We are close enough to the end of the season to start projecting what might happen with some level of certainty. Honestly, I have no idea what order Dallas, Utah and Phoenix will finish in or how the bottom three spots will be sorted among Oklahoma City, Portland and San Antonio. I do believe two spots are locked in place. Obviously the Lakers will be the top seed and I think the Nuggets are all but guaranteed to finish as the fifth seed.
While that is a very frustrating sentence to type, Denver can be a dangerous fifth seed or they can be a pushover as the fifth seed. It all depends on how the finish the regular season and the Nuggets’ closing schedule is an interesting one. Almost every contest features a team playing at the end of a difficult stretch of games.
Portland comes to town Thursday playing their fifth game in eight days. Wednesday they bombed the Knicks, but still have to travel for the fifth straight game. Denver has been sitting at home since Monday night dwelling on how badly they have sucked for the past week. If we do not get a big effort from the Nuggets against Portland, it will be very bad news. I think the result is a win for Denver.
Next the Clippers, without Baron Davis who is out with back spasms, arrive in Denver on Saturday in the only battle between two rested teams remaining on the docket. The Nuggets will be on one day of rest while the Clippers will have had two days off after getting blown out in Toronto on Wednesday. That game should absolutely be another win for the Nuggets.
Denver then has three days off before their final five games in seven nights stretch to close out the regular season. The first outing is in Oklahoma City. The way Denver has been playing this would seem like a sure loss. However, this game will be the fourth game in five nights for the Thunder, who play in Utah the night before, and will have traveled before each of the four games. That smells like a win and a three game winning streak.
The next night the Nuggets return home to play the Lakers who are having some serious struggles on the road right now and really have nothing to play for. Even so LA/Denver has become a heated mini-rivalry and with the Lakers enjoying three days off I expect them to play well. Denver will be motivated to do well also with the division crown still within their grasp, but without Kenyon Martin and Coach Karl I suspect they drop this one.
After a day of rest Denver gets a visit from the San Antonio Spurs who will be playing their fourth game in five days. It will be interesting to see if the Spurs will knock themselves out in an attempt to avoid the eight seed and a first round matchup with LA. I suspect the Spurs will sit Tim Duncan and/or Manu Ginobili against Denver and I think this is another Nugget victory.
Two days later in the penultimate matchup of the regular season the Grizzlies come calling. It will be Memphis’ fifth game in seven days as they provide another victim for the now rolling Nuggets.
That brings us to game 82, a visit to Phoenix. The Nuggets will arrive in Phoenix with a solid stretch of five wins in six games and sporting a 53-28 record a half a game behind the Jazz who will be 53-27 and playing a game at Golden State on the same night. Denver will be playing their fifth game in seven nights, although unlike their recent horrific five in seven trip out east, they only have two travel days of which this is the second. The Suns enter the battle after a day off. Phoenix is a very difficult matchup for Denver when the Nuggets are full strength and the chances of earning a W in Phoenix are slim. Chalk that one up as a loss with Denver finishing the season 53-29, fifth overall in the conference.
These final seven games will be a test of Denver’s mental attitude and determination as there are “official” reports backing up my intuitive suggestions that they very well could be without Kenyon and Karl even after the playoffs begin.
Thursday night is the Nuggets’ fight or flight moment. Do they fold the tent and enter the playoffs a slumping has been or embrace the fact they can still capture the Northwest Division and remain relevant? Momentum changes come at unexpected times and as bad as they have looked recently all it will take for the Nuggets to recapture some of their lost mojo is a well played victory against the Blazers.
Although you guys might not like it if I do not come up with a post dedicated to each and every game this season, I think it gives us a chance to avoid jumping to conclusions over any one singular game. The two games the Nuggets played in this weekend is the perfect example of how looking at two or more games at once can provide a more complete picture than picking apart each individual performance.
