The Denver Nuggets have been to the playoffs seven straight seasons and have posted three straight 50 win campaigns for the first time as an NBA franchise. Despite the consistency they have displayed on the court, the front office is once again in a state of flux.
The Nuggets announced today Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman will not have their contracts renewed and thus will cease to be employed by the club at the end of August (Denver Post article, Tomasson article on FanHouse). This is no surprise as Warkentien has been granted permission to speak with other teams about their front office vacancies. Over the previous four seasons the Nuggets have had quite a few cooks around the fire. Warkentien, Chapman, Bret Bearup and George Karl have all had a say in personnel matters and do not forget Stan Kroenke ultimately determines what he is willing to spend which plays a considerable role in player personnel decisions.
Despite the crowded kitchen Warkentien was the head chef and he made a significant mark on the franchise.
Welcome to my first ever comment bag (and from what I can tell almost the first ever comment bag period as someone might have beat me to it by a matter of hours). You have read mailbags before, but there has been so much good discussion about recent events that I wanted to make sure everyone saw some of them, and of course I would like to add my highly insightful thoughts as well. All grammatical errors are the responsibility of the author although I did clean a couple of them up. Lucky for you all I hated English class too.
drewjay: Jeremy, I would love to read how your opinion on the LeBron decision, although you might be sick of hearing about it.
Whenever the world is coming to an end people always want to literally go out with a bang and have sex. Whether it is the end of Spies Like Us or…um…Spies Like Us that is what happens in movies.
The Nuggets might be reaching the point where they need to go out with a bang, but this time I do not mean sex.
According to this report from ESPN New York Amare Stoudemire, who at this point could very well end up not playing for the New York Knicks, has been in contact with Tony Parker and Carmelo Anthony in an attempt to convince them to join him in New York. Parker’s contract expires after next season and as everyone in America knows Carmelo can opt out of his contract after next season.
The Denver Nuggets do not have a draft pick in the 2010 NBA Draft and rumors of activity have been few and far between. That may be about to change as according to a report from Chad Ford on TrueHoop that might change. Apparently the Nuggets have been seeking a top ten pick in the upcoming draft with the hopes of acquiring another big man.
The kicker is they are using Ty Lawson as the bait.
For most of the 2009-10 season the Denver Nuggets were the second best team in the Western Conference and held the title of the team possessing the best chance to dethrone the Los Angeles Lakers. Things went horribly awry as any hope of earning a shot at a championship vanished on February 17, 2010 when news broke that George Karl had been diagnosed with cancer for the second time in his life. Most fans still held out hope that Karl could return and the team would continue chugging along on its current trajectory.
That would simply not be the case and just over two weeks later when it was determined Kenyon Martin would miss a large chunk of the remainder of the season due to a frayed patella tendon the Nuggets ship was sunk. They did manage to hang on to their lead in the Northwest Division and somehow limped into the playoffs with home court advantage against the Utah Jazz. Utah quickly invalidated the Nuggets division crown and higher seed as they walked over the Nuggets in six games.
After watching possibly the most promising season in Denver’s 34 years as a member of the NBA fall apart it is very difficult to gage the current state of the franchise. While it is easy to envision a world where Denver is the team preparing to face off in game six of the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers that world is probably further from reality than Nuggets boosters would like to think.
The season is over. A campaign that held such incredible promise ended in the first round against a division rival missing two starters. The Nuggets just had no answer for Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap. Despite the best efforts of players like Johan Petro, Malik Allen and Joey Graham Denver the Jazz controlled the paint in the second half.
Despite my dire predictions of a blowout by halftime the Nuggets stayed close thanks to a 19 point first half from Joey Graham and a 17 point third quarter performance by Chauncey Billups. While Graham and Chauncey carried Denver through three quarters, no Nugget was able to complete the job in the fourth.
Carmelo looked like he was going to answer the bell early in the final stanza as he tallied six points and an assist over the first five plus minutes of the quarter. Melo’s jumper at the 6:33 mark tied the game at 95. That would be the final important bucket by Denver because before Denver would score their next hoop over two minutes later they would fall behind by 11.
The game and the season were over.
While most fans will look at Carmelo’s 20 point performance on just 6-22 shooting, it does not tell the entire story. Melo Battled on the glass pulling down a team high 12 rebounds and handled double teams well as he racked up five assists. Still, he will receive a good deal of responsibility for the loss and rightfully so. His defense was spotty as always and great players are judged by not only putting points on the board, but doing so with some semblance of efficiency. Carmelo’s teammates did not all play well, but they gave him a shot to win in the fourth quarter and it did not happen. I commented during the game Carmelo looked like he was going half speed as his usual killer first step was not there. Typically Melo can fire off at his defender and pull up leaving the sorry sap covering fighting to stop his momentum in an attempt to contest the jumper. Melo never did gain separation and the result was a hoard of contested midrange jumpers that did not fall.
It is not fair to hang this first round loss on Carmelo’s shoulders. However, as the best player on a quality team the successes and failures of his squad are laid at his feet. We will have plenty of time to explore this over the offseason, but for all the accolades Carmelo has received as a scorer, he is still a deeply flawed player. Converting six of 22 shots on a night where his team needed a star to close the deal is simply not good enough.
As I referred to above, Melo was not the only player to struggle. Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Chris Andersen barely contributed to the effort. Martin was the most effective of the three producing a couple of nice conversions in the lane. He also uncharacteristically passed up chances to score in the lane twice choosing instead of dish off to a teammate in a worse position to score.
Smith was back to his passive self. He only attempted four shots in 20 minutes. It was his lowest single game shot total of the season. He also produced no assists producing a mere three points for the team. It seems like J.R. is trying to find himself as a player over the previous three games. He succeeded in playing a quality game in the fifth contest while producing next to nothing in games four and six. I honestly have no idea what to make of it. No idea whatsoever.
