Game one is in the books between the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz and even though both teams know each other very well, there will be adjustments heading into game two.
The biggest adjustment for game two will be the Jazz playing without Mehmet Okur, who is out for the season with a torn Achilles. The easy answer is to have Carlos Boozer and Paul Milsap each play a ton of minutes and I expect them both to play at least 40. The Jazz also have an opportunity to play small with Kyle Korver, C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews all on the floor at the same time. We have seen Adrian Dantley play small ball too so look for more swingmen on the floor from here on out. Playing Korver, Miles and Matthews at the same time will definitely work offensively and would force Carmelo Anthony to be active running off of screens or tempt him to start calling for switches which would work for Utah as well. The problem comes on the defensive end, but that problem is not going away for Utah at any point in this series regardless of who they have on the floor.
With the Jazz likely going small it will allow the Nuggets to stick to their eight man rotation that thankfully Dantley uncorked in game one.
Utah is also much more susceptible to foul trouble now that they are down to only two legitimate big men. If Sloan decides to give Kyrylo Fesenko I expect to see the Nuggets attack him with pick and rolls and Nene facing him up. Fesenko is a big boy and his on and off court numbers suggest the Jazz are better with him on the floor than on the bench, but his fouls per 48 minutes total of 9.6 shows he has not learned how to stay on the floor for very long.
Getting to more of the X’s and O’s Denver did a fantastic job on Deron Williams in the first half as they trapped him well of the pick and roll. The second half was 180 degrees different from the first though as Williams started getting more chances to shoot playing off the ball in the half court and he was relentless in attacking Denver in transition.
I do not think Denver is going to solve their transition issues at this point so we might just have to live with four or five easy layups for Williams as he races up the floor. Look for Deron to be much more aggressive in those situations all game long.
Clearly Denver needs to continue to play the pick and roll well, but they cannot slack off on Williams when he is running off of screens just because he does not have the ball. The bigs need to step out and make sure Williams cannot simply catch and shoot in those situations so that the guard has a chance to recover. If they do that the screener is open to cut to the rim. The weakside defender will have to be ready to help out in that situation. The Nuggets one weakness in defending the pick and roll was help from the weak side on the roll man. They will have to tighten that up as well as be ready to help on the screener when Williams comes off his screens.
The Nuggets also got into early foul trouble by not respecting Miles as a threat to drive. I do not expect to see Denver make that same mistake in game two.
With the loss of Mehmet Okur Denver will not have to worry so much about the pick and pop game that Okur brought. With Boozer and Milsap likely both playing over 40 minutes from here on out the Nuggets must box out defensively. They held the Jazz to only four offensive boards in game one and they will have to repeat that effort throughout the series. Utah is going to score and limiting them to one shot on offense will be key.
Utah is going to have to do something different defensively. However, different does not necessarily mean better. After the first game Jerry Sloan said he was afraid to double Carmelo because Denver was scoring too easily in the paint and he was afraid that the Nuggets would get even more easy baskets by sending an extra defender at Carmelo. If Utah decides to continue to single cover Melo for most of the night they are going to have to be content with Melo scoring 30 to 40 points and the question becomes, can they contain Nene? Can they contain Chauncey? Can they contain J.R. Smith?
I believe the answer for the Jazz is to play more zone. Denver had some good possessions against the zone in the opening contest, but having watched Denver all season long, I do not think they will be disciplined enough to move without the ball for more than a few possessions at a time. Eventually they will start settling for jumpers and that will give Utah a chance of competing.
The one thing we know for sure is there is no way the Jazz can stop Denver consistently playing man to man. There are just too many mismatches for them. If they do not want to double, zone is the answer.
The one thing Utah has in their favor is Carmelo will not shoot over 70% again. He took, and made, some tough midrange jumpers. The chances of those shots all falling again in game two are low. As long as C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews can coax Melo into shooting from 15 to 18 feet that will help Utah as well. They would have to sag off of him a little more than usual, but I think Utah has to hope Melo takes the bait and misses a lot more shots than he did in game one.
These two teams know each other very well and Utah played the defensive scheme they thought would work best and the result was not good the result was a ton of buckets for the Nuggets. There were very few possessions where Denver did not get the shot they wanted, and those possessions usually involved Kenyon Martin. Obviously Utah wants to get one of these first two games in Denver, but even if they lose game two, they can get right back in the series by winning games three and four in Utah. That gives Utah a little leeway to tinker in game two in an attempt to find something that will slow Denver down.