Had I concocted a post following the embarrassing loss to the Clippers it would have gone on and one about how the Nuggets lacked heart. The complacency they exhibited during the 19-0 run the Clippers dumped on them was shocking to me. I kept waiting for someone to get angry, and call the team together and demand a more determined effort be put forth. Not one Nugget player did anything of the sort. Either they did not take the Clippers seriously or they did not care. Neither alternative is acceptable, but the lack of any trace of anger about the proceedings made me fear it was the latter more than the former. Even after the run, we did not see any kind of increased effort to show the Clippers that the Nuggets were going to take back control of the game. It was not until the end of the third quarter that Denver showed signs of life and by then it was too late.
Fortunately for Nuggets fans, the story does not end with the loss to the Clippers. The next night Denver faced the Chicago Bulls in a game where the Bulls were the well rested squad. To make matters worse, they were eager to gain revenge on Denver for the one point loss they suffered at the hands of the Nuggets earlier this season in Chicago.
From the beginning the Bulls looked like the fresher team as they rode some hot shooting to an early 14 point lead. Things looked bleak for Denver, especially considering they were victims of the dreaded back to back game where they played a late game in the Pacific time zone only to fly east to the Mountain time zone, losing an hour on the way, to play the next night.
However, the Nuggets were playing hard, just not well. It was a good test to see if the lack of heart they exhibited in Los Angeles the night before was going to be a onetime frustration or an ongoing issue.
Midway through the second quarter the Nuggets announced that they would not be content to lose. They chose to not let the circumstances dictate the outcome of the contest.
Lead by a suddenly red hot Chauncey Billups in the second quarter and an equally scorching J.R. Smith in the fourth the Nuggets took it to the Bulls and by the end of the night, there was no doubt who the better team was.
Typically it would take two passes for the offense to get the ball to that point, but because Rose made a direct pass, Nene, who was guarding Joakim Noah on the right block, had no time to run out to cover Salmons. In addition to Nene being a pass behind, Kenyon, who was on the strong side block had one fewer pass to get to the corner to cover Luol Deng. Salmons could have taken the shot, but made the unselfish play to pass to a wide open Deng who nailed the open jumper.
The real mindbender is who do you blame the defensive breakdown on? Did Afflalo and Melo not trap hard enough allowing Rose to see the diagonal pass to Salmons? Does the blame lie with Chauncey for committing to Gibson too soon? Then again perhaps Nene and Kenyon, seeing that Rose had given up his dribble and Chauncey was already covering Gibson, should not have waited for the pass to Salmons to trigger their rotation.
Great defensive teams know how to read each other and react when the unexpected happens. The Bulls took advantage of that diagonal pass two or three times in the first half. If they are going to become a formidable defensive team, Denver has to be able to put up a cohesive front immediately when the opponent does something unusual. It requires communication, understanding of the defensive principles you are implementing and a trust that if you leap, your teammate has your back.
The Nuggets now enter what is probably the easiest portion of their schedule all season. They face the Nets, Knicks, Timberwolves twice and the Warriors. Those teams are currently a combined 8-43 right now and out of those eight wins, four have come against one of the other three teams (the Wolves and Knicks beat the Nets and the Warriors beat the Knicks and Wolves). As long as the Nuggets make sure they learned the lesson from their loss to the Clippers to take every team seriously and do not allow themselves to be complacent, even if they get off to a good start as they did in Los Angeles, they should win all five of those games which would make them 14-4.
Before we begin the season previews and start looking forward to next season, I am going to look back at last season. I made a multitude of predictions over the previous 12 plus months and I started wondering how accurate I was. Did I successfully predict how well Chris Andersen played? What about the Nuggets acquisition of Chauncey Billups or how many games the Milwaukee Bucks would win?
The only way to know if I knew what I was talking about is to go back through thousands and thousands of words and pluck out all the things I said would happen no matter how hair brained or how mundane and assign a verdict.
Here is the first of four posts full of things I thought would happen. We will start by looking at my general preseason projections and game by game forecasts. Tomorrow we will look at my projected season records for all 30 teams. We will then move on to my projected personnel moves and then finish with my projections for player performances.
