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For the Washington Wizards, it was one of those, "You can’t point to a single lost opportunity. You can probably point to them all" type of games.
There were controversial calls, plenty of missed free throws and 35 points from unexpected stage-stealer Mike Dunleavy. Just like in Games 1 and 2, the outcome could have easily gone the other way, but unlike those contests, the first playoff game in the nation’s capital since 2008 did feature that one potential series-altering moment.
The incident happened after Nene, the man whose status for the next game is now in the hands of the league, leaked out past the Chicago Bulls defense and scored on a layup. The basket closed Washington’s gap to 78-76 with over eight minutes left in the game and led to a Chicago timeout. As Nene turned to chug the other way -- players on the court not yet decompressed after the timeout whistle -- he gave Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler a hip nudge out of his path. Butler took exception and swatted Nene’s arm away and then put his other arm into the small of the big Brazilian’s back.
Had the scene ended there, it would’ve been innocuous -- perhaps not even worthy of double-technical fouls -- but cooler heads did not prevail.
Nene and Butler went brow to brow like boxers angling for alpha male at a Las Vegas weigh-in. Some are calling what happened next a head-butt, although a head didn’t exactly cock back and throw its force. Already in close proximity, Nene’s head further infiltrated Butler’s space. It was a next step up the stairs of aggression. Butler leaned his head forward to counter the leverage. Nene then took a swipe at Butler’s head.
It was unclear whether Nene was throwing a roundabout, open-handed right paw or, as he also attempted to cusp Butler’s head with his left hand, if he was simply acting like a papa bear marking his territory against a cub. It was at that point, as the interlocked players moved across the court, when referees and teammates stepped into the fray to make peace. Washington’s Trevor Booker grabbed Butler to remove him from the scrum. Chicago’s Joakim Noah stepped in the path of Nene and eventually raised his arms as if to say to the man who has bested him in the series to date, "Dude, what are you thinking?"
“I’m not the one to talk. I’ve been in those situations," Noah said. "But it definitely was a bonus for us to have him out the game."
Upon further review by the officials, a double technical was assessed to each player and Nene was ejected from the contest. Whether he lost his cool or was trying to show Butler who holds the keys to the house, Nene escalated the situation, and, at one point, he appeared to raise a clenched fist in the air.
The Wizards were strategically mum on the situation in front of the media, seemingly filled with angst (which ironically might move them past the pain of the loss) over whether they would have their Nene in a critical Game 4 on Sunday. Players like Booker, a first responder, and Marcin Gortat, suspected by some to have left the bench during the mayhem, weren’t necessarily around to comment on what happened.
"I didn’t see it. I didn’t see any of it," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. "I didn’t see anything, so I can’t comment."
Wittman did, however, address whether he thought any of this players left the bench. "I don’t think so. It’s a timeout, anyway. You can leave the bench on a timeout."
"My back was turned as it all went down," said Bradley Beal, who was on the court and headed toward the bench.
"It’s over, it’s over, it’s over," said Nene, wanting to move past the incident while it still grated him.
"If you want to talk fair, it’s supposed to be both sides," he said. "Things don’t go well. Things don’t go fair for both sides, so you need to move [forward]. That’s what I’m going to [do]."
The Wizards forward was 5-for-15 from the field before getting ejected. He was often frustrated by the defense of Noah and selectively conservative whistles from the referees. Noah had picked up his second foul at the 3:49 mark of the first and then saw 24 minutes of physical court time until he picked up his third foul at the 9:20 mark of the fourth quarter. The Wizards, through Nene, had been making their best attempts to pound it into the paint even more against Noah and Carlos Boozer, who had also picked up two early fouls.
Now, speculation will run rampant until the league makes a ruling. What constitutes a head-butt? Will commissioner Adam Silver be more pragmatic than predecessor David Stern? Was an ejection, which undoubtedly contributed to the loss, be punishment enough, or must harsher lessons be learned?
"There’s been skirmishes in all three games, but you got to be able to maintain so you don’t lose your cool, or you’ll get thrown out," Wittman said. "That’s the main thing we got the learn from this."
Washington was able to survive a 21-game stretch from late February to early April without Nene (due to a sprained MCL) with a 12-9 record, but against this Bulls squad in these playoffs, he's a critical component, particularly from an offensive standpoint. The defeat brought an abrupt end to the Wizards’ playoff honeymoon, but a Game 4 without Nene could slap Washington with the cold reality of an even series and the return of home-court advantage to Chicago.
Asked if he thought he would be playing on Sunday, the spiritual Nene said, "I don’t know. You know the rule, huh? So, I’ll see."
But for this particular occasion, the NBA will be Nene’s judge and jury, determining in a day whether he will be in uniform, or simply wearing his Sunday best.
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There is no playbook for dealing with that kind of turmoil, but the Wizards eventually followed the game plan of the early-aughts Portland “Jail Blazers” and "Malice at the Palace" Indiana Pacers: clean house. The locker room full of players whose character was described as “questionable” -- Arenas, Crittenton, JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche, Nick Young -- has been disbanded, Blatche the last to go when he was amnestied in the summer of 2012. Less than four years after that fateful Christmas Eve, John Wall and Bradley Beal are firmly situated in the backcourt as new franchise cornerstones. As their rate of maturation accelerates, the playoffs are not a mere hope but an expectation.