Offensively, I would like to see the Nuggets continue to pound the ball inside as they did in the first half. As mentioned above Melo settled a little too frequently for his jumper. It was excusable in game one because he made nearly every single one. I would love to see Melo force the issue by posting up more often, especially he will have a significant advantage over every defender the Jazz throw at him. He is bigger stronger and quicker than both Miles and Matthews. Utah did double Melo when he was within eight or ten feet of the basket and if he were to post up more frequently, I think you would see him doubled consistently. That would put a lot of pressure on the Jazz defense and open up a lot of options for Denver, both with Nene, Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen cutting to the lane, and with Chauncey, J.R. and Arron Afflalo on the perimeter.
I would also like to see more pick and roll between J.R. and Nene or Birdman. J.R. has really hurt the Jazz with his ability to slip a bounce pass to the rolling big man and Denver did not take advantage of that enough in the first game.
For Utah there will probably not be many adjustments offensively. They do their thing and do it very well. They may let Williams play off the ball a little more and I think they can have a lot of success playing Phoenix style by running the high pick and roll between Williams and Boozer and surrounding them with the three point shooting threats of Korver, Matthews and Miles. I thought Utah’s three point shooting was what kept them in game one and I think that will be a major factor for the rest of the series. They will need to shoot lights out from beyond the arc, and they have the shooters to do it.
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
I decided to compile the previews of the various Nuggets blogs out there, but continue to be disappointed over the lack of Nuggets blogs out there. If you have a Nuggets blog that I do not have a link to or know about, please send it to me). Come on Nuggets fans grab a keyboard and start typing. Anyway, here is what the internet has to offer when it comes to the first round series between the Denver Nuggets and the Utah Jazz.
For all the relevant ESPN.com coverage check out the Jazz vs Nuggets series page. If you are an Insider, make sure to check out the Scouts. Inc preview. I will be a part of Daily Dime Live tonight so come by and submit your questions or comments during the game.
Andrew over at Denver Stiffs has an all encompassing preview that I highly recommend.
The disturbingly talented Zach Harper over at Hardwood Paroxysm has some good insights into the series, and his own unique way of thinking of the series.
Kurt Helin at Pro Basketball Talk hopes the Nuggets can be contenders.
Nugg Love has a good preview for Nuggets fans to check out.
Basketball John at SLC Dunk chimes in with his always solid coverage.
The Basketball Jones has a very good series of mini-previews, I recommend you check them all out here.
The gang at Bal Don’t Lie has decided to back the Jazz, albeit before the news that Kirilenko will miss the series broke, but I recommend you read the preview anyway.
If you are looking for some motivation this time of year, the guys over at the Chris Andersen Files has you covered (trust me you will want to click on this link).
If you are looking for a place to watch the game online, ESPN3 has you covered.
One last thought from me before game time. This playoff season may very well be a defining one for Carmelo Anthony. We all know about his many struggles in the playoffs. Last season he broke through and produced what I believe was his best all around season this campaign. If he can lead the Nuggets to another deep playoff run, his career can continue an upward trend. On the other hand, a first round loss to the Jazz would make for yet another playoff flame out. The fact is Denver has never lost a series when they have home court advantage since Carmelo arrived. The sad aspect of that fact is they have only had two such series.
The NBA has a long history of talented players who never made much of themselves in the playoffs. Melo needs to prove last season was not a fluke and that he does not belong in their company.
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.
Thank you Phoenix. The Denver Nuggets may have blown their shot at the third seed and a matchup with the battered Trail Blazers, but things could have been much worse. The Utah Jazz will be a difficult opponent, but add in home court advantage and the fact Utah has not been great down the stretch, and Denver has more than a good chance to advance. Chris Tomasson is reporting the Nuggets will open at home on Saturday at 8:30 Mountain (Editor’s Note: It was apparently changed to Sunday – see below).
You can count on an avalanche of coverage over the next few days as we prepare for game time. Head on over to Salt City Hoops for all the Utah Jazz info you can stand.
Update: Here is the preliminary schedule:
Game 1 – Sun April 18 Utah at Denver 10:30PM TNT
Game 2 – Tue April 20 Utah at Denver 10:00PM NBATV
Game 3 – Fri April 23 Denver at Utah 10:30PM ESPN2
Game 4 – Sun April 25 Denver at Utah 9:30PM TNT
Game 5 * Wed April 28 Utah at Denver TBD TBD TBD
Game 6 * Fri April 30 Denver at Utah TBD TBD TBD
Game 7 * Sun May 2 Utah at Denver TBD TBD TBD
The Nuggets and Avalanche are both scheduled to play at the Pepsi Center on Sunday and Tuesday. Could be interesting. I smell a steel cage match between Stern and Bettman before both games to see who gets the arena.