Prediction: I believe the Denver Nuggets must alter their style of play if they are ever to become a true championship contender. I love the Denver Mile High Mystique as much as anyone, but I strongly believe the Nuggets must evaluate the overall philosophy of their franchise.
Verdict: I am going to say correct. The Nuggets still ran, which is fine, but they dropped from their perennial spot of first or second in pace down to fifth, it may not sound like much, but they were closer to the eleventh fastest paced team, Milwaukee, than they were to the second fastest paced team, New York. The greater focus on defense and working for better shots on offense was a great recipe.
Prediction: I might be completely wrong, but if we are ever going to see the best of the Nuggets and the best of George Karl, it has to be this season.
Verdict: Correct, the embarrassing sweep at the hand of the Lakers in 2008 shook the players and forced them to deal with how far away they were from contending. That led them to push themselves to great things last season.
Prediction: The [Western Conference] number eight seed will make the playoffs with 44 to 46 wins next season.
Verdict: Incorrect, Utah was the eighth seed with 48 wins.
Prediction: The lower class [of the Western Conference] will be better. Oklahoma City, Minnesota and Sacramento will fall into the categories of improved to much improved. The Clippers may have lost Elton Brand, but they played most of last season without him anyway and the additions of Baron Davis and Marcus Camby (although I have a difficult time buying them as a playoff contender) will clearly make them more competitive.
Verdict: Incorrect, all three combined to win only one more game than the Lakers, 66 to 65. However, the Wolves were 10-4 in January only to have Al Jefferson suffered a season ending injury in early February and the Thunder were a very improved team going 18-27 from January 10 through the end of the season. The Clippers were simply abysmal, but at least I did not pick them to make the playoffs like many others did.
Prediction: Out of the teams that finished outside the playoffs looking in last season the only team that I believe needs to be taken seriously is Portland.
Verdict: Correct, Portland was the only non playoff team from 2007-08 to win more than 30 games in the west.
Prediction: Some believe Golden State can compete for a playoff spot, but I do not see it.
Verdict: Correct, Golden State finished 19 games out of the playoffs. I need to keep making predictions against nebulous conglomerates such as “some.”
Prediction: I believe the Nuggets and Blazers will make the postseason.
Verdict: Correct, both did.
Prediction: This season is the year that they [Denver] will be better off having a representative in Secaucus, NJ instead of having their representatives massacred at the hands of the Lakers or Hornets in the first round.
Verdict: Wildly incorrect, but had they not made the Billups trade, I think that prediction would have been the truth. I was wrong about the Hornets too.
Prediction: If you are looking for a team to fall apart this season how about the Clippers? They have a point guard who is famous for his horrid shot selection paired with a control freak head coach. They lost their best player in what might have been a far more incompetent negotiating process by the front office than anything the Nuggets have been guilty of and God’s Gift to Defense Marcus Camby is not going to play a single game in the preseason due to a heel injury. Oh yea, and do not forget that Chris Kaman is coming off of a season where he played only 56 games plus he put some extra wear and tear on his body by playing for Germany in the Olympics.
Verdict: Correct, they were without a doubt the biggest disappointment in the West other than perhaps the Suns. By the way, that was in response to ESPN.com’s NBA writers naming the Nuggets the most likely team to self combust.
Prediction: [After game 23] they [the Nuggets] face three straight back to back sets against some very good teams which will tell us a lot about how good this team can really be.
Verdict: Incorrect, Denver was only 2-4 in those six games (at Dallas, at Houston, Cleveland, at Phoenix, Portland and at Portland), but the season turned out OK. Of course, I could go the other way and say they only went 2-4 and that showed us they were not going to be NBA champs.
Prediction: The Nuggets have already clinched a tie with the Mavs for the season series, but I believe they will certainly win at least one of the two games left to clinch the tiebreaker in case it should come into play.
Verdict: Correct, the Nuggets swept the Mavs in the regular season.
Prediction: I do not like their chances against the Spurs or the Hornets (especially now that Tyson Chandler is back in the Big Easy) and I would not be very confident should the Nuggets face off against the Jazz [02/20/09].