The team does seem to be improving, though, and the catalyst for that turnaround is the scintillating play of Wall. In the Wizards' 98-89 win over the New York Knicks on Saturday night, there were two max players on the court, and one of them was decisively better. It wasn’t Carmelo Anthony.
When Wall has his midrange game working, he is nearly impossible to guard. Crouching in the triple-threat position, there’s nary a defender in the league quick enough to stick with him on his drives, let alone contest jumpers. It now seems likely Wall, who is averaging 18.6 points and 8.9 assists per game with a 19.96 PER, will justify the maximum extension he signed during the offseason.
Wall may be making a lot of noise on his rise to the league's upper echelon, but it doesn't sound like the fan base is listening, at least not yet. Washington is a basketball city, home to more than 10 current NBA players and the celebrated Goodman League. Two major college basketball programs, the Maryland Terrapins and Georgetown Hoyas, are also local. But in the ranks of the city's professional teams, the Wizards are a distant third -- fourth on days when Stephen Strasburg is pitching.
Saturday night’s game against a high-profile and hated opponent drew 18,089 fans, the best total of the young season but still 2,000 short of the Verizon Center’s capacity. Worse yet, it seemed like half of them were Knicks fans.
In Wall (23 years old) and Beal (20) the Wizards seem to have the type of young, dynamic talents needed to keep the team competitive well into the future and, ultimately, make the city care. But Washington hasn't had much had much luck with first-rounders otherwise -- Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton, Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker have been busts. Sensing a need to surround Wall with the talent they couldn't find in the draft, Wizards management has made a series of short-term moves, taking on long-term money and giving away draft picks in order to build a roster that will probably top out with a first-round playoff loss this season.
Ultimately, the bifurcated and sloppy development model the Wizards have pursued over the past four years may not matter. The old adage is that the NBA is a stars league, and Wall is brightening into a shiny one. The Oklahoma City Thunder or Miami Heat models are rendered irrelevant if Kevin Durant doesn’t develop or LeBron James suffers a devastating injury. The important moves aren’t the shuffling of players on the periphery but acquiring and developing top-10 players.
The cherry on top of Wall’s 31-point and seven-assist decimation of the Knicks came with 30 seconds left, as Iman Shumpert drove for a consolation bucket. Wall soared in from the weak side, and making full use of his 6-foot-4 frame he audibly spiked the ball into the stands. Postgame he was asked if it was a statement block. "Nah," he said, "we’ve seen the team score the ball at the end of the game on us before, and we didn't like it, we didn't want to give nobody an easy basket to end the game."
It was the safe answer -- the point guard’s locker room persona is as quietly confident as his play on the court is in your face -- but if the Wizards are to overcome a bumpy rebuild, Wall will have to submit statement plays every night.
- Pop Quiz: Who is the NBA's leader in corner-3 accuracy (minimum of 30 attempts)? (A) Paul George (B) Ray Allen (C) Wes Matthews (D) Shane Battier (E) Klay Thompson. You'll find the correct answer is at the bottom of the post.
- Dwight Howard says there are moments when he can't feel his feet.
- Kevin Draper of The Diss discusses how Blake Griffin has used the KIA campaign as an effective platform for elevating his public persona with a light, self-deprecating touch.
- Jordan Heimer of ClipperBlog and The Clippers Podcast on Blake Griffin, Season Three: "After routinely being described last year as a WWE heel, Griffin has hugely reduced his expressive commentary, limiting his smirks, stare downs and incredulous hand gestures. He seems more content to let his game speak for him; even when calls don’t go his way, it no longer seems to distract him the way it did in the past. Tonight, after Shannon Brown sent him sprawling into the baseline photographers on the fast break, Blake skipped the scowling, untangled himself quickly and sank both free-throws."
- Noam Schiller of Magic Basketball on Tracy McGrady's historic 2002-03 season: "The man was the beginning, middle and end of everything the Magic did. The raw numbers (32.3 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game, and 5.5 assists per game) and the advanced stats (a PER of 30.3, one of just 8 players to cross the 30 threshold, and a True Shooting percentage of 56.4 percent) are mind-blowing even without the YouTube archives. It had to be watched to be believed. He was a unique combination of other-worldly athleticism and every single skill the basketball court offers."
- The Nets' offense reside in the top half of the league, but they're not maximizing their potential. Deron Williams says the absence of a coherent system like the one he ran in Utah is a factor. Rob Mahoney of The Point Forward: "Some initial success (and an early run to an 11-4 record) helped disguise the stagnation of Avery Johnson’s offense, but so far Brooklyn has lived and died by the limits of isolation basketball. Whether enabling center Brook Lopez in the post or guard Joe Johnson on the wing, the Nets’ sets have been rudimentary and clear in their intention: Players like Williams get the ball to a specific place with few programmed alternatives, and a shot attempt is manufactured from that player leveraging some perceived advantage in a one-on-one matchup. That approach has helped Lopez post a career high in field-goal percentage and points per minute, but also worn on the patience of a point guard accustomed to the continuity in movement of the flex offense. But couched in Williams’ quote-slinging is another complicating factor: The max-contract point guard tabbed to usher in a new era of Nets basketball is having essentially the worst season of his eight-year career."
