those 13 were at the rim. He also finished the game with four assists continuing his solid passing performance. Melo came alive in the fourth quarter when he no longer had to worry about fouling out. After going at the rim he began hitting his jumpers splashing two three pointers. He made the first one from the right wing as no Mav came out to cover him off an inbounds play and the second was on the left wing in transition that basically iced the game putting the Nuggets up 106-89 with 2:49 remaining.
Carmelo only attempted ten shots, which I am willing to bet is a career playoff low, but he scored 23 points on those ten shots. It was a highly efficient afternoon for Melo even with limited minutes.
The Nuggets have to feel very good about how the game went. Carmelo and Chauncey were non factors offensively up until Melo’s fourth quarter explosion. Dirk scored his points, but the Nuggets seemed to get a handle on him after his hot start. Anthony Carter did a great job on Terry who finished the game a -20. Dallas had good scoring games from Dirk and Howard and Terry shot a solid percentage, but it was not enough for Dallas to hang with them for 48 minutes.
It has been amazing to see this team become aware of how good they can be in the playoffs. They are very confident and they should be. Denver is almost unbeatable at home. As Karl was quoted saying during the broadcast Denver just wears teams down when they play in the Pepsi Center. The opposition may be able to hold them off for 36 or 38 minutes, but sooner or later an onslaught is coming and there is nothing the visitors can do to stop it. The Nuggets are up to 14 straight home wins and with their game one win are very solid favorites to win this series.
Additional Round 2 Game 1 Nuggets
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 94.6 – Average regular season home game pace, 95.1.
Defensive Efficiency: 100.4 – Dallas shot 48.8%, but Denver forced 20 turnovers and only sent the Mavs to the line 13 times.
Offensive Efficiency: 115.2 – Very good considering the slow start, limited minutes from Melo and Chauncey’s veritable no show in the scoring department.
Before the season started I projected that Denver and Dallas would be fighting each other late in the season. Of course, I thought it would be a battle for the eighth playoff spot, not a spot in the Western Conference Finals.
Forget the Regular Season
Just as with the New Orleans series the regular season results between these two teams are meaningless. New Orleans played the Nuggets incredibly tough and split the four regular season games and it ended up not meaning one darned thing because the Hornets were not playing well. With Dallas it is true the Nuggets swept the four game series, but anyone who expects the Nuggets to dominate this matchup based on those games will be surprised at what is about to take place.
Three of the four matchups occurred in the first half of the season when the Mavs were struggling. In the fourth meeting Dallas was without Jason Kidd and Josh Howard (plus Denver was missing Nene). Howard only played in two of the four games, but in one of those two games it was his first game back from injury and he played 14 ineffective minutes. At this point Howard is near full strength and playing very well.
After considering all of those variables here is one more thing to keep in mind. Three of the four meetings between the two squads came down to the final possession. If any number of little things go differently in those three games, we are talking about how Dallas handled Denver in the regular season 3-1.
If you still think the regular season games were meaningful I give up. Go your merry way pilgrim. Now on to the hard hitting analysis.
Don’t Jump on the Kidd Bandwagon
First of all I am going to tackle a notion that I have heard from several outlets and that is that Chauncey Billups is a great matchup for Jason Kidd. Most observers are only looking at one side of that coin. Yes, Chauncey is nowhere near as quick as Tony Parker and that is good news for Kidd. Of course Chauncey is not going to abuse Kidd like Parker did.
What those analysts seem to be ignoring is that Kidd is an even better matchup for Chauncey. While Kidd has generally held Chauncey below his averages Chauncey has done that and more against Kidd. Over the previous three seasons when facing Chauncey Kidd has averaged 9.6 points, 8.4 assists, 7.1 rebounds and he only shot 33.3% from the floor. The good news for Dallas is they do not require big numbers from Kidd in order to win. He is primarily a facilitator and spot up shooter. Against the Spurs Kidd only posted 10.0 points, 5.6 assists and 6.0 rebounds. However, he shot 10-23 from behind the arc good for 43.5%. Even though Denver probably needs Chancey to post better numbers more than Dallas needs Kidd to put up big stats I like this matchup for the Nuggets.