Update to the update: Games one and two have been moved up a day (these times are Mountain):
Game 1 – Sat April 17 Utah at Denver 8:30PM ESPN
Game 2 – Mon April 19 Utah at Denver 8:30PM TNT
Game 3 – Fri April 23 Denver at Utah 8:30PM ESPN2
Game 4 – Sun April 25 Denver at Utah 7:30PM TNT
Game 5 * Wed April 28 Utah at Denver TBD TBD TBD
Game 6 * Fri April 30 Denver at Utah TBD TBD TBD
Game 7 * Sun May 2 Utah at Denver TBD TBD TBD
That was painful to watch. With a division title on the line it was stunning at how the Nuggets failed to compete. I know Denver was playing their fifth game in five nights, but for anyone who questioned my assertion that there was no worse matchup for the Denver Nuggets than the Phoenix Suns I give you tonight’s contest. The Suns jumped on the Nuggets from the get go as they opened the game on an 18-2 run and never looked back.
Even though the Nuggets were closing out a grueling schedule to close the season, I do not think we can site fatigue for the Suns early 16 point lead.
The most vexing aspect of Denver’s play was the decision to revert back to switching ball screens after playing back to back games of relatively acceptable pick and roll defense predicated on the bigs challenging the ball handler. The Nuggets’ switching scheme was so bad they basically allowed the Suns to get any shot they wanted.
Now the Nuggets season rides on the very team that crushed them. Should the Suns win tomorrow night in Utah Denver will back their way into the division title they let slip away by losing games to San Antonio and Phoenix (and Minnesota, the Clippers, Sacramento -twice, Detroit, Washington and New York). That would give Denver the fourth seed and home court advantage in a series against the Utah Jazz.
Should the Jazz win tomorrow, they will win the Northwest Division, Phoenix will be fourth and Denver will fall to fifth where they must face the Suns. I am not sure how much of a chance Denver would have to knock off the Jazz, but it is infinitely more likely they could beat Utah than Phoenix.
If you are feeling down, just remember. What has past is merely prologue to the playoffs and a healthy Nuggets team can beat anyone in the NBA…aside from the Suns that is. Regardless of who the Nuggets face off against, I am going to do my best to give you the best coverage and analysis that is humanly possible.
The Denver Nuggets split a back to back in Los Angeles and Utah over the weekend and despite the loss in Utah, I continue to be impressed with this team and the way they are playing.
Denver started the weekend off in style defeating the Lakers 126-113 (Box Score, Forum Blue & Gold) . Obviously the Nuggets played great on offense lead by Chauncey Billups’ career high 39, 37 of which came in the first three quarters thanks to nine fancy threes. Chauncey was slowed in the fourth quarter after rolling his ankle, but J.R. Smith picked up where BIllups left off dropping in 16 fourth quarter points to close out the Lakers.
It is one thing to be hot on offense. Any team can catch fire for a night and bury their opponent. To me the real story was the way Denver defended the Lakers in the second half. The two Lakers who have had their way with Denver in the past are Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Those two combined to score 33 of the Lakers’ 64 first half points. However, in the second half Denver held L.A. to 49 points and Kobe and Pau only netted 17 between the two of them.
Kobe was red hot in the first quarter producing an impressive 20 points. Kobe is an incredibly competitive individual, which is news to no one. After the credit Arron Afflalo received for his performance against Kobe in the first meeting this season, you knew the Black Mamba would be out to prove Afflalo could not handle him. Despite the big scoring quarter, I thought Afflalo did about as good a job as he did previously. Kobe was just hitting difficult shots. Even with Afflalo playing solid D, the Nuggets chose to double Kobe for much of the second half to prevent him from having one of those nights.
With the double teaming of Kobe, it would stand to reason that Pau would get loose inside and dominate with his touch and passing ability. Not so. The Nuggets also had a new wrinkle for Pau. When Pau caught the ball with his back to the rim, the Nuggets waited for him to put the ball on the floor and then sent a double team at him as well. Gasol tends to take his time in the post and once he starts dribbling, you can expect him to dribble more than once or twice. Knowing that, Denver was able to wait for him to dribble before they doubled him. This prevented him for working to get exactly the shot he wanted and either rush the shot or pass out of the double.