- Populating a roster with good guys, as the Wizards did this past offseason, doesn't guarantee harmony. Here's what Nene told NBA.com's David Aldridge: "When you play with confidence, and you're together, it's different ... You feel, you know your teammates know you, and you give your best. But right here, right now, it's the opposite. Total opposite ... Because people have no respect for the game ... They think this opportunity's nothing right now. That's the problem with the young guys. They don't take advantage of being in the NBA, the best basketball in the world. A lot of young guys want to be in their position. But right here, I don't think they realize that."
- Avery Bradley is close to returning for the Celtics. Romy Nehme of 2 Girls, 1 Ball writes a paean to Bradley at Celtics Hub: "As Bradley’s return draws near(er), it’s funny to think about how the size of his body of work and impact seem somewhat incongruous; it also bears reminding fans that his surge from irrelevancy wasn’t some time lapse chronicling a player’s evolution over a year. It unfolded in real time, in little time, and documented a progression no one saw coming. At least I didn’t. It transformed Bradley from a specialist into someone who was now making roaming defenders pay with baseline cuts, fulfilling Rondo’s longings for an up-tempo companion and nailing corner 3s like he was #20."
- Jason Gallagher of BallerBall polled NBA players over Twitter about their favorite Christmas movies. The results, with a little bit of vacillation from Corey Maggette.
- On the agenda for several NBA players on Christmas Eve? Go-Go inspired D.C. rapper Wale's newly released mixtape, "Folarin."
- If you don't have proper stemware this holiday season, you can always do what Shelden Williams does in a pinch -- drink your vino from an old spaghetti sauce jar.
Speaking of streaks…
The Los Angeles Lakers won their 17th straight game vs the Utah Jazz at Staples Center (including the playoffs). The Lakers' last loss against the Jazz at home was January 1, 2006. Tuesday’s 29-point route of Utah was the Lakers' eighth 20-point win this season, tied for second-most in the NBA with the Celtics (both trail Miami Heat, nine).
Elsewhere in the NBA…
• The Dallas Mavericks had not one, but two players score 25 points off the bench in their win over the Los Angeles Clippers (Jason Terry scored 28 and Jose Juan Barea added 25). Dallas is the first team this season to have two players score at least 25 points off the bench in the same game, and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, this was also the first time in franchise history that Dallas accomplished this feat.
• Tyson Chandler finished 5-for-5 from the field and 11-for-11 from the free throw line. Chandler joins two Lakers, Matt Barnes and Pau Gasol, as the only three players this season to go perfect from the field and line (minimum five attempts).
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only two other NBA players in the last 50 years were 5-for-5 or better from the field and 10-for-10 or better from the foul line in a regular-season game: Kelly Tripucka (8-for-8 and 11-for-11) for the Jazz in 1987 and Buck Williams (5-for-5 and 14-for-14) for the Portland Trail Blazers in 1991.
• The Denver Nuggets had five players in double figures by halftime in their 120-109 win over the Washington Wizards: Nene and Chauncey Billups (15 each), Ty Lawson (12), Arron Afflalo (11) and Carmelo Anthony (10). They’re only the third team this season that had five players with at least 10 points at halftime.
The Elias Sports Bureau tells us that Anthony has the second-highest average for any visiting player (minimum five games), behind LeBron James (28.0), and just ahead of Karl Malone (26.7).
Only it hasn't worked out that way exactly.
Fesenko has had his ups and downs in this series. He's shot well in his limited opportunities from the field (8-for-13) and hit a couple of big free throws down the stretch in Game 4. But he's also been a turnover machine -- third in turnover rate among postseason players behind only Kendrick Perkins and Erick Dampier. How have the Jazz played overall when Fesenko is holding down the middle?
When Fesenko is on the floor, the Jazz are giving up a respectable 106.6 points per 100 possessions. When he's not out there, they're hemorrhaging a whopping 120.1 points per 100 possessions. Though Nene can occasionally be his own worst enemy by failing to capitalize on generous opportunities in the half court, Fesenko's presence is one reason why the Nuggets were unable to leverage Nene's athleticism into meaningful results.
With Petro as his primary matchup in Game 6, Fesenko should have the luxury to roam more and act as general basket protector against the Nuggets' attacking offense, right?
Not so fast, says Fesenko.
You can't completely write off a player like Petro just because he doesn't have the offensive profile a guy like Nene has. The reason Fesenko knows this?
He's that guy -- the one you leave to help on a much better player:
I'm not going to underestimate him. I know what it's like when the players underestimate you. You get easy baskets. That's how my baskets are actually [scored]. All my baskets.
Petro has a fairly decent face-up jumper. He shot 17-for-37 (46 percent) from between 10 feet the the arc this season and has the athleticism to dive to the basket behind the Jazz defense if they ignore him altogether.
A Fesenko-Petro matchup isn't the stuff that drives audiences to the NBA, but how much each defense is willing to play off the opposing center to help out on the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and Chauncey Billups should be interesting to watch.
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Who decides what the Nuggets do on offense?