Can Kenyon David West-ify Dirk?
On the flip side a matchup that most people may be giving the Nuggets a little bit too much credit for is the battle between Dirk Nowitzki and Kenyon Martin. I do believe Kenyon can make things tough on Dirk, but this assignment is far more difficult than the task of crushing David West in the first round. Dirk is far more talented and capable than West is.
Still, Kenyon has the strength to keep Dirk from getting too deep on his many postups and the physical play that has been allowed so far in the postseason will work in Kenyon’s favor. This season with Kenyon playing in all four games against Dirk Denver has held Nowitzki to 43.9% shooting, a full four percent below his season average. Kenyon’s biggest issue when guarding Dirk is something he can do nothing about and that is the length advantage Dirk has. While West was not able to bump into Kenyon and create space to get his shot off, Dirk will be able to shoot over Kenyon whenever he wants and he is amazingly adept at hitting the awkward jumper. Offensively Kenyon has the quickness and athletic advantage on Dirk to make him work on defense. Look for Kenyon to drive at Nowitzki, spin and toss up that little push shot from in close.
I fully expect Dirk to play more minutes than Kenyon and when Martin is out of the game Denver will have to scramble to cover the big German. Nene has had some success against Dirk when he was younger, but I am not sure he has the lateral quickness at this point to provide the kind of resistance that Kenyon can. I am afraid Dirk can take a dribble and pull up on Nene with room to spare. However, if Nene is successful in avoiding foul trouble he is a decent option to spend a few minutes on Dirk. Chris Andersen is an interesting matchup for Dirk as he has the length to bother Nowitzki’s jumper, but I am not sure he has the strength and balance to absorb a shot to the chest and be able to challenge the shot and a one or two dribble pull up provides similar issues for Birdman as it does for Nene.
Even with each player’s short comings, Denver is as well equipped to handle Dirk as anyone. It would also be interesting to see what Renaldo Balkman could do against Dirk, but I seriously doubt we will get the chance.
The Other Guards
There are some more interesting matchups lead by the other backcourt players. Jason Terry and JJ Barea make for a dynamic backcourt while Dahntay Jones and Anthony Carter seem to be a nice defensive matchup for both. I think we see a little less of Jones this series and more AC. Terry is deceptively quick and the fact you have to respect his shot forces you to play him tighter than is comfortable. Ultimately I believe Carter is a better option to slow him down than Dahntay. Jones did a great job hounding Chris Paul and fighting around screens, but the Mavs will be running Terry around screen after screen and Carter is better suited to chase and challenge in that situation than Jones is. However, Jones is playing out of his mind right now on defense and with his length and athleticism he very well could effectively harass Terry.
Barea is the real potential nightmare due to his quickness. He has shown he can get in the lane against any defender Denver will throw at him so it is vital that they have a plan to help and recover when he is in the game. He is also a streaky shooter and when he is on he adds an entirely new dimension to the Mavs offense. Defensively if the Mavs are playing man to man, Denver can take advantage of his stature and do a variety of things from post up to pick and roll him or flat out shoot over top of him. I think Barea is a player many fans are not very familiar with who could swing the series one way or another with his play.
Meat You in the Paint (sorry, but it is almost 2:00 AM)
Moving to the paint Dallas has some serious beef in the middle with Erick Dampier who does a good job of taking up space and he is an excellent offensive rebounder. He put up nice numbers against the Spurs averaging 8.4 points and 8.4 rebounds in 30 minutes a game which is seven minutes over his season average. A motivated Dampier is not easy to deal with and Nene will have his work cut out for him. A big key will be if either one of the starting centers will be able to get the other in early foul trouble. I give Nene the nod in that category as he has the quickness to drive by Dampier and draw a whistle.
How Will Howard Perform?
I am not entirely sure how to analyze Josh Howard. He only played one real game against the Nuggets and it was almost six months ago. He put up very impressive numbers against the Spurs, but I am assuming he was guarded by Michael Finley who was in his prime a decade ago. The way Melo played defense in round one I fully expect Howard to have a more difficult time scoring. Even so he can drive, post or spot up and he will provide a more complex skill set than Peja Stojakovic did.