Finally looking at Birdman, he was the Nuggets fifth worst big behind not only Kenyon and Petro, but also Malik Allen, who submitted an acceptable six minutes in the second quarter when foul trouble required his presence on the court, and Joey Graham. That is sobering.
Graham deserves all the credit in the world for stepping in ready to play and producing what would have been an all time performance from a forgotten player had Denver managed to win this game. Sadly, his exploits will largely be glossed over and forgotten.
Adrian Dantley provided a boost with a sudden outburst of activity in the second quarter as he drew his first technical as a head coach after a foul by Carmelo away from the ball. The result was a 15-3 surge to close out the half that made the game a contest again. The common joke is that Dantley blew any chance to be a head coach during this series, but he showed growth, made the right personnel decisions in game six and finally realized what you say to the referees is almost as important as what you say to your team.
After six games there is no question who the better team is. Utah absolutely deserved to win the series and they way they played was very impressive. On the other side of things the Nuggets now face a very difficult offseason where complicated questions must be answered. You can count on Roundball Mining Company to walk with you step by step as Denver must gear up for what will hopefully be a more successful season in 2010-11.
The Denver Nuggets face a very tall task. They must win a game in Utah if they are going to keep their season alive. Before the series began, roughly a lifetime ago, I predicted the Nuggets would win in seven games with both teams winning one game on the road. Of course, that was before the injuries to Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur after which I proclaimed Denver would win in five games. In addition to that prediction I also claimed the Jazz would finish the Nuggets off in game five when Denver dropped the previous three games, only to reverse course again prior to tipoff when I claimed the Nuggets would win and force a game six.
File all of that under the if you make enough predictions, one is bound to be right folder.
With all my dirty laundry now exposed, I must say I expect the Jazz to win game six. They have been dominant at home against Denver. The Nuggets really had no shot at winning games three and four, and even in their game five win I did not find Denver’s performance overly impressive. Now add in the loss of Nene for at least game six and Denver certainly has the odds stacked against them.
One thing I do know is all of the talk about Denver being better without Nene is utterly ridiculous. Nene played well in the first two games, and even in games three and four he was able to get to the line, for some reason he was incapable of converting on his many opportunities at a respectable rate, but he still was effective enough to average ten free throws a game. The fact is Denver has struggled with foul trouble when all of their bigs have been available. Things will only be worse with Nene out.
Johan Petro has exceed expectations all season, albeit very low expectations. Petro will have to not only play well, but stay out of foul trouble in game six. Utah is not a team that plays small. Outside of garbage time the Jazz have played a total of about three minutes all series without two big men on the floor. For the most part between Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap and Kyrylo Fesenko two of the three are always on the floor. Asking Carmelo Anthony to guard one of those three in the post will almost assuredly result in Melo committing fouls and Denver needs Melo to be on the floor for at least 42 minutes.
I suspect Kenyon will start out covering Fesenko in order to avoid any early foul trouble from covering Boozer. That will put the onus on Petro to not only keep Boozer from going off, but do so without committing fouls. I am dubious of him being able to accomplish either of those two tasks.
At this point Denver is clearly the underdog. I would recommend they go for broke, set Kenyon on Boozer and hope for the best. If they have to go small, they would be better off with inserting Joey Graham to defend Millsap, there is no way they can go small and expect anyone other than Kenyon, Birdman or Petro to handle Boozer. Melo cannot cover Millsap without fouling and Melo does not need any help in picking up fouls. There is the possibility of doubling to assist Carmelo in defending Millsap, but Denver has struggled to handle Utah when they play them straight up. I shudder to think what Utah might do to them should Denver voluntarily get out of position. Even so, Denver might have no choice other than use Carmelo at the four. The good news is Millsap cannot handle Melo either, however, Millsap is more adept at avoiding foul trouble than Melo has been, though Millsap did foul out in game four.
The bottom line is with the current state of Kenyon and Birdman’s health I do not think you can get more than 65 minutes of floor time between the two of them. That leaves roughly 30 minutes that will need to be picked up by Petro and others. Yes, you can expect a Malik Allen sighting. This is going to be a serious problem for Denver and it increases the degree of difficulty for a win in game six substantially.
Obviously, Denver must have another strong performance from Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith on offense. Utah is going to put points on the board and Denver will have to match. I am encouraged by the way J.R. Smith played on Wednesday. If he continues to play his new brand of unselfish ball where he drives to set up teammates and picks his spots from behind the arc, he can be a game changer. Ty Lawson is going to have to create easy opportunities in transition and generally create havoc in the half court.
As far as intangibles, Deron Williams has been consistently amazing and he has yet to have a poor shooting night. Maybe he is due for one. He cannot keep shooting over 50% from the field and from behind the arc all series can he? Utah will be highly motivated to close out the Nuggets and you kind of got the sense they did not feel the urgency to win game five that they will for game six. Also, after the Nuggets enjoyed a significant advantage at the free throw line we can expect a backlash in that area as well as the natural swing in that area that will come about by switching the venue to Salt Lake City. Also, the Jazz had a very poor shooting night from Kyle Korver. The chances of that happening again are remote. The Jazz will undoubtedly perform better shooting off of screens.
The only intangible I can reach for from the Nuggets’ point of view is Melo has really been working hard to prove he is a star player and will not get bumped from the first round again, although his effort to carry Denver in game four came up a bit short. Still, if he plays like he did in game four and gets some help from his talented supporting cast, Denver can win.
That is right, I said Denver can win, I just do not find a victory to be very likely. The lack of big man depth is going to cause a myriad of issues. If the Nuggets find themselves behind by double digits in the second or third quarter, as has been their wont in the other two games in Utah, will they possess the determination and heart to fight back, or will they fold up the tent and write the season off as a nightmare that can only end by starting a new day?
Every game is an opportunity to prove yourself and when the buzzer sounds on game six, we will know exactly what this Nuggets team is made of.