DENVER -- The Denver Nuggets have a secret arsenal of nearly unstoppable plays. There's only one hitch headed into Game 5:
Acting head coach Adrian Dantley isn't sure he can get his team to run them.
That's because the Nuggets see themselves as a certain kind of basketball team with an anti-system. Mike D'Antoni has 7-seconds-or-less. Phil Jackson has The Triangle. Jerry Sloan has The Flex. And Dantley has inherited from George Karl what he's referred to more than once as "random basketball."
What does "random basketball" mean? That's Dantley's description of how the Nuggets perceive themselves offensively -- a team that flourishes by pounding you with dominant one-on-one play in the half court and with breakneck transition buckets. Dantley isn't the only one to make that general characterization. When asked about the Nuggets' woeful assist total of 13 following Game 4, Chauncey Billups conceded, "We aren't really a high-assist team. That's not how our offense is made."
It's true that Denver runs a more individualistic half-court offense than Utah does and, as Carmelo Anthony pointed out today, that plan of attack has served them well for several seasons. In fact, Denver isn't exactly struggling offensively in this series. The Nuggets' offensive efficiency of 110.9 points per 100 possessions is an improvement on their regular season efficiency of 108.7. But after walloping the Jazz in Game 1 of the series, the Nuggets have posted a more modest efficiency rating of 104.7.
A stubborn devotion to "random basketball" is one of the reasons Denver's offense has fallen off since Game 1, and there's something obtuse about the Nuggets' unwillingness to construct coherent possessions in the half court against Utah. When the Nuggets choose to run deliberate sets, they're shredding the Jazz -- particularly on the pick-and-roll.
To illustrate, let's go back to Game 2. The Nuggets are coming off an emphatic 126-113 win. Fesenko has taken over as Utah's starting center after Mehmet Okur was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon in Game 1. The vibe is that the Jazz are done. Denver comes out of the opening jump with three straight Carmelo Anthony-Nene pick-and-rolls, and all of them produce points:
- Anthony gets the ball above the right elbow where he gets a little screen from Nene. It's not a Kendrick Perkins-grade screen, but it buys Anthony space away from C.J. Miles to dribble right and begin his attack. Anthony elevates for a jumper at 17 feet, draws the foul on Miles and drains two free throws.
- This play could've been ripped from the Phoenix Suns playbook. Another screen for Anthony from Nene at precisely the same spot. This time, Anthony puts the ball on the deck, drives right and dishes to Arron Afflalo in the right corner. Afflalo drives right by Wes Matthews into the paint. Fesenko is the last line of defense here. When he commits, Nene cuts behind him. Afflalo hits Nene on the move to the rim for an easy lay-in.
- This possession is just cruel and prompted me to write in my game notes, "UTA can't defend this." Same pick-and-roll with Anthony as the ball-hander at the same spot. This is Nene's best screen of the three and draws the switch the Nuggets are salivating for: Fesenko backpedaling against a driving Anthony in open space. When Anthony, who is driving right, sees that the bulk of the Jazz help defenders are on that side of the floor, he switches left, then finishes untouched at the basket. This is the moment I truly believed the series was over.
According to Synergy Sports, the Nuggets have choreographed a pick-and-roll -- then hit the roll man -- 17 times in this series. The results:
- Nine made baskets
- Six trips to the free throw line
- Two missed shot attempts
That's an 88.2 percent success rate.
Those 17 possessions in sequence is an impressive reel of video. Ball-handlers/passers include Billups, Anthony, Ty Lawson and J.R. Smith. All the Nuggets bigs are represented among the roll men. Whatever the scenario, the Nuggets score on 15 of the 17 opportunities, which leaves you with one question:
Why are the Nuggets running this action only four times per game?
One explanation might be that Jazz defenders are effectively trapping the ball-handler, making a pass through the double-team treacherous. But that's clearly not the Jazz's strategy when defending the pick-and-roll, even when Anthony is the ball-handler -- which brings us to another interesting bit of data:
Anthony has been the ball-handler on nine pick-and-roll sets. On those nine possessions, he's 7-for-7 from the field, with two turnovers.
Overall, only four teams this postseason are doing better work off the pick-and-roll, but with the exception of the Lakers and Utah (the two most orthodox systems in the bracket), no team is running them less frequently than the Nuggets. Instead, Denver is relying on isolations, post-ups and spot-ups, where they're generating ho-hum results -- less than one point per possession.
I asked Dantley about the success Denver had running the pick-and-roll and why the team wasn't deploying them more readily.
"We looked over our offensive stats and we definitely score more on our pick-and-rolls," Dantley said.
Then why doesn't he call for them more often over the course of the game?
"That's the way we play," Dantley said. "We've had more success right now with the pick-and-roll, more than 'random,' but our basketball team is known as a 'random' basketball team."
At some point, doesn't a team have to recognize what works? And whatever the identity of the team might be, shouldn't the team conform to what's working?
"That's what we've told them," Dantley said. "Whether they do it every time, that's a different story. Statistically, we tell them every game, 'Hey, run the pick-and-roll. Run drags. We've had success with that more than "random" basketball.'"
Given that success, will that be the plan Wednesday night in Game 5?