On the other end of the floor there is no player in the league save for Kobe or LeBron who can hope to shut Melo down one on one. Howard is going to need help against the bigger Anthony. I expect Melo to be able to post up, shoot over and drive to the rim on Howard and that means watch out for the double team. Once again I expect Melo to make quick decisions and either attack the doubling player or make the right decision with the pass. The Anthony/Howard matchup is a vital one. If Melo gets lit up or if Howard is rendered ineffective in slowing Melo it will be a big boost to one team or the other.
Do Not Forget About This Young Man
One player I have not mentioned is J.R. Smith. J.R. had two very good to great games against Dallas, one solid outing and one atrocious meeting. In the atrocious game he shot 1-14, but still managed to dish out seven assists and pull five boards and surprisingly led the Nuggets in plus/minus with a plus seven. Even though he could not hit a shot I guess he still played a nice overall game. Dallas has no one who can stay with J.R. and if he can continue his hot shooting and look to get in the paint early and often Dallas will struggle to contain the Nuggets. In addition to that his perimeter shooting can potentially force the Mavs out of a zone defense. Also, Marc Cuban has it in for Smith after J.R. threw an elbow at Antoine Wright and then allegedly taunted Wright after missing a game tying shot later in the season. We could see some fireworks there.
X’s and O’s
From a tactical standpoint the Mavericks provide a much more complex scheme and greater depth of talent than the Hornets did. Dallas will not run the pick and roll over and over simply hoping to get someone freed up. Dallas will work both sides of the court and attempt to dislodge the defense with ball movement and plenty of screening.
Denver still will have to defend many ball screens as Dallas does run a lot of high screens with Dirk and how the Nuggets choose to defend it is vital. If you try to trap the ball handler you leave Dirk open for an easy pass back for a jumper or a drive. If you switch Dirk is matched up against a player who will be at least eight inches shorter than he is which is bad news for the defense although with Dahntay, AC and Chauncey Denver has a solid group of guards who will acquit themselves rather well should they find themselves in that position. Denver did make an adjustment in the final matchup of the season as they trapped the ball handler and brought help from the baseline to take away the jumper on the pass back. It was then vital for the big who trapped to either recover back to Dirk quickly or cover the other Dallas center/forward who was left on the block.
In addition to the high screen the Mavs will be setting picks for Jason Terry or sending Kidd to spot up for a chance to shoot an open three. As I pointed out earlier, they play a much more complicated brand of offense than the Hornets did and even if Denver plays great defense they will be made to look silly from time to time.
When the Nuggets have the ball you can count on seeing a good amount of zone from Dallas, especially if Barea is in the game. In the final matchup of the season between the two teams the Nuggets held a third quarter lead until Dallas slapped the zone on them and it was only a hot shooting night from Carmelo that saved them. Despite Melo’s hot hand had Rick Carlisle not switched back to man to man later in the fourth I fully expect the Nuggets to have lost that game.
Another area to watch out for is Dallas will do a better job of exploiting the Nuggets shaky transition defense than New Orleans did. Kidd, Terry and Barea will push the ball up the floor and all three will gladly pull up and hit a 15 footer if no one steps out to stop them.
What About the Coaches?
The head coaching matchup is a tasty one too. Both George Karl and Carlisle have been accused of being coaches who can win in the regular season, but cannot quite get the job done when it really matters. I am not sure either team has an advantage here, but based on some comments in the Simmons/Stein podcast I reference in the next paragraph it sounds like Karl may be more popular than his players than Carlisle is, but that is pure third or fourth hand speculation so I probably should not have written it.
Hang In There, Almost Done (I Cannot Believe You Are Still Reading)
Heading into the playoffs I was hoping Denver could face Dallas because, well, I wildly overrated New Orleans. Dallas is not going to be an easy team to take down, but as long as Denver plays with the passion on defense and we continue to see the Carmelo who transformed himself into more than a scorer from round one I fully expect Denver to pull this series out. Surprisingly enough, so do all the analysts who picked the series on the ESPN series page. So far the only staunch Mavs proponent is Bill Simmons who in a very interesting podcast with Marc Stein is already planning on an interesting WCF matchup between Dallas and Los Angeles.