The Denver Nuggets staved off elimination by winning game five of their first round series against the Utah Jazz 116-102. Denver is now 4-1 against the Jazz at the Pepsi Center and all five games have been tightly contested in the fourth quarter. In the Nuggets’ four wins, they have ridden a hot offense to a safe victory. Tonight, as it was in game one, J.R. Smith proved the catalyst of a strong fourth quarter surge resulting in a double digit victory.
The Nuggets played a more disciplined offensive game in the first half, largely attempting to work the ball inside and running some semblance of an offense in an attempt to earn easy baskets. In the post game press conference Jerry Sloan said Denver did a good job of working the ball inside for easy baskets early in the game.
Even so, the Nuggets found themselves down by two at the half. With Nene slated to miss the second half after being inadvertently being kicked in the knee by Carlos Boozer the Nuggets unleashed a perimeter that was less structured, but thanks to some impressive marksmanship, more explosive. Denver scored 66 second half points including five straight threes that paved the way from a two point deficit to a seven point lead.
Carmelo Anthony was not as dominant as he had been on offense, but he was also more tactful with his play. He earned 15 free throws for the second time in the series and made it through the game with only a single turnover. It certainly was not as spectacular of a performance, but fit perfectly into the more team oriented offensive style the Nuggets had lacked in games three and four.
Denver shared the offensive burden with Melo posting a solid first quarter, followed by seven different Nuggets scoring in the second quarter (the Jazz only had six players score in the entire game). In the third quarter it was Melo and Chauncey followed by J.R. Smith and Carmelo bringing the team home.
Smith played another unselfish game, but unlike game four, he managed to play with aggression while not taking ill advised shots. J.R. was 4-5 from behind the arc and hopefully we have seen him turn a corner. He passed up open threes on more than one occasion in order to drive or continue to swing the ball around to a teammate. He only forced one shot that I remember and finished the game with three assists, which proved to be the first game in the series where he tallied more than two.
Defensively, the Nuggets were better although the Jazz missed several shots that they had been making. Kyle Korver was a nonfactor missing all six of his shots. Look for that to change in game six. Utah only converted on 45.2% of their shots, their worst performance of the series and only the second time they shot less than 52.9% in the five games.
Game five was a step in the right direction, but if the Nuggets are going to avoid elimination in Utah, they are going to have to play much better than they did tonight. I had many people ask me if Denver had a chance in game six or if they had a chance to win the series. My standard response was that the Nuggets chances of winning were much better with a win in game five than a loss.
The Nuggets still face an uphill climb and the Jazz have to be considered favorites to win game six they way they have walloped Denver in games three and four in Utah. When you are trying to come back from being down 3-1, you can only do it one game at a time. So far so good.
Round 1 Game 5 Nuggets
Here are a few links for you as we get ready for game five.
Chauncey is going to switch from C.J. Miles over to Deron Williams. Billups will probably get a friendlier whistle than Arron Afflalo, but I doubt there will be much of an upgrade with Chauncey on Deron. Billups looks gassed and I doubt the extra effort he will have to exert on defense is going to help alleviate that. I guess Williams is due for a bad game…
Kevin Arnovitz continues to cover this series like no one else. This article on how the Nuggets are not running their most efficient plays very frequently is as frustrating as it is true. I have written that when the Nuggets run almost anything other than isos, they seem to be able to get practically any shot they want. Unfortunately, they are too much in love with their “random” offense.
Faithful reader Bill Holicky has some statistical evidence that Carmelo needs some help if Denver is going to make any headway in this series. He points out that although there are only 16 teams in the playoffs, Denver only has two players in the top 50 in playoff PER (ESPN.com Insider required). Melo is sixth with a very impressive 27.63, but the next best Nugget is Arron Afflalo coming in forty-third with a PER of 16.84.
Professor Hollinger also points out that under Adrian Dantley the Nuggets long standing position as the best team in the league at earning free throws has flip flopped. It would seem officials are not afraid of Dantley’s bark (ESPN.com Insider equired), mostly because he rarely ever uses it.
Rob Mahoney wrote a very good piece on Carmelo for Pro Basketball Talk that I highly recommend.
For some reason I am beginning to feel optimistic about tonight’s game even though my brain is trying to convince my heart otherwise.
J.R. Smith has been mocked and ridiculed again for something he tweeted. After the Nuggets loss to the Jazz in game four of their first round series Smith said that if you play selfish you lose selfish. Of course, everyone, including myself, thought that such a statement was pretty silly coming from a player who I once said was removed from a game due to a sprained shot selection.
The question is what exactly is selfish? You can be selfish on both offense and defense. You can be selfish in the locker room. The most common way to define selfish play is whether a player, or players, take too many shots. I think it is a very safe assumption that is the kind of selfish J.R. was referring to.
Was Carmelo Anthony selfish when he took 26 shots? I suspect most people would say, “No.” Carmelo made 13 of his 26 shots and his 39 point performance was what prevented the game from becoming a blowout earlier in the contest. On the other hand, Carmelo did take some bad shots, plus he turned the ball over a whopping nine times while only tallying one assist.
You can make an argument that Carmelo played great and was the reason Denver was within seven points in the fourth quarter. However, I think you could also argue that maybe the Nuggets would have been better off if Melo did a little more passing and a little less dribbling off his foot trying to force his own offense.
Was Chauncey Billups selfish when he took four long jumpers in the first quarter? After the game Chauncey claimed that he really focused on reversing the ball. I saw many more jumpers than swing passes from Chauncey.
Kenyon Martin launched three jumpers in the first quarter that he had no business shooting. Was he selfish? Ty Lawson was aggressive in looking for his offense and his play could have been considered somewhat selfish too. Chris Andersen missed a jumper and both Birdman and Kenyon missed shots when they tried to throw down a spectacular follow dunk instead of making an attempt at a safer tip in. Can we classify those efforts as a selfish attempt at style over substance?