"I'm agreeing with you," Dantley said. "Statistically, we've had success on pick-on-rolls. We've told them that. We want them to do that tomorrow. Hopefully they do it. But, the last five years, we do more 'random' than we do pick-and-roll."
Dantley's comments suggest that there's a serious disconnect between acting head coach and the team's on-court personnel. It's not unusual for a team to fail its coach as a sin of omission. Both Jerry Sloan and Dantley are certain to tell their players to crash the boards tomorrow night, but one of their two teams will do a subpar job. That coach will be disappointed and very possibly angry. But that's much different than a coach laying out a very specific set of strategic imperatives, and the players on the floor not heeding those instructions. If you take Dantley's remarks at face value, he's implying this is what's been happening with the Nuggets, and he has no assurances that dynamic won't continue in Game 5.
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The Jazz stand tall.
SALT LAKE CITY -- It’s not that Utah Jazz point guard Deron Williams isn’t an emotional player, but during the course of a game, that palette of emotions rarely features a smile. So when he flashed a big grin as he headed to the bench after Denver called a desperation timeout, it was obvious that things were falling into place for the Jazz. On the preceding possession, Williams picked off an errant pass on the defensive end and raced down the floor for an easy layup.
Jazz by 20 with fewer than nine minutes to go in Game 3. Utah ultimately won the game going away, notching a 105-93 victory to take a 2-1 series lead.
Leading up to Friday night, acting Nuggets head coach Adrian Dantley made no secret of his intention to devote inordinate attention to Williams, who burned the Nuggets for 59 points and 25 assists in the series’ first two games. While Williams didn’t record the gaudy numbers he put up in Denver, he still finished with 24 points and 10 assists on a very efficient 8-for-14 shooting from the floor. In doing so, he fell one point short of being only the second player in NBA history to rack up 25 points and 10 assists in each of the first three games of a playoff series (Michael Jordan, first round, 1989).
More notable than Williams’ individual production on Friday night was his leadership of the offense. The Jazz point guard made the Nuggets pay for loading up on him. Call it the Law of Basketball Reciprocity: A defense can’t commit disproportionate attention to one player or area without surrendering an advantage elsewhere on the floor.
“[Denver] made a commitment to keep Deron boxed in,” Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. “Deron has played against that stuff, and if our other people do their job, we can get decent looks at the basket.”
Those decent looks materialized all over the court against a Denver defense that seemed off-kilter for most of the night. Once Williams worked out of the trap, open shots were available all over the floor.
“They kept doubling me,” Williams said. “I got it to the middle. We were able to run some pick-and-rolls and hit the middle guy and get down the lane. We patiently waited.”
For much of the first half, that “middle guy” for the Jazz was othersized forward Paul Millsap. The Jazz's supersub took over the game in the second quarter, when Utah built the lead it would never relinquish.
“Oh my God he was a monster tonight!” Boozer said. “That’s the Paul Millsap we love.”
Millsap had a perfect first half -- 18 points on 9-of-9 shooting from the field, along with eight rebounds. He finished with 22 and 19, a source of some disappointment for Boozer.
“I told him, ‘I didn’t know you had 19 boards,’” Boozer said. “’If you’d let me know, I would’ve gotten you one more!’”
Millsap set up shop just above the baseline, where the Nuggets laid out a welcome mat. A quick shift in balance by Denver’s interior defenders was all it took for Utah’s perimeter players to find Millsap with their typically crisp passing. When Millsap wasn’t being fed on the block, he was gobbling up offensive boards or taking the likes of Chris Andersen off the dribble from the elbow.
“I just wanted to be aggressive, try to establish myself down low,” Millsap said. “There was an opportunity down there, so we attacked them.”
Asked about Boozer’s offer of a 20th rebound, Millsap demurred.
“That wouldn’t have been right,” Millsap said with a chuckle. “I wouldn’t have accepted it.”
As sound as the Jazz were offensively, the Nuggets were disoriented. Consider the matchup at center, where stand-in Kyrylo Fesenko outscored Nene 9-8 in 15 fewer minutes of playing time (and Fesenko actually matched Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups in assists with three). Prior to the series, Dantley cited passing the ball and getting Nene touches as his two primary goals on offense. On Friday night, the Nuggets failed miserably on both accounts. They recorded only 12 assists, while Nene managed just four shots from the field to go with eight free throws.
“What I’m most disappointed at is the way we failed to compete tonight as a team,” Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony said. “We knew we were going to be in a dogfight tonight. Nobody said it was going to be easy. As far as our effort, I’m highly disappointed.”
Anthony and Billups were the only two Nuggets to score in double-digits, with 25 points each. Denver’s troika of big men (Kenyon Martin, Nene, Andersen) were particularly ineffectual, combining to shoot 3-for-15 from the field. Credit the Jazz defense. After a harried first quarter, Utah did a solid job denying post entry passes into the Nuggets' big men, and plugged passing lanes to the weak side (Utah recorded 10 steals), causing the Denver offense to stagnate and rush shots. The Nuggets' offensive output was lousy, but their interior defense might have been worse.
"Defensively, we've got to do a better job playing their post guys," Dantley said. "They scored a lot of points in the paint. We know we're supposed to double when they get in the paint, and we didn't do that."