It was a significant change for Denver who generally dislikes doubling anyone, but it was an effective strategy and a big reason why they were able to win the game. With Kobe and Gasol held in check, none of the Lakers supporting cast failed to rise to the occasion. Ron Artest was 3-9 and scored 12 points. Andrew Bynum shot 5-7, but only scored two second half points. Derek Fisher had four points on seven shots. Sasha Vujacic missed all five of his threes and only totaled four points on six shots.
The Los Angeles bench did manage to score 37 points, which is a good total. The kicker is it took them 36 shots to get there. Conversely the Denver bench (J.R. Smith, Ty Lawson and Chris Andersen) racked up 47 points, but did so on a mere 27 shots. Birdman actually outrebounded the entire Laker bench by himself 15-13.
If there is bad news, it has to be that despite Birdman’s aforementioned 15 boards and stout 12 rebound effort from Kenyon Martin L.A. pulled down 18 offensive boards and outrebounded Denver by 7.
The other aspect of the game that I found interesting was Nene was aggressive offensively against Bynum, which has not always been the case. In the past Nene has shied away from attacking bigger defenders such as Bynum, but he went right at him on a few occasions and had success. Now he just needs to pull down a few more rebounds to help reduce the Lakers’ offensive rebounding advantage.
The very next night Denver found themselves in Utah once again playing without Carmelo Anthony, but this time sans Chauncey Billups as well. Denver had already defeated Utah three times this season, the Jazz had been red hot and were sure to be highly motivated to dump the shorthanded Nuggets.
I do not have time to go into detail on that game, (Box Score, Highlights, Salt City Hoops, SLC Dunk) but I will say that I was thrilled with the effort and heart the Nuggets displayed. Playing without Melo and Chauncey and on the second night of a back to back (one of the late game in the Pacific time zone flying east that Greg Popovich thinks are unfair) and with Utah sitting at home for two days waiting for Denver to roll into town, the odds were not in the Nuggets’ favor.
Instead of folding after getting down 18 in the third quarter the Nuggets fought back and were within six points of the streaking Jazz with less than three minutes left.
Denver certainly lacked effort in some games earlier in the season, but they seem to have focused in on how important every game truly is. That bodes very well for the future even as Denver heads into possibly the toughest stretch of their regular season schedule.
In closing, I will say that most people, especially most guys young or old, fancy themselves as being tough. One thing I learned as a father is to never assume you could handle the pain someone else is experiencing. That point was struck home to me when my son was about 12 years old and foolishly decided sun tan lotion was unnecessary for someone who was in the sun as much as he was and returned from a trip to the lake with friends with skin that could easily be classified as well done. When it was time for bed, he was crying because his skin hurt so badly. My first reaction was to tell him to quit being such a baby until I stopped to put myself in his place. Maybe it was his own fault and maybe I would not be crying as he was had I scalded my exposed skin as badly as he did, but would I be able to lay down and fall asleep without uttering a single complaint? I had to figure as tough as I believed myself to be, a sunburn like that was certainly painful and while it was my job to make sure my son was not a sissy, it was not my job to dismiss his pain and label him a pansy.
I am sure you are wondering why I am telling you such a boring story. My point is I am really shocked that Carmelo Anthony has not played since spraining his ankle two weeks before the Utah game. Carmelo himself said the ankle was not as badly sprained as those he has suffered in the past. After seeing video of him working out before the game against the Lakers and knowing he has been practicing I started questioning both his toughness and how badly he wants to play. I do not take making accusations like that lightly, which is why I shared the sunburn story. Perhaps Carmleo’s ankle is much worse than any of us know, or have been led to believe. Perhaps working out is causing more pain than you or I could endure. We simply do not know. While an absence of this length is suspicious, it is not enough to lead me to proclaim Melo is a sissy or is more interested in making sure he can drop 30 points a night when he returns.
I have not seen evidence of Melo skipping out on playing when he was banged up in the past. In fact, if you recall he finished the game against the Indiana Pacers in which he broke his hand last season.
Do I want Carmelo to play? Absolutely. Is the fact he is missing games causing more harm than good? I think that question is up for debate. Maybe the Nuggets go 6-2 or 7-1 instead of 5-3 over the eight games he has missed. However, players like Kenyon Martin and Arron Afflalo have been forced to raise their game and now the team knows that those two are capable of answering the bell should the need arise. That is a good thing and had Melo only missed a game or two Kenyon might not have been such a force against San Antonio and Afflalo probably does not get the opportunity to hit the game winning shot against Sacramento.