In the next couple of days leading up to the game look for some Nuggets roundtable action over at Pickaxe and Roll and you can look forward to another pre-series chat session between myself and Rob Mahoney of the ESPN/TrueHoop Network Mavericks blog, The Two Man Game, on Saturday at 4:00 PM Mountain time on Saturday.
I am not planning on posting any original video before the series, but by chance I did look at how Denver defended the Mavericks earlier in the season and you can check it out in the big video box below.
Also, do not forget Birdman’s long range heave against the Mavs earlier this season. By the way, didn’t that game end up being a Nuggets two point victory? Thanks Bird!
If you have not done so yet, look at the box score. Look at how close those stats are. Go right down the line and you will notice only two numbers where there is a difference of more than one or two digits. The first is field goal attempts. The Nuggets took five more shots, but made the same number as the Hornets, 30. The other number is free throws made. Denver made four fewer free throws even though both teams shot 35.
The Nuggets did shoot 35 free throws , which would seem to signify they were being aggressive on offense, but if you look at the shot chart you can see how perimeter oriented their offense was (keep in mind, missed shots resulting in free throws do not show up as they are not counted as an attempt and the dot in front of the rim represents more than one shot).
Now look at another couple numbers. Check out the Game Info page and look at the fast break points and points in the paint. The Hornets led in both categories with a 22-6 advantage in fast break points and New Orleans outscored the Nuggets in points in the paint 44-30.
(Warning, the rest of this section may seem very self congratulatory, but trust me, I am just reporting what happened. Do not let the fact that I was right about this stuff make it sound like I am trying to tell you how great I am.)
When I was a guest on the podcast with Alejandro de los Rios and he asked me what Hornets fans could look at to help themselves feel better after their losses I mentioned the Nuggets were not getting many points in the paint and they had been playing almost exclusively on the perimeter. From Chauncey to J.R. to Melo a great deal of their offense was coming off of jumpers. When those jumpers stopped falling we all knew the Nuggets could be in trouble.
New Orleans also made some important adjustments that I may have mentioned. I thought the Nuggets would struggle to defend the pick and roll if the Hornets ran it with Nene’s man setting the screen every time. Tonight, when Nene was on the floor the Hornets were doing exactly that. That affected the Nuggets’ defense in three big ways. First of all, Nene was almost exclusively guarding Tyson Chandler or Sean Marks and those two are the best New Orleans has at rolling to the basket after setting the screen requiring the Nuggets to suck into the paint.
Secondly, it reduced their dependence on David West. As I mentioned after game two the Hornets were force feeding West instead of working to get the ball to their hot shooters. By setting fewer screens with West it allowed him to either spot up or attack the glass (he pulled down three offensive boards in game three after pulling down only one in each of the first two games) and also and allowed Paul to spread the ball around more and find players like Posey in the first half and Butler in the second who were hitting their shots. Thirdly running the pick and roll at Nene forced Nene to try to contain Paul and he has proven to be the worst Nuggets big man at keeping Paul out of the paint. Also, four of Nene’s six fouls were a result of defending the pick and roll. Two were called when he tried to dislodge the screener and two were instances where Paul drove into his body.
Another adjustment I thought the Hornets needed to make was to allow Paul to attack the Nuggets’ porous transition defense. Paul was very aggressive in game three and there were many occasions where he was able to get in the paint easily in transition.
The other change Paul needed to make was to be himself. That means splitting double teams and to not give up his dribble so easily. Saturday afternoon we saw the MVP caliber Paul that I was so afraid of heading into the series. If he can squeeze off two or three more 32 and 12 performances another one of my comments will turn out to come true as well and that is these two teams will play all seven games of this series.
Additional Round 1 Game 3 Nuggets
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 87.4
Defensive Efficiency: 108.7 – Much higher than what they did in the first two games, but not bad. If they can hold New Orleans in that area for game four it should be good enough to win.
Offensive Efficiency: 106.4 – This was the area that really killed them. The jumpers stopped falling and so did their efficiency.