In comparison, J.R. was on the floor for 8:14 seconds before he attempted his first shot. Aside from a three quarter court heave at the first half buzzer Smith only attempted four shots in 16:14 seconds of floor time in the first half. One shot was a breakaway layup and second attempt was the shot he took after he rebounded his missed breakaway layup.
Looking beyond shot totals, it was obvious that J.R. was making an effort to play unselfish basketball. He was a very willing passer and never was a “ball stopper” that George Karl has railed against in the past. He passed up open shots in order to give the ball to teammates who were in worse position than he was. I can see why after the game he might have felt like he was playing an unselfish style of basketball and his teammates did not reciprocate.
The flip side to that is J.R. did nothing to set his teammates up. He did not drive and attempt to earn an easy shot or get to the free throw line. He simply passed the ball around the perimeter when it came to him. That may be unselfish, but is it they style of play the Nuggets need from J.R.? It certainly was not particularly effective as all the passing only netted J.R. two assists.
I think it is exceptional that J.R. was trying to be coachable and implement the style of play that we all know leads to success for the Denver Nuggets. It is a small step forward in his development. Unfortunately, his efforts seem to be misguided. Unselfish does not mean passive and J.R. was incredibly passive, especially in the first half.
I understand J.R.’s frustration and appreciate his desire to promote unselfish play. The problem is if J.R. is not being a playmaker, it is bad for the team. Plus I would wait more than one game before I start calling people out on Twitter.
Momentum and confidence cannot be measured. In retrospect you can always find a moment where momentum shifted and confidence blossomed. For most of the 2009-10 season the Denver Nuggets were seen as the primary challengers to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference. After suffering significant setbacks Denver arrives in the playoffs with a full complement of players. Denver then faces off against a Utah Jazz team in the first round missing their best one on one defender. They overwhelm the banged up Jazz and face the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round. With the additions of Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo, as well as the return of George Karl, who may not be coaching from the bench, but is feeling well enough to be around the team and help strategize for the Lakers series, Denver plays the Lakers even tougher than in 2009 and force a seventh game.
At that point anything can happen. After seeing the Nuggets blow out the Utah Jazz in the fourth quarter of the opening game of the series would that scenario surprise you? I guarantee you they are not hurting for confidence and we might look back at the barrage of threes that J.R. splashed in the final stanza as the point where momentum swung into the Nuggets’ corner.
Denver’s offense had dropped off considerably over the final month plus of the season. Offense does not appear to be very high on the list of concerns for Denver against the Jazz. Despite J.R. Smith’s fourth quarter performance it was Carmelo Anthony who announced his presence in the 2010 playoffs with authority by hitting six of his eight shots in the first quarter. Melo went on to finish the game with 42 points on a shockingly good 18-25 from the floor.
In a move that I find difficult to understand Jerry Sloan chose not to double Melo although Carmelo rarely had the ball on the block. However, in Sloan’s defense most of his offense came from the wing making it more difficult to double because he was further away from the basket and doing so would open up too much of the floor for cutters and making rotations more difficult because of the extra ground they must cover. Still I thought it was odd that Utah was not prepared to double him when he made his move and got into the lane. There were only a handful of occasions where they did send a second defender at Melo and Carmelo either made a smart pass or was still able to get a quality shot.
Utah saved their zone for the second half did switch in and out of a 2-3 zone in the second half. Zones have given Denver problems in the past and the way Utah would jump from zone to man and back again every few possessions seemed to keep the Nuggets a little out of sync. I was a little surprised they did not apply the zone more often, but I doubt Sloan has much confidence in it after the Suns absolutely demolished it on Wednesday.
Kudos to the Nuggets coaching staff as Denver was clearly prepared for the zone and showed good patience as they worked to break it down. Instead of simply chucking long jumpers they moved without the ball and did a very good job of getting the ball into the middle of the floor either through penetration or cutting into the lane. On one possession Nene was able to slip directly inside of Boozer right at the rim. He received the pass and easily laid the ball in for a gift layup.
Regardless of what defense the Jazz played they had no answer for Carmelo who is too big and strong for C.J. Miles, but is also too quick for him on the perimeter. Melo had his midrange shot falling and rained a hurricane of jumpers on the Jazz. He also drove to the rim just enough to make sure whoever was defending him could not get too tight on him.
Carmelo is not the only player the Jazz cannot cover, but J.R. Smith is a very difficult match up for them as well. J.R. played very well against Utah during the regular season and that continued in game one, at least in the fourth quarter. After a very slow shooting start, J.R. caught fire in the fourth and provided the boost Denver needed to create a cushion. Smith is capable of playing a much more complete offensive game and Utah will be in trouble if he begins to drive and dish or work the pick and roll with Nene or Chris Andersen more often.
Nene was another star for Denver as he was able to post up and earn easy shots on one end while playing very good one on one defense against Boozer and on the pick and roll at the other. He was more aggressive in looking for his shot and on more than one occasion he went to the rim when he would have gladly passed during the regular season.
The other key offensive player for Denver was Ty Lawson. Lawson hit a couple of early threes and I think it settled him down quite a bit. He pushed the pace and was aggressive in going to the rim. Lawson played so well that Dantley kept Chauncey on the bench for the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter. Deron Williams did take advantage of Lawson on defense in the fourth quarter getting into the lane and either making a layup or getting fouled on several occasions. Still, Lawson played great in his first career playoff game and he will continue to be a key for Denver as the playoffs progress.
Defensively, Denver played better than the numbers seem to indicate. They shunned switching screens and did a good job of challenging Williams on the pick and roll. Williams was held in check in the frist half with only six points and two assists. He exploded in the third quarter partly because he was much more aggressive in transition and partly due to the fact he played a little more off the ball. In my preview I mentioned that he gets more shots off of screens set for him as a runner than through the pick and roll and Utah had him running off more screens in the second half than the first.