The wins in Houston, San Antonio and Los Angeles without Carmelo were big wins for this team and I believe have helped build tremendous momentum for this team and helped them truly believe in what they can accomplish together.
On Saturday before the Denver Nuggets played the Utah Jazz I called for a “herculean” effort that would allow for Denver to pull off an unsuspected, but overdue, road win without Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. They managed to do exactly that thanks to tremendous team play on both offense and defense that actually had the Jazz faithful booing their team in the second half.
Every Nugget player provided a boost. The bigs finally started playing the pick and roll as if they had to share in the responsibility to defend it and offensively the passing was tremendous which lead to a hoard of easy baskets.
Tonight against the Philadelphia 76ers they started out in the same fashion. The defense was moving with purpose and intensity while the offense was full of movement and pin point passing. Sadly, things fell apart in the second quarter and did not get any better in the third when the Nuggets looked to be out of gas.
I thought J.R. Smith eschewed the beautiful passing game the Nuggets were playing and tried going one on one far too much. I mentioned he was focusing too much on his own offense lately instead of using his ability to penetrate to earn easy looks for his teammates. In Utah and again tonight he did a very good job of driving and dishing. However, J.R.’s spirit of giving disappeared as the game wore on and J.R. took a few misguided shots and single handedly shifted the offense into neutral.
J.R. entered the game with 3:15 remaining in the first quarter and within five minutes of floor time had already collected three assists. J.R. played another 30 minutes and tallied not even one assist after that.
The other major issue was fatigue. It really looked like the Nuggets were worn out in the third quarter as they stopped playing the pick and roll aggressively on defense and the movement was nowhere near as crisp on offense.
I expected the Nuggets to build up the strength for one more run, the only question was would it come in time to make a difference in the outcome. Denver saw a return to their aggressive defense over the final eight minutes of the night, but Elton Brand hit a couple of really tough turnaround jumpers with the shot clock running down and Samuel Dalembert threw in a terrible banking perimeter shot on a third occasion. Shots like those were enough to keep Denver from clawing back for the win.
As happy as I was with the effort and execution in Utah I was equally disappointed in the loss to Philly. The Nuggets battled and were oh so close to what would have been a very nice win and I understand how deflating the loss of Birdman must have been, but this is a game they really still should have won.
After tonight’s games the Nuggets are only two games behind Dallas for the second spot in the West and I am sure the return of Carmelo and Chauncey will provide a big boost, but the Nuggets continue to give away games that they need in order to give themselves the best chance at repeating last season’s postseason exploits. The good news is Lawson is proving he is capable of picking up the slack when he has to and hopefully Denver is learning that passing and movement makes scoring much easier and that is something I hope Melo is noticing from the sidelines.
The worst thing a coach can do to a team is play the wrong players. Heading into the regular season many Nuggets fans were worried that old George Karl favorite Anthony Carter and apparent new George Karl favorite Joey Graham would take minutes away from more deserving players.
I have to insert the typical opening night disclaimer of how I know we cannot jump to conclusions after one game, but if Karl trusts Ty Lawson enough to put him out there in the fourth quarter of a tight game against a division rival – in his first career NBA game – I think we can look forward to much more Lawson this season. As far as Graham, who I believe does deserve minutes as a solid player who avoids mistakes, even without J.R. Smith available he was only on the floor for seven minutes.
As good as Lawson was, I was most impressed with Carmelo Anthony. Melo did everything you could ask for, he displayed all his offensive talents and played solid defense and hit the glass. With the ball Melo certainly was aggressive attacking the rim, but still took advantage of the times he had space to fire off a jumper. On top of his scoring, he also dished out five assists, three of which resulted in dunks.
Defensively Carmelo did a fine job. He stayed with Andrei Kirilenko and did a decent job of fighting through picks and as mentioned above he did a good job on the defensive glass.
I think Melo is poised for a career year and that is a big reason why I like the Nuggets’ chances to improve this season.
One of my concerns heading into the regular season was the relatively poor play by Chauncey Billups in the preseason. I had not seen how Billups typically performed in the preseason before so I knew it was possible that he might turn it on when the games started to count, but I was certainly concerned about his play. After a bit of a slow start he showed that there was no reason to be concerned. Chauncey was his typical self providing direction on the floor on offense, playing smart defense and hitting shots when the Nuggets needed him to.