After taking a double-digit lead early, the Nuggets disintegrated against a Utah offense that finally started to knock down shots after posting a 32 percent shooting clip in the first quarter. From there, Denver played a game of whack-a-mole against Utah's constantly evolving, well-tuned attack.
"I thought we had control of Boozer and Williams in the first half," Anthony said. "Once we made adjustments to gain control of Millsap and Matthews in the second half, Williams and Boozer woke up."
Denver's tactical failures weren't pretty in Game 3, but the Nuggets also have to be concerned about disposition. Though they suffered a grueling loss on their home court in Game 2, the Nuggets never lacked for effort. But on Friday night, they looked like a dispirited, directionless bunch, especially in the second half when they were blown out of the arena. Billups' selection of off-balanced contested jumpers was uncharacteristic and hurt his team. Anthony picked up his fifth foul on a silly hack in the backcourt toward the end of the third quarter, after which Denver imploded. Thirty seconds later, Billups botched an easy transition opportunity with a lazy pass downcourt. On the ensuing possession, Andersen picked up a technical foul. It was the sort of meltdown to which the Nuggets are occasionally susceptible.
After the game, the Jazz were buoyant -- though measured -- in victory. Quality teams rarely duplicate a performance in the postseason and the Jazz are well aware that Denver has the talent to bounce back.
"You know, they'll try something different the next time, and we'll have to be ready to adjust," Sloan said. "That's what the playoff are."
Holy cow, what a game. Denver's hoping to catch the Lakers for the West's top spot, while the Rockets are in "one game at a time" mode, praying to sneak in as the eighth seed. Everything was high octane.
John Hollinger's Playoff Odds give the Rockets a 4.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, and there were moments of this game where victory seemed about as attainable.
Things appeared a little hopeless for Houston; for instance, when they were down 11 points about three minutes into the fourth quarter and suddenly seemed unable to make a field goal. If you ignore a goaltend, their first real bucket of the fourth quarter came with 8:33 left.
I also felt it might have been Denver's game when the Rockets were up five and Trevor Ariza did a Ron Artest maneuver: Having not done much to help his team for a spell, he decided to "pitch in" by taking an ill-advised shot. With his team down five and less than a minute-and-a-half to go, Ariza clearly felt he had to earn his contract. Instead of running the offense, he nearly turned the ball over, then pulled up for the 3 that Carmelo Anthony invited him to take. He's a 32 percent 3-point shooter, and most players shoot that shot better off the catch or when they're wide open, not on the move and off the dribble. As the ball was airborne, the Nuggets must have felt good. But fortune smiled on the Rockets in this game, as they hope it will in the playoff hunt.
The highlights demonstrate the mastery of high-scorers Aaron Brooks and Carmelo Anthony (although they miss his best play, when he took every inch the defense gave and dunked to tie the game before Houston's game-winner) in this game. But there were other stories. Consider a series of Denver defensive miscues, including one that led to a Luis Scola three-point play in the final minute. And the game's many other heroes:
- I don't know if there's such a thing as a defensive player getting "in the zone." But if there is, Anthony Carter was there early in the fourth quarter. With the Nuggets up five, Carter stole the ball from Brooks, blocked Scola from behind and poked the ball away from Kevin Martin. Remember, forced turnovers like that are far rarer than made shots -- three shots in quick succession is considered tremendous. Three live-ball turnovers ... that's ridiculous. All the while, Carmelo Anthony kept scoring, and the Nuggets built a lead that it seemed they might never relinquish. Eventually, the Nuggets cooled off, Chauncey Billups returned for Carter and the Rockets snuck back into the game. Carter sat through the meat of the fourth quarter, coming off the bench only to check Brooks on the final play after Billups fouled out. As I watched, I thought to myself: I bet Carter has a good plus/minus in this game, and sure enough, he led the Nuggets at plus-eight.
- With about 35 seconds left in a game the Rockets led by two, Nene got great position in the lane against Scola. But he missed the shot and there was a scramble for the rebound. Nene was there, but it was mainly Scola and J.R. Smith. Scola, however, left no doubt that he wanted it more than anybody, and came up with the biggest board of the game.
- Just as the Nuggets had a productive guard on the bench in crunch time, so did the Rockets. The Rockets essentially couldn't score at all for a period. Then Scola broke the ice, and Shane Battier got his first points of the game on two quick, huge 3-pointers. Then the Nuggets adjusted to Battier, and the Rockets looked lost for a moment, until Kyle Lowry went to work. Lowry is as tenacious a player as there is in the NBA, and in addition to hounding Billups on defense, he powered his way to the rim for two straight buckets to reinvigorate the Rocket offense, and keep the Nuggets within shouting distance. Brooks replaced Lowry with about four minutes left and keyed the win, but credit Lowry with making big plays at both ends, while keeping Brooks fresh for crunch time.
Lisa Blumenfeld/NBAE via Getty Images
Could a team with this tandem give the All-Star squads a game?
The All-Star Game is a collection of the best basketball talent in the world, but it rarely produces anything resembling the best basketball. Counter-intuitive as that might seem, the reasons for this annual letdown are fairly obvious. Chauncey Billups recited some of them following the lackluster 2007 All-Star Game, everything from fear of injury to exhaustion from the weekend's festivities.