Verdict: Incorrect, in defense of my lack of faith, this was following a blowout loss against the Bulls and Tyson Chandler was healthy and looking strong and Manu Ginobili had not yet been injured.
Prediction: A big thanks to Detroit and Boston for blowing games against the Spurs and Jazz tonight. Way to go bozos. I will forgive the Celtics as long as they lose to the Nuggets next Monday.
Verdict: Incorrect, Boston beat the Nuggets, but I actually found it in my heart to forgive them, but I am not going to count it one against myself.
Prediction: With the talent on this team and with the schedule providing them with a plethora of winnable games I feel very good guaranteeing that the Nuggets will make the playoffs [03/10/09].
Prediction: With the stink bomb the Nuggets dropped on us the past couple of weeks they have almost completely destroyed any chance of earning home court advantage in the playoffs. I have a difficult time envisioning a scenario where they catch the Spurs, Jazz or Hornets. Plus with the loss last night they have lost the season series to the Rockets making it even more difficult to surpass them in the standings. In order to earn home court advantage the Nuggets would have to overtake two of those four teams. At this point almost any best case scenario we can construct leaves the Nuggets playing either the Spurs, Jazz or Hornets in the first round. Because of that I am afraid there is little hope of Denver reaching the second round [also 03/10/09].
Verdict: Absolutely 100% incorrect. Out of all the incorrect predictions I made, this is the one that bugs me the most. I wrote it following the Nuggets two point home loss to the Rockets that was their fifth loss in six games. Of course they went on to win 13 of 14 to push themselves into second in the conference. I hate that I wrote it, but thank God I did because it clearly turned the Nuggets season around. Honestly, I try my best to not get caught up in the emotion of a season, but I also have to write what I believe. If I end up with egg on my face, well, when life gives you eggs, break them and drink them like Rocky (Balboa, not the mountain lion or the squirrel).
Prediction: The Nuggets will beat the Hornets in seven games because Chris Paul will not lose game 6 at home.
Verdict: Incorrect, although I still do not think Paul would have let the series end in New Orleans.
Prediction: Should the Nuggets win [Game 4 versus New Orleans], I think they win game five to close out the series.
Prediction: Logic tells me tonight [Game 5 versus New Orleans] will be nothing short of a formality.
Verdict: Correct, Denver rolled over the Hornets by 19.
Prediction: David West will not make another All-Star team.
Verdict: It may be presumptuous of me, but I am going to call this one correct.
Prediction: The Denver Nuggets will beat the Dallas Mavericks in six games.
Verdict: Incorrect, the Nuggets won in five, but they did win.
Prediction: I expect the Nuggets to close this series out [versus Dallas] just as they did against New Orleans and six hours from now we will be celebrating the Nuggets’ first appearance in the conference finals since 1985.
Verdict: Correct, the Nuggets did indeed close out the Mavs in five games, although it was a little closer than game 5 against the Hornets.
Prediction: My official prediction is the Lakers in seven games.
Verdict: Incorrect, partly due to the Nuggets late game ineptness the Lakers won in six.
Prediction: I do believe the Nuggets will win [game 2 versus the Lakers].
Verdict: Correct, despite literally throwing game one away, Denver won game two.
Prediction: As you would expect I think the Nuggets will win [game 6 versus the Lakers] tonight.
Verdict: Um…really incorrect. The Lakers rolled the Nuggets in game 6 at the Pepsi Center.
The final tally for the first section of projections is 12 out of 23 were correct, good for a rate of 52.2%. Not bad, but not great either. Part two coming tomorrow.
I just realized that I will not be back from Monsters vs Aliens to put up a preview for Nuggets vs Clippers so here is your game thread.
The Denver Nuggets supplied us with another relatively easy, but uninspiring win. Denver cashed in on runs in the first and third quarter to cruise to a 107-94 win over the slumping Los Angeles Clippers.
The Nuggets played a very strong first ten minutes and it was good to see them jump on the Clippers early. All too often Denver has allowed a lesser team to either be in the lead or remain very close at the end of the first quarter. The result has been that the opponent develops a sense of hope and the game ends up being much tighter than it had to be.