The Nuggets were able to pull out a big win in a game that never quite lived up to its billing due to a combination of poor shooting by the Jazz and a herky jerky flow. The Jazz were playing hard, but they simply could not get anything going. Their offense, with their talent and sound system, should be difficult to defend at home, on the road or in outer space, but it was as effective as a sponge dam.
The Nuggets claimed that they would implement a plethora of defensive schemes to defend Deron Williams and the pick and roll and they lived up to their word. They did everything from trapping to rotating a wall of defenders to switching and everything else in between. For a team that has struggled to be on the same page together even under the best of circumstances Denver did a great job of working together and communicating to each other how they would defend each pick and roll sequence.
The key to Denver’s defense was their ability to keep Williams out of the lane, at least as much as can be expected. That forced the Jazz to play a much more perimeter oriented game and they held the Jazz to only 38 points in the paint, one of their lowest totals of the season. The Nuggets really did play solid team defense and even though they seemed to give up a few too many open perimeter shots, we need to remember that was the side effect of the overall plan.
I thought early on the Jazz were hurt by their inability to build up more than an 11 point lead in the first quarter. Apart from a nice pick and roll between Melo and Kenyon and a drive by Kenyon to start the game the Nuggets were just abysmal on offense. The Jazz were not much better though as they failed to capitalize on some easy shots around the rim that could have given them a 16 or 18 point lead. The eleven point bulge they did established ended up being well within J.R. Smith’s striking range.
Smith took his first shot with 1:24 left in the first quarter and Denver down 22-11. Within the next 2:31 J.R. had dumped in 11 points, plus an assist, and the game was tied at 26. What J.R. did for the Nuggets cannot be understated. Without J.R.’s explosion who knows how long it takes for the Nuggets to get their act together on offense. It was their 43 points over the final 13:24 of the first half that won the game and J.R. scored 21 of those points and assisted on another eight.
The other key to the Nuggets offensive surge was Carmelo. Melo entered the game playing as well on offense as he had in a long time, but he missed his first five shots. From that point on he began attacking the rim and ended making nine of his final 20 attempts. Even when he failed to finish a couple of drives in the third quarter he kept driving and it paid off. Melo even had success driving past the Jazz’s attempts to double him. Almost every time Melo caught the ball in the post Utah doubled him immediately. On a couple of occasions Melo actually drove past the defender who was coming to double him. He also continued his solid passing with his third straight game with at least four assists.
The Jazz offense came alive in the second half, but it was not because the Nuggets let Williams run wild. The supporting cast came to life led by C.J. Miles and his 12 points. That is the risk you take when you focus so strongly on one player, but if a player like C.J. Miles beats you, such is life.
Down the stretch Williams tried to take the game over scoring 11 points in the final six minutes of the game, but it was too little too late. I have no idea why Williams was not more aggressive before that. Part of his passiveness was due to the Nuggets throwing a lot of bodies at him, but great players do not let themselves get taken out of the game like that. Utah looked like a juggernaut in February as Williams was throwing up 30 point game after 30 point game. Last night he only took 12 shots while Carlos Boozer took 23.
Nevertheless, it was a good win for Denver. As inconsistent as they have been on defense over the past nine days the Nuggets have contained the two best point guards in the league (Paul in New Orleans and Williams last night) and shown a pretty good ability to guard the pick and roll.
Is it possible that the only obstacles standing in the Denver Nuggets’ way of finishing the regular season with the second seed in the Western Conference are the Clippers, Timberwolves, Thunder and Kings? Should Denver do that they will force the Spurs or Rockets to finish the season with only one more loss in order to catch them.
Additional Game 76 Nuggets
“Tonight, (being in the zone) was different than any other time, because normally it’s catch-and-shoot, but tonight it was off-the-dribble 3s,” Smith said. “It was unbelievable. I was shocked with myself with some of the shots.”
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 102.6 – The pace actually became faster in the second half which is rare.
Defensive Efficiency: 101.3 – Denver posted a 101.2 against the Knicks, but this defensive performance was much more stout. The Jazz have a team field goal percentage for ht season of 47.5%. The Nuggets held them to 36.6%.
Offensive Efficiency: 111.1 – Right in line with their season average.