While it was good to see so much pressure on the ball handler on pick and rolls, the weak side defenders did not do a good job of stopping the roll man from getting shots at the rim. The one or two shots Boozer got at the rim were off the pick and roll and it was due to the lack of help from Kenyon and/or Birdman. Denver also must improve their rotations as C.J. Miles was able to get off early due to late arriving defenders in the first quarter. Look for Denver to improve on those two areas going forward.
The big story of the night though is Denver looked like the Nuggets team that was a contender for much of the season and for me it is easy to envision a battle in the second round against the Lakers that could easily go either way.
Still, there is a lot of work left to do in this series, but if Denver plays as well as they did tonight, the depleted Jazz will struggle to keep up with them for very long.
Additional Game One Nuggets
Advanced Game Stats
Pace Factor: 89.3 – relatively slow for a game in Denver
Defensive Efficiency: 123.8 – Pretty shaky although Utah deserves credit for the way the executed their offense
Offensive Efficiency: 141.1 – Wow, that is a huge number
As a good Denver Nuggets fan I am sure you thoroughly dislike the Utah Jazz. It is not difficult to come up with a reason or four. The silly nickname, the we have nothing else to cheer for fans who shriek to the heavens over any call that goes against their team regardless of how correct the call was, the fact they think they have better skiing there than in Colorado and worst of all, the years of putting up with a dominant Jazz team that pounded the Nuggets for years thanks to Stockton and Malone.
Things have changed in the Era of Melo. Denver has been able to get the better of the Jazz more often than not since Carmelo Anthony rode into town on a light blue steed. This is the seventh straight season Denver has made the playoffs and they have now won three of the last five division championships (guess who won the other two). While they have battled each other for division titles and playoff positioning, these two Stalwarts of the Mountain Time Zone rarely face off in the postseason. They have only faced off in the playoffs one other time in the past 25 seasons. In 1994 the Jazz defeated the upstart Nuggets, fresh off their upset of the top seeded Seattle Supersonics, four games to three.
After a 16 year hiatus it is time to shift this cantankerous regular season rivalry into a full blown throwing things around the house and making the neighbors wonder if they should call 911 playoff conflagration.
These two teams are very evenly matched. “How evenly matched are they?” you ask. They have finished each of the previous two seasons with identical records with the Nuggets earning the tie breaker both times. The Jazz have been better over the second half of the season, but thanks to a 3-1 series win in the regular season Denver has the advantage of up to four games on their home court. Both teams are dealing with injuries with Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer nicked up for the Jazz and Kenyon Martin still recovering from patella tendinitis. All three are currently expected to play in game one, but if any one of the three is unable to perform up to the standard they have set for themselves it will be difficult to overcome.
At this point I think it is safe to expect both teams to have all of their players available as we enter the series. The fact that back to back games are now a thing of the past will help Kirilenko, Boozer and Martin continue to recover and get stronger as the series wears on.
Neither team has been particularly good defensively although neither is as bad as Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns made them look in their respective season ending blowouts. I think there is evidence that neither coach feels particularly comfortable with where his team is defensively as can be evidenced by the Nuggets desperate attempt to switch screens against the Suns and the Jazz playing a leaky zone.
I think we can expect to see the Nuggets play the Jazz as straight up as possible. The Jazz have the reputation of being a pick and roll team, but they are a team that sets a bevy of picks on every possession and force you to pay close attention to your man and worry about who might be coming free for an open shot. Denver has better this season helping on screens and cuts away from the ball, than figuring out how to stop the pick and roll. It will be interesting to see if the Jazz play more pick and roll to exploit Denver’s weakness or if they stick to their regular game plan and work to out execute Denver. I would expect the Nuggets to attempt to defend the pick and roll the same way they did against San Antonio and Memphis towards the end of the regular season. Denver did not switch ball screens much against Utah this season and seeing as how that is such a passive strategy I do not expect to see them begin to do so now.
However, the Jazz get most of their shots off of cuts either to the lane or directly at the rim. Williams does not shoot very often driving off a ball screen. If he cannot get the ball to the roll man, he will look to kick out if the defense is collapsing, or simply pass in order to set himself up to run off a screen where he likes to catch and shoot midrange jumpers.
From a personnel standpoint you can expect to see Arron Afflalo start out covering Deron Williams with Chauncey covering C.J. Miles. Afflalo will have to fight over the screens set by the large frontcourt players the Jazz can throw at you. Nene will start out on Boozer leaving Kenyon to cover the much larger Mehmet Okur.
Utah has had success running on Denver and it will be important for the Nuggets to limit easy baskets in transition. You can expect the Jazz to be aggressive in transition, they know Denver struggles in that area and will attempt to take advantage of it. They will not be afraid of a fast paced game.
On the other end of the floor Utah will attempt to have Kirilenko cover Carmelo one on one. Andrei is not the defender he once was and you can expect to see him sag off of Melo to defend against the drive and hope his length will allow him to challenge a jump shot. With AK-47 laying off the Jazz will probably not pre-rotate any help to Melo’s side of the floor and there have been times where I was very surprised to see how little concern the Jazz have shown for Melo’s ability to get to the rim. When Kirilenko is not in the game you can expect to see Utah double Melo mixing their looks up between immediate hard doubles and waiting until he puts the ball on the floor before sending the extra defender.
You can score on the Utah Jazz. If you are patient, move without the ball and share you can get almost any shot you want. It was impressive to watch Phoenix pass the ball five, six or seven times in order to get the defense moving and earn wide open looks, one after the other. It will be crucial for Denver to play with purpose. Utah will try to close off the lane and get Denver to shoot jumpers. If the Nuggets fall into that trap, which they have on a regular basis as of late, it will make for a frustrating series. On the other hand if the Nuggets work the ball around and cut the Jazz will struggle to stop them.