The backcourt of Billups and Lawson was fun to watch. Chauncey is a deadly three point shooter and he received a few open looks thanks to Lawson’s ability to penetrate. Playing with Lawson also allows Billups to rest a bit on offense without carrying so much of a burden for making things run.
Surprisingly the backcourt pairing that triggered the Nuggets game clinching run in the fourth quarter was Lawson and Arron Afflalo. Anthony Carter struggled to guard Deron Williams because of Williams’ combination of size and speed and obviously Lawson did have issues trying to cover him. Afflalo was able to handle Deron’s size both in the paint and on the perimeter where Deron can use his strength to bump his defender off balance in order to drive to the rim. With Afflalo frustrating Williams and Boozer having a horrible shooting night the Jazz did not have enough offense to keep up with the scoring of Lawson, Billups and Anthony.
As a team, I thought Denver’s offense was a little too isolation heavy. Their movement away from the ball was inconsistent and easily defended. However, with players like Carmelo, Billups and Lawson able to drive and create offense for both themselves as well as their teammates the Nuggets offense was able to put up 91 points over the final three quarters.
Defensively the Nuggets had some tough assignments. Boozer is usually a handful in the paint and Okur is the kind of sweet shooting big the Nuggets can struggle with. Plus the Jazz run a grinding style of offense that will eat up disorganized defenses. Early on Denver struggled with covering the player who would set the cross screen for the big man on the weakside block. The Jazz were able to hit players with a quick pass while the defender stood with his back to the ball resulting in some easy baskets. Denver adjusted and the Jazz did not score on that play in the second half that I can recall. The Nuggets showed solid pick and roll defense, rotated relatively well (although they did give up a couple of wide open threes to Okur) and when the situation called for it, they scrambled very well after getting out of position.
Overall, you have to be pleased with the win. Afflalo definitely filled the role of Dahntay Jones, Lawson showed that the Nuggets have a tremendous new weapon. And I do not recall ever thinking to myself, the Nuggets could really use Linas Kleiza here. In the second quarter Denver had Lawson, Graham, Afflalo, Kenyon and Birdman on the floor at the same time and I was wondering where the offense would come from. They actually outscored the Jazz and erased a seven point first quarter deficit. The bench played very well and they look to be one of those groups whose production is greater than the sum of its parts.
Additional Game 1 Nuggets
Pace Factor: 96.6
Offensive Efficiency: 118.0
Defensive Efficiency: 108.7
Take this with you: The Nuggets have only started 2-0 once since 1987-88. Portland is very good, but they looked beatable at home against the Rockets Tuesday night. A win in Portland tomorrow would be a great start for Denver.
The Denver Nuggets dropped their preseason opener to the Utah Jazz 103-87 (box score).
The number one thing I have to say about this game is why on earth could I not watch or listen to it? I can watch every Denver Broncos preseason game, but there is not even a radio feed of a game being played in an NBA arena. Stan Kroenke owns his own television network. I realize the Colorado Avalanche are playing and Altitude showed the Joe Sakic retirement ceremony, and rightfully so, but do you know what was on Altitude after the Sakic ceremony? The Miss Colorado pageant.
I am not asking Altitude to not show the Sakic ceremony or bypass an Avalanche game (which by the way was on Vs. not Altitude) for a Nuggets preseason game. I realize that football games are fewer and more precious, but I can watch a bunch of Colorado Rockies spring training games too. The NFL and MLB do not act like their preseason games are meaningless, why does the NBA?
I realize we get some nationally televised games as the regular season draws closer, but why does the NBA act like these games are truly meaningless? Give us some preseason coverage. I am not saying it has to be a live full production. I would be happy, nay, thrilled with a tape delayed telecast set up the 2008 Summer League with one camera and no announcers.
We need to see these games. I want to see the battle between Joey Graham and James White for what could be the final roster spot. I want to see how Johan Petro does against Kyrylo Fesenko. I want to see if the Nuggets starters were as bad as the stats make it look. I want to see how Arron Afflalo does…at both ends of the floor. I want to see how Chauncey looks one year older against an elite point guard. I want to see if Carmelo has worked on his left hand.
Having a preseason game at an NBA arena completely unavailable for consumption by anyone other than those in the stands is ridiculous.
All we have to look at from this game is the box score. I hate analyzing box scores, but that is all we have to go off of unless you want to draw conclusions from this generic AP story.