Even so after building a 13 point lead at 24-11 the Nuggets failed to score over the final 1:29 of the quarter while the Clippers tacked on a couple of Steve Novak threes in transition to drop the lead down to seven. In the second quarter the Nuggets built their lead back up to double digits, but the Clippers were able to get to within three and were only down by six at the break. The Clippers were able to come back because the Nuggets turned the ball over and LA hit a couple of jumpers. Therein lies the problem with being happy to have a ten or eleven or twelve point lead. They can disappear very quickly.
Despite the Clippers’ second quarter spurt the outcome of the game was never truly in doubt. Denver jumped on them again to start the third quarter scoring the first eight points and the competitive portion of the game was over. Although both teams were resigned to the outcome of the game in the third quarter, the Nuggets never did land a knockout blow where the lead was pushed up over 20 points and stayed there. Denver had their biggest lead of 79-59 with 3:36 left in the third quarter. In less than three minutes the Clippers had it down to 11. I do not know where this sense of contentment comes from, but it definitely is not a good thing.
The Nuggets defense was not seriously taxed by the Clippers. Baron Davis was not overly aggressive and Eric Gordon seemed relatively passive himself. Even so the Nuggets once again struggled to cover the three point line. The Clippers shot 9-17 from behind the arc and 12 of those 17 attempts were uncontested. They came via a variety of defensive breakdowns. Two of the open threes came on passes out of the post, two came on drive and kicks, two were in transition, and the other open looks were results of a simple pin down screen, miscommunication, a loose ball situation and off a pick and roll.
Offensively, the Nuggets played with good movement and there were no prolonged stretches where they were settling for jumpers. They took advantage of their opportunities to run accruing 27 fast break points. The biggest difference I have seen in the running game is the outlet passing. Guards are setting up closer to half court and the bigs are hitting them quickly and accurately. The running game has also been augmented by having Renaldo Balkman in the lineup. He fills the lane as well as anyone and you regularly see him flying up the sideline passing player after player like he is trying to get to the bank before they close to cash his paycheck.
Balkman had another spectacular game scoring a career high 20 points and collecting ten rebounds. I love watching the way he gets his points. Out of his 14 shots only one was a jumper and only once did he create his own shot. He is a force on the offensive glass and, as mentioned many times before, he finds cracks in the defense around the rim resulting in easy hoops.
It is good to see the Nuggets get well during this portion of the schedule although they have not faced a team who has fought them like the Kings did, but I am not sure they will.
Additional Game 67 Nuggets
Mindboggling Game Stats
Pace Factor: 98.9 – Fast pace as you would expect from a game with 42 fast break points.
Defensive Efficiency: 95.0 – Denver held the Clippers to 39.0% shooting and did not give them many second chances allowing only five offensive rebounds.
Offensive Efficiency: 108.1 – Pretty good considering they turned the ball over on almost 25% of their possessions. You can thank the 41 free throw attempts here.
The Denver Nuggets have made yet another salary dump trade with the Los Angeles Clippers and once again they may have acquired a second round pick as part of the deal.
That is right, the Nuggets have shipped Cheikh Samb off to the Clippers along with some cash in exchange for a conditional second round pick. This trade in and of itself does not get the Nuggets under the luxury tax, but it makes it possible to trade a player such as say, Chucky Atkins to do so.
The Nuggets were roughly $900,000 over the luxury tax threshold and now that they have reduced that amount by $711,517. Denver no longer needs to package two players and convince a team to take on significant additional salary. All they need is to send out around $200,000 more than they take back in salary and they can accomplish that by trading any single player other than Sonny Weems. There is no doubt in my mind that they will pull off a trade to do so before the February 19th trade deadline.
What the Nuggets front office is on the verge of accomplishing is not something that will make fans stand up and cheer and no one will be writing blog post 20 years commemorating how the Nuggets dropped $15 million in salary obligations in less than one season it is an impressive accomplishment.