Little needs to be said about the coaching matchup as Jerry Sloan has won more Western Conference Championships than Adrian Dantley has coached playoff games. At this point I trust Dantely has committed to Ty Lawson as the backup point guard and will relegate Anthony Carter to the cushy folding chairs. It will be very interesting to see if either coach will be able to dictate lineups to the other. Dantley loves going small, but asking Carmelo to cover Carlos Boozer or even Paul Milsap is a disaster waiting to happen. Still, Boozer or Milsap would have an even more difficult time with Melo. If the size of the Jazz can relegate the Nuggets’ small lineups to a regular season memory it will be significant. On the other hand should Denver be able to force the issue with a smaller lineup it will be a boon for the Nuggets as they absolutely hold an edge over the Jazz in both quality and quantity of guards and swingmen.
Finally we can move on to the individual matchups where we start off with the Jazz big men. Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur are a difficult matchup for many teams. Okur is the larger man, but has the tremendous outside game that is vexing for opposing bigs who do not want to venture out 24 feet from the rim. However, if you put a smaller defender, such as Kenyon Martin, on Okur he can use his size advantage of score on the block. If Okur can have success against Kenyon on the block Denver will have to start doubling him and that will open up the floor for the cutters to slice and dice the defense for easy baskets.
I like the matchup between Nene and Boozer for Denver. Nene has the size, strength and quickness to contain Boozer. Plus I think Nene can drive by Boozer at will if he faces him up, or he can spin around him with his back to the basket. Chris “Birdman” Andersen is not a great fit to cover either one as he prefers to be in the paint than on the perimeter guarding Okur and Boozer is crafty enough not to let Birdman block his shot when he gets good position. The entire Jazz squad does a pretty solid job of throwing a ball fake or pump fake at their defender so Andersen will have to be ready for that.
As mentioned above, Utah will attempt to have Kirilenko cover Carmelo. I do not think it will end well for Kirilenko who is no longer quick enough to stay in front of Anthony, but seems to lack the explosiveness he used to have as a shot blocker.
J.R. Smith and Ty Lawson bring speed and quickness the Jazz cannot match. Both have had big games scoring and distributing this season against Utah. While I think Carmelo Anthony will be the best player in the series, I think Denver’s biggest advantage is the firepower they have on the bench in J.R. and Lawson. Still, the pressure remains on J.R. to not just shoot, but use his penetration and passing abilities to get his teammates easy looks at the rim. He has been particularly effective running pick and roll against Utah and dropping his smooth bounce pass to the rolling big.
Lawson had perhaps his two best games against the Jazz this season and I expect him to continue to fluster Utah’s guards with his speed and quickness. Ronnie Price is a nice player, but should not be much of a match for Lawson when Ty has the ball.
Of course Chauncey will be a big factor in the series. The less the Nuggets can have him stuck guarding Williams the better, but he will be up to the task when necessary. Hopefully Billups can curtail his Mr. Big Shot tendencies and demand an unselfish effort on offense.
Ultimately, I think there was a reason why Denver won the season series from Utah this season. I think they are the better team. However, that margin is razor thin. The Nuggets will certainly miss George Karl, but hopefully now that he is done with his treatment he can provide a little boost of moral. Still, I am a little disappointed Denver has been more distracted by the coaching situation than motivated by it. Even so, I think home court will loom large in this series although both teams are capable of stealing a game on the other’s floor.
In the end the Nuggets’ talent, athleticism and desire to push further into the postseason than they did last season will carry the day and Denver dispatches the Jazz in seven hard fought and entertaining games. And at the end, you will so despise the Jazz you will want to punch Branford Marsalis in the face.
Things were falling into place for the Denver Nuggets. Utah had dropped a game to Houston and opened the door for the Nuggets to claim the Northwest Division title and ensure the worst they would finish in the Western Conference would be third. All the Nuggets had to do was beat the San Antonio Spurs, who came into the Pepsi Center the night after losing at home to Memphis, and then beat Memphis on Monday night. Plus Kenyon Martin was making a return from a knee injury that could have potentially caused him to miss the remainder of the regular season and possibly the playoffs as well.
San Antonio had other ideas as they played a near perfect game and beat the tar out of the impotent Nuggets 104-85.
With the loss to San Antonio the Nuggets are going to have to either win in Phoenix, a game that will be their fourth in five days and the Suns will have a day of rest at home, or hope Phoenix can win in Utah on the final night of the season. Their only other hope is for Utah to lose at Golden State and I would not count on that happening.
Getting back to the game itself it was the Nuggets once potent offense that completely disappeared in the second half that allowed the Spurs to take control of the game. After a layup by Carmelo Anthony cut the Spurs’ lead to six early in the fourth quarter, San Antonio rattled off 12 straight points in only 2:39. During that time the Spurs scored on seven straight possessions, that streak would reach nine before the Nuggets finally earned a stop, while the Nuggets turned the ball over four times and missed two shots. On their six possessions they threw a total of five passes and two of those five were caught by players in black jerseys.
The most disconcerting aspect of the game was how the Nuggets completely checked out mentally. The combination of frustration created by the sound defense of the Spurs and the anger they felt towards the officials was apparently too much to handle. This game was in my mind the most important contest of the season, and it was made so largely due to the fact Denver blew so many easy games early in the season, yet Denver was completely unable to rise to the occasion. The way they failed to answer the bell in the fourth quarter was very distressing.
There was a slight glimmer of good news though. Despite the fact the Spurs picked Denver’s defense apart, the Nuggets actually showed significant improvement on their pick and roll defense. I am sure you will read that and scoff because the Spurs seemed to score at will. My high school coach used to say that any offense that is run correctly, will eventually earn an open shot. The pick and roll is the perfect example of that principle. A combination of a solid screen and the ball handler making sure he runs his man into the screen always creates an advantage for the offense. The Nuggets did a very good job of hedging, recovering and rotating against the Spurs pick and roll. The Spurs simply responded by executing their offense. The contrast between the motion and passing the Spurs exhibited on offense and the I-got-the-ball-so-I-better-shoot-it offense the Nuggets exhibited was very exacerbating.