Could there be other factors that keep this collection of talent from playing beautiful, or even watchable, basketball? In a highly functional basketball unit, do certain players need to defer to other players, something that's difficult to demand of the world's premier scorers? Are teams loaded with this kind of firepower vulnerable to the pitfalls that might have doomed USA Basketball in 2002, 2004 and 2006?
These questions got us thinking: Is it possible to assemble a roster of non-All-Stars that could challenge the teams taking the floor in Dallas on Sunday?
We asked the bloggers in the TrueHoop Network to participate in our high-grade parlor game.
In sculpting our roster, we came up with a few basic questions. What kind of players would you look for? Do you tap the best of the remainders who were left off the rosters (snubs like Josh Smith and Nene)? Knowing you're outgunned, is it better to adopt the principles of guerrilla warfare and engage in a less traditional brand of combat? To that end, are there specific skill sets you should look for?
A few criteria and common themes emerged:
Defense and Rebounding
- Bret LaGree of Hoopinion: "Defense and rebounding would ... be vital, both to limit the efficiency of the All-Stars and to rebound as many missed shots as possible. If the non-All-Stars give the best offensive players in the world many second shots, it's hopeless."
- D.J. Foster of ClipperBlog: "I want them to grab every defensive rebound, I want them to get tons of turnovers..."
- Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm envisions a team whose tactical goal is "DEATH FROM HYPER-LONG-ATHLETIC DEFENDERS FROM ABOVE."
Is it realistic to believe that there are defensive stoppers who can contain the most prolific scorers in the game? Probably not, which means we should look for a very specific brand of defender.
- Rahat Huq of Red94: "In a game like this, you don't necessarily want guys who are great individual defenders. No one is going to shut down those all-stars in combination ... You need the best help defenders in the game. These guys can't be left alone on an island."'
Our team won't have the capacity to create shots the way the All-Stars can, so they better be efficient, says Matt Moore. "You're creating a team that takes shots at the rim and at the arc. Most at the rim. Very much so at the rim." When the Houston Rockets are clicking on the offensive end, they do this proficiently without a single player who approaches All-Star status.
"Intangibles" are abstract, unsatisfying and impossible to measure, but there's no denying that our players need to embody certain qualities to knock off the big boys.
- Henry Abbott: "If you look at the best lineups in the NBA, they almost all include role players (like Anderson Varejao). But when picking the best teams, it's very hard for coaches, GMs or anybody else to pick a role player over a multi-talented star. So they take the star. Anyone read Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers"? After 10,000 hours people are candidates to become masters at something. I'm thinking you want people who have their 10,000 hours in doing boring things that lead to wins, like playing D. Stars don't have more hours in their days. They have to spend a lot of time on other stuff."
- Rahat Huq: "You want players who 'impact winning,' which entails deflections, making quick rotations, pushing pace effectively, never making mistakes -- all the things that impact the outcome in the aggregate. The only way to beat an all-star team is through some sort of synergism. You'll have to play a virtually flawless game."
Toppling the All-Star teams is an uphill battle, but not impossible. Here's the group we've recruited to get it done:
Jason Kidd (PG)
If mastery comes from 10,000 hours of practice, then Kidd is the wily veteran to run point for our squad. Darius Soriano of Forum Blue & Gold: "I'd want a point guard who could push the ball and make the right decisions on both the break and in the half court."
Andre Iguodala (SG)
Defense? Rebounding? The ability to finish at the rim? It's all right here. Iggy's outside shot presents a bit of a concern, and makes him an imperfect selection. The sum of the parts, though, gives our team too many important ingredients to pass over.
Andrei Kirilenko (SF)
There was a groundswell of support for Kirilenko, whose ability to make plays from anywhere, cover multiple positions, protect the rim and provide help defense, make him a classic insurgent against a team of All-Stars.
Josh Smith (PF)
Ryan Schwan of Hornets247 likes Smith and Kirilenko as a forward tandem. "Kirilenko and Smith will cover each other and everyone else on the floor with quick-footed athletic defense."
Lamar Odom (C)
Not a traditional center by any stretch, but a trio of Odom, Kirilenko and Smith just might be skilled, long, springy and athletic enough to defend an elite front line. Spencer Ryan Hall of Salt City Hoops is as enamored with the playmaking potential of the Odom-Kirilenko combo as I am. "Give me Odom at the 5 just to watch him and Kirilenko together." Thorpe adds that the defensive strategy of Kirilenko-Smith-Odom would be "to press and trap baseline and corner catches and generally make it a scramble game. Blitzing ball screens will be effective too."
Kyle Lowry (G)
Henry Abbott makes the strong case for the efficient Lowry off the bench, where he's excelled for Houston. "[He] fights like a dog and gets to the line like crazy, while also making his team's defense better."
Jamal Crawford (G)
Thus far, we don't have any pure shooters. As Zach Harper of Cowbell Kingdom points out, Crawford has his flaws, but is worth signing up. "I'm not sold on him completely here but if he's hot, it doesn't matter who is guarding him." Just ask the Boston Celtics. Anthony Morrow finishes a close second for the role of sharpshooter off the bench.