Looking at the box score the Nuggets starters were outscored by the Jazz. Were they that badly outplayed? Melo attempted three three pointers, maybe one was at the buzzer. Chauncey had four turnovers, was he picked clean or did he make a pass to a teammate who cut right as Chauncey threw him the pass? Did C.J. Miles light up Arron Afflalo? I have no idea, I did not get to see the game.
Looking at who played and who did not, Kenyon Martin was out resting a thigh bruise. J.R. Smith was not with the team and I have no idea why. (Update: Chris Tomasson has reported J.R.’s absence was cleared in advance.) Ty Lawson played more than half as many minutes as Anthony Carter. James White played almost four times as many minutes as Joey Graham.
Looking at the actual stats, Renaldo Balkman, who George Karl has said may get to play some small forward, which in my opinion is his natural position, had an impressive line scoring ten points, 11 rebounds and compiling four assists. White was only credited with two shots, both threes of which he made one, but he took 14 free throws. I think one assumption we can safely draw from these numbers is that White was attacking the rim and running the floor. I seriously doubt he made it to the line that frequently by shooting jumpers.
Chauncey shot well, but as mentioned above turned the ball over four times and had a team worst -20.
Nene, who struggled with foul trouble last season, was whistled for five fouls in his 16:45 of playing time.
Carmelo was 4-8 on two point shots and attempted six free throws in his 20:27, but he shot and missed three threes.
Afflalo hit his only three point attempt and had the best plus/minus amongst starters with a -4, but he fouled out in just over 22 minutes.
The last point I will make is this was the first of what could possibly be many games officiated by replacement referees and there were 69 fouls called and 88 free throws attempted in the game. The average number of free throws attempted during the 2008-09 regular season in games the Nuggets played in was 57.5 and the season high was 86. Draw your own conclusions from those numbers.
By the way, did anyone see who won Miss Colorado? It was on Altitude.
Update: NBA.com has video highlights. There were cameras there. Is it too much to ask that someone send the tape to Altitude and they put it on TV? It does not even have to be next day air, just toss it in the mail so Altitude can air it. I will even offer to pay the postage.
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.
Looking at the performance of the Utah Jazz so far this season tonight’s game should be a sure thing. The Jazz are a combined 0-13 on the road against the other top teams in the west (Phoenix and up) and the three beasts of the east (Cleveland, Boston and Orlando). Out of those 13 games the Jazz have only been within six or fewer points three times and the average margin of defeat is 12.8 points per game. Why should tonight’s game be any different? Denver is a very solid 29-8 at home and riding a six game home winning streak.
There are a couple of reasons why I am worried about tonight’s game. First of all the Nuggets’ defense has been anything but stout in the lane lately. They have only collected at least 65% of their defensive rebounds in two of their previous six games. Utah is a top five offensive rebounding team by the percentage of offensive rebounds they recover.
The real reason why I am worried is desperation. The Jazz know they suck on the road and they are going to be desperate to try to win a couple of games like tonight in order to earn home court advantage in the playoffs. They also know losing tonight’s game will basically eliminate them from winning the division. The Nuggets are under no such pressure. Even I have fallen into the trap of saying, if they can just win one of their three final difficult games and sweep the four sorry teams on the schedule they should be able to hold on to the second seed. Of course George Karl is saying the same thing, “If we don’t win, we can wake up tomorrow and the next day and still be in a good position.”
Fortunately the players seem to be hyped up about the matchup. Carmelo said he might not get any sleep the night before the game. J.R. called it a “huge, huge game.”
The Nuggets are going to focus on Deron Williams, and rightfully so.
“The Nuggets feel the best way of slowing down Williams is throwing different looks at him, like a crafty big-league hurler. Billups, Anthony Carter and Dahntay Jones will spend time defending Williams, and with pick-and-roll defense in the fourth quarter, Karl won’t hesitate to put bigger players Kenyon Martin or Anthony on the 6-foot-3 guard.”
Williams is indeed a stud and the Jazz have the same talented roster this season as they have the past couple of years with one major exception. Players like Williams, Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap are much improved. Even so the gap between the two teams that existed last season has vanished. The Nuggets did lose twice in Utah this season, but both games were close unlike last season’s dual 27 point losses in Salt Lake City. The first time these two hooked up in Denver the Nuggets rolled to a 20 point victory in one of the few games this season where the Nuggets took the lead and held on rather comfortably for the remainder of the game.