I suspect there are some doubters out there regarding my claim the Nuggets improved their pick and roll defense so I put together a few clips as video evidence.
Denver still has time to get their act together for the playoffs, but I fear the way the season is playing out the most likely result for Denver will be a first round matchup against the Suns without home court advantage and that is very bad news for the Nuggets.
Additional Game 80 Nuggets
For the second night in a row the Denver Nuggets delivered a feel bad win. For the second night in a row the Nuggets lost a sizeable third quarter lead. For the second night in a row the Nuggets were behind in the fourth quarter and looked like a cooked goose. For the second night in a row the Nuggets made the plays down the stretch and pulled out a victory.
This time it was against the Los Angeles Lakers who were playing without Kobe Bryant and the victory dropped the Nuggets’ magic number for the Northwest Division title down to two. Denver can clinch the division title and seal home court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs with any combination of Nuggets’ wins or Jazz losses that add up to two.
There was some gamesmanship prior to tipoff as word leaked that Phil Jackson just might sit some of the Lakers key players and low and behold Kobe Bryant did not play a second. Early speculation as to why Kobe was held out surrounded the fact that it would provide a built in excuse for L.A. if they lost the game, and thus the season series, Denver would know it was because Kobe did not play. My initial reaction was that the Lakers wanted to do what they could to avoid playing the Nuggets in the first round. You can draw your own conclusion, but while the Lakers should be able to clinch the top seed in the west, they are now tied with the Orlando Magic and may have sacrificed home court in the finals should those two match up again in the NBA Finals.
There was nothing new to Nuggets fans in this game. Denver plays a so-so first half, builds a lead, gives it up after the offense becomes stagnant and perimeter oriented leading to easy baskets at the other end of the floor, and then somehow Denver manages to barely hang on for the win. While I am not thrilled with how the game went, at this point in the season a loss would have been devastating so I will gladly take the W, tainted though it was.
Once again the Nuggets tightened their defense and honed their focus over the final few minutes. Still they found themselves down five, 92-87, with just over three minutes remaining. Melo was a little slow meeting Lamar Odom as he cut into the lane, but recovered well enough to deflect the pass and it went out off of Odom. On the other end of the floor Melo showed some real savvy. He received the ball just left of center above the three point line. He had Anthony Carter on the wing and J.R. smith in the corner. Melo directed Carter to go to the other side of the floor and thus he and J.R. were now alone. Melo then drove left on Odom. Had Melo not repositioned Carter Jordan Farmar would have been in position to help and could have done so without worrying about Carter making him pay by hitting a three. However, with J.R. in the corner Sasha Vujicic was not about to leave Smith to help Odom. With no help available Melo blew past Odom for a layup. Odom was miffed with Vujacic, but he was not about to leave Smith, who had made five threes, alone. Plus any help from the weak side would be shielded off by Odom. Gasol did make an effort to help and block the shot, but he was too late. It was a very intelligent decision by Melo and he then executed it perfectly.
On the next Laker possession Nene, Billups and Carter all collapsed on Derrick Fisher resulting in a deflection and then a rushed shot. Denver rebounded the miss and pushed it up the floor. Carter passed to Melo who drilled a game tying three.
On the next defensive possession Nene hedged beautifully and forced Vujacic into the corner and when Carter recovered he was able to force a jump ball. Los Angeles controlled the tip and Billups was called for a foul when he tried getting a little too close to Fisher on a jumper. Fisher made both free throws, but J.R. drove baseline on Vujacic and hit a little floater to tie things up at 94.
The Lakers once again had the ball, but could not get a shot off thanks to Nene playing strong denial defense as Pau flashed out to the free throw line. Nene tipped the pass into the backcourt and by the time Vujacic recovered it, he ran out of time to shoot.
Denver then ran pick and roll with Chauncey and Nene that was so effective down the stretch in Oklahoma City. Nene only made one, but made up for it by stealing the ball from Gasol. Melo drew a foul on Odom and made both freebies to put Denver up 97-94.
Fisher was able to draw a foul on J.R. and made both free throws to get the Lakers within one. Denver then ran pick and roll, but Chauncey lost picked up his dribble and had to pass to J.R. who had his shot deflected. Denver caught a big break when Shannon Brown flipped a pass up the sideline allowing Chauncey to get in and deflect the pass. After a lengthy video review it was decided the ball was off of Fisher.
At this point I thought Adrian Dantley made a mistake. He had Melo, his second best free throw shooter inbound the ball and when Fisher did his best impression of a coffin on Chauncey, gripping him like grim death, Melo had to pass in to J.R. who has not been the most effective late game free throw shooter. Perhaps Dantley wanted to avoid a replay of what happened in the conference finals from last season when Denver turned the ball over twice on late game side inbounds plays. Still, Melo should have been a one of the potential receivers instead of the passer.
True to form J.R. missed the first free throw and failed to push the lead back up to three.
Down two with 12.7 seconds left Phil Jackson chose not to call a timeout. Melo and Chauncey switched a screen between Odom and Fisher. Fisher chose to try to get a jumper off over Melo. Fisher never threw any kind of a move at Melo to freeze him and as a result when he tried to launch a jumper Melo was able to lunge and block it.
While I would have preferred a 30 point victory, I was impressed with how Denver made the little plays to pull out a win. In the final three minutes alone, they scored at the rim twice, Melo hit a big three, the deflected two passes, stole the ball twice, defended the pick and roll successfully three times and blocked a desperation shot.
Denver now must continue to win on Saturday hen San Antonio comes to town. A victory over the Spurs and Memphis the following outing will clinch the division.