In order for the Nuggets to be successful they need to run and attack the rim. Denver rolled out to a 20 point lead the last time these two teams played in Utah powered by J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony getting in the lane at will. Defensively Denver will have to limit the easy baskets the Jazz excel at earning while rotating to cover shooters like Kyle Korver and C.J. Miles.
Both teams know each other and possess a strong sense of respect and acrimony. For all the progress the Nuggets have made a loss tonight will stick them with another 1-3 record in the series and will give Utah all the confidence in the world should these two tee off in the postseason.
I think you can count on the Nuggets playing the kind of defense they displayed against the Hornets as opposed to the lackadaisical switching scheme they ran against the Knicks. Yo know the Jazz are going to play hard as well. It should be a close and intense regular season game.
Take this with you: Carmelo Anthony’s play on offense lately has been the force that has carried the Nuggets to the second seed in the west. Can he continue to produce big numbers with efficiency against a higher echelon team?
Oh and by the way, it is the first of two green jersey nights. After tonight we will either be clamoring for more green jersey nights or calling for their incineration.
The Denver Nuggets just completed a disastrous stretch where they actually lost five games in only nine days. I understand how physically demanding such a stretch is and how the Nuggets were short handed playing without Kenyon Martin in three of those games and Anthony Carter in four. Those are all just excuses. Denver has managed to play very well other times during this season while playing six games in nine days. What matters is at a time in the year where other teams are raising their level of play (Utah, New Orleans, Portland and San Antonio all come to mind) Denver is playing as poorly as they have all season.
I have two reactions to tonight’s loss against the Houston Rockets. First, I would argue while many fans are waiving the white flag the season is not over. The Nuggets have now completed one of the most difficult portions of their schedule and while they are floundering they have a great opportunity to collect themselves and go on an immediate five game winning streak. Their next five games are comprised of contests against the Thunder, Clippers and Nets at home, a road game against the Grizzlies and then they return to Denver to play the Wizards. A five game winning streak will put them right back at 20 games over .500 where they were when this debacle first began in Chicago. If they can rebuild some confidence and recapture the efficiency on both ends of the floor which made them such a strong team the first three and a half months of the season 52 or 53 wins is still well within reach. 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.
While the season is not over my second reaction following the loss to the Rockets is, well, the season is over. 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. (The one caveat I will add is if the Trail Blazers manage to crash the party and earn a top four seed and end up matched up against Denver in the first round. I would welcome that series no matter who has home court advantage. However, I do not see Portland finishing that highly in the standings as a likely outcome.)
What is most alarming is the Nuggets seem to be at a complete loss as to why they are losing games. After dropping last night’s contest to Houston Carmelo Anthony is quoted as saying, ”I can’t really pinpoint what’s going on.” If they want to figure out why they are losing all the Nuggets need to do is throw in some game film of their home win against the Jazz or of the second half in Philadelphia and then put in the tape from last night. The differences will be obvious and they all revolve around mental focus and the desire to do what is necessary to win. Do not get me wrong, Denver has played very hard in the fourth quarters of both the Kings and Rockets losses, but that is not enough. We are 65 games into the season and they do not seem to have figured that out.
You may be thinking to yourself that I am panicking and am way out of line. Let me say this. I do my best to stay on an even keel on this blog and remain consistent in my coverage of the team. I try to remove emotion from the equation and give thoughtful analysis. The season is long and it is not always easy to keep from getting too high when things are going well or too low during tough stretches such as this one. I sat on this post for at least 12 hours since writing it trying to decide whether or not I wanted to publish it. What it came down to is this is my honest assessment of the current situation and if it is what I truly believe, I would be cheating both myself and you all by not posting it. After all, I proclaimed last season that the Nuggets would lose in the first round again after the fifth game of the campaign. If I was confident that I was not jumping to conclusions at that point in the season I should fell alright arriving at the same determination in March this season. What the Nuggets have displayed for us since the All-Star break is all the proof I need to see.
Of course I have been wrong before and I hope I am wrong now. There is still over a fifth of the season remaining and things can change quickly. Look where Utah was fifteen games ago and where they are now. The same thing can happen for the Nuggets. As I have said over and over the schedule is still set up in their favor, but they have to step up and earn wins. Teams like Sacramento are not going to just roll over and thank Denver for blessing them with the honor of their presence. The opportunity to claim home court advantage and win the Northwest Division title is still there as long as the Nuggets take every second of every game seriously from here on out. I just wish I thought they had it in them.
Prove me wrong Denver, I beg you.