There are certainly two ways to look at the Denver Nuggets’ 98-94 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. The positive view is on a night where the Nuggets were missing Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen and acting coach Adrian Dantley suffering with kidney stones and in addition to those issues Denver was struggling to execute on both ends of the court, they made the plays they needed to make and came out with a win. The pessimistic view is the Nuggets did not play winning basketball, but pulled out a victory solely because the Thunder ran out of gas due to playing their fourth game in five nights, including the night after a mentally and physically draining overtime loss in Utah.
Honestly, both of those views have some merit. With playoff positioning on the line Denver had to win this game and they did. Regardless of how winded the Thunder might have been the Nuggets still had to make the shots and come up with the stops to complete their comeback.
The Thunder appeared to take control of the game with a 26-6 run spanning the third and fourth quarters. The Nuggets were 0-14 from the floor and turned the ball over seven times during that stretch. At that point I had tagged the body and was zipping up the body bag. Oklahoma City’s spurt was fueled by too few passes when the Nuggets had the ball. To make things worse, when Denver did pass, it was typically a poor decision, such as a lob by Chauncey Billlups in to Johan Petro who was being fronted on the block resulting in a travel when the help came from the weak side and on a three on one fast break J.R. Smith passed to Chauncey instead of Carmelo resulting in a easy block by Kevin Durant. (I do have to give Durant credit for how he played it. He shaded towards Melo’s side to bait J.R. into passing to Chauncey, then when the pass was made he simply closed in and blocked the shot. Still, it was a three on one and all it would have taken was for J.R. to realize Durant was baiting him into passing to Billups, fake to Chauncey and then dump the ball to Melo, or after KD committed to Chauncey he could have dropped the ball to J.R. or Melo for the score.)
So how did Denver manage to get back in the game? First and foremost, the defense finally made an appearance. After falling behind 89-76 with just over seven minutes remaining the Nuggets forced four turnovers and blocked two shots in the next three minutes and Denver ran off ten straight points. The key in my mind was the help defense. For much of the game OKC players were able to drive the lane and finish without worrying about encountering resistance.
Nene did a much better job of hedging on screens. The one time he was out of position, Chauncey squeezed down and tipped the ball away from Russell Westbrook. On another occasion Nene and Chauncey trapped Westbrook in the corner. Nick Collison cut to the basket, but Melo was in perfect help position. He slid over and was able to force a jump ball, which he then won against the taller Collison.
As the Nuggets picked up steam, the Thunder had clearly lost their legs. I believe every shot Durant took in the fourth quarter was short and jumpers from Westbrook and Green consistently hit the front of the rim. Defensively for OKC, the rotations that had closed off the lane for much of the night became a half step slower.
With Kenyon and Birdman sidelined the group that pulled off the comeback was the small ball bunch consisting of Chauncey, J.R., Afflalo, Melo and Nene. Despite the height disadvantage the Nuggets outrebounded the Thunder by nine. The starting back court of Billups and Afflalo corralled 13 rebounds while Carmelo tallied 11.
Defensively, Denver was simply much more active and they did a great job communicating.
There was some good and some bad by Adrian Dantley tonight. He continues to make the stunningly bad decision to give Anthony Carter playing time instead of Ty Lawson. It blows my mind that especially after the way Lawson played against the Clippers Dantley thinks it is a good idea to play Carter. Lawson is so vastly superior Carter’s stranglehold on playing time is difficult to fathom. I also thought it was odd that Petro started instead of Joey Graham. Oklahoma City plays Jeff Green at power forward so Graham would have been a good matchup to combat Green. Also, if Petro checks in for Nene you avoid the situation where your only big on the floor is Malik Allen.
Sticking with questionable decisions by the Denver coaches I was also blown away that coming out after halftime assistant Chad Iske said that the Nuggets were happy that the game had turned into a “defensive game in the second quarter” adding they wanted to slow the “young fast guys” from OKC down. The biggest advantage the Nuggets had was the fact the Thunder were playing their fourth game in five nights. Add in the fact that Denver was missing two of their three best bigs and I fail to see how a defensive half court game gave Denver the best chance to win.
Both coaching staffs engaged in a bit of a battle around Carmelo. Thabo Sefolosha is a very good defender, but he lacks the lateral quickness that other lockdown defenders possess. The Thunder gave Thabo the opportunity to try to handle Melo one on one. Melo blew by Sefolosha twice for layups and after that the Thunder switched to the pressure and pre-rotate system we have seen the Lakers make famous. For the remainder of the first half Melo was held in check. To start the second half the Nuggets made an adjustment that has worked to negate the pre-rotating defense that has been effective against the Lakers in the past. Instead of feeding Melo on the wing, they started giving him the ball in the middle of the floor. That adjustment allowed Melo to get into the lane again. The Nuggets also started curling Melo off a screen to get him the ball on the right side about 12 feet from the rim. That forced the defense to worry about Melo coming off the screen and shooting, Melo continuing to curl and drive to the basket and the fact that the screener was rolling to the rim. I thought Anthony missed some chances to dump the ball to Nene on the roll and once passed up the open short jumper to fake, spin and shoot a much more difficult turn around, but the set succeeded in getting Carmelo the ball.
I did like the play Dantley drew up with the Nuggets down four and 2:20 remaining in the contest. Afflalo threw the ball in to Billups from the right side of the floor. He then ran around a double screen by Melo and Nene. With the defense shifting to account for Afflalo Nene set a down screen for Melo who popped out to the free throw line wide open. Melo caught the pass and instead of settling for the jumper, drove into the lane and converted a short flip shot amongst four Thunder defenders. Sadly for the home team, three of those four defenders were doing more watching than helping.
With the Jazz losing in Houston tonight if the Nuggets can win their final three home games they will win the Northwest Division and have home court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs. That is easier said than done as the Los Angeles Lakers roll into town on Thursday on three days of rest and smarting after a demoralizing loss to the Spurs in Staples Center on Sunday.
Additional Game 78 Nuggets