Manu Ginobili (G)
"Manu Ginobili HAS beaten All-Star teams, in international competition," writes Henry. He gives the squad one guard who can truly probe the defense in the half court.
Tyreke Evans (G)
We don't care how you classify him positionally. We just know he can score on any perimeter player in the league when he's disciplined and keeps the ball moving in the half court.
Hedo Turkoglu (F)
Critics will knock his defense, but he did just fine on Orlando's shutdown squad last season. In a talent pool that's bereft of big wings, Turkoglu is a good choice for his flexibility as a pick-and-roll practitioner. Imagine what he and the guy just below could do as a tandem in the second unit to that effect.
Jeremy Wagner of Roundball Mining Company describes his assets this way: "A big man who can score on the block, face up and hit the 15 footer or drive and is a very good passer. Plus he has as good of a chance to defend both Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard as anyone." If Nene is unavailable, we like the indefatigable Carl Landry.
Anderson Varejao (F/C)
We don't need him to score, we just want him to annoy the hell out of max-contract superstars. When that pest makes his team's defense inordinately better, crashes the glass and collects the garbage, we'll find the minutes. Joakim Noah was a strong contender for this 12th man slot.
Gregg Popovich (Coach)
"You don't deserve anything. You just go play. You start thinking about what you deserve and what you don't deserve and it just makes you soft. You just go play the game." -- Gregg Popovich, May 2006.
The counter argument
Leave it to M. Haubs of The Painted Are to be the hard-bitten realist. For him, this is a fun, but ultimately futile, exercise. The talent on the All-Star rosters is just too much to contend with, no matter how much synergy our team can muster and no matter how much precision it can deploy. He also challenges the premise that the USA Basketball teams that struggled in the early part of last decade failed because they were overstaffed with scorers:
I have to say that as much as people wanted to blame Team USA's underachievement from 2002-06 on lack of shooting or role players or some mystical qualities, the dirty little secret about the ultimate redemption in 2008 was talent - they brought a roster filled with All-NBA players, which they had not really done since 1996. The teams that Manu beat in '02 and '04 were not really All-Star teams -- those teams had too many role players, not too few.
I'm really not trying to be the poop in the punch bowl here, but I will take CP3, Kobe, Melo, Dirk and Timmy, with Nash, D-Will, Durant, and Pau off the bench, and you can try to beat me with your collection of role players. And please, by all means, try to press and speed up the tempo; I have Chris Paul and Steve Nash.
In reality, I would suggest that you lobby hard to play the game under FIBA rules, with unlimited zone defense to clog the lane and a shorter three-point line for a better puncher's chance, and I'd recommend that a college coach like Coach K be forced to be the game coach for the All-Stars.
We've given you our roster, please tell us yours.
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
In Game 5, the Lakers cracked the code on the offensive end. They discovered that the Nuggets were giving them swaths of open space in the halfcourt, much of it the result of double-teams. The Lakers' offense is predicated on spacing and movement, and Denver's pressure had the unintended consequence of opening up the floor. Here's Bryant describing the dynamic Wednesday night:
Kobe Bryant: "I'll just read the defense."(Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
They cocked their whole defense to me so I tried to beat them with my passing a little bit. They've been so ready to trap me and double team me all over the place so I just stretched the floor out, Pau, they double teamed him on the post too. So all we did was just put the ball in my hands, put the ball in his (Gasol's) hands, make the defense commit and then we made plays from there...
I'll just read the defense. Denver's not going to let me isolate someone and go by them. They're not going to let me play one-on-one. I have to trust my teammates to make plays, and then when those lanes open up, I'll take advantage of them.
The Nuggets trapped Bryant aggressively – probably too aggressively -- and the Lakers made them pay. By Thursday morning, some Nuggets players were openly wondering if they were giving Bryant a little too much respect at the expense of their base defense.
How would Denver respond on Friday night?
- [1st, 11:40] Right out of the gate, the Lakers test Denver's defensive philosophy by getting the ball to Bryant on the right side, free throw line extended. Will Denver run a double-team at Kobe? Not immediately. It's a deliberate, kinda-sorta double-team, with Carmelo Anthony slowly wandering over from the foul line. What's most notable is how intently the backside of the Nuggets' defense is watching Kobe. With Anthony now committed, Kobe kicks the ball up top to Ariza. The Denver rotation is swift, and the Lakers never get a good look, settling for an aborted alley-oop attempt inside for Andrew Bynum.
If you're a Nuggets fan, the first defensive set is exactly what you want to see: Pressure on Bryant, but a strong, alert rotation that doesn't give him the opportunity to make a play for someone else. Unfortunately, things begin to disintegrate quickly:
- [1st, 10:22] Again Kobe at the free throw line extended on the right side, and again he draws a deliberate double-team. This time it's Nene, who ambles over, then returns to the interior as Kobe passes off to Gasol, who has flashed to the foul line. The miscommunication on the Nuggets' part is awful. Nene has returned to Bynum underneath -- but Kenyon Martin has already rotated onto Bynum. So now, the least potent offensive Laker on the floor is being doubled off the ball by Denver. That's all it takes for the Lakers to find the open shot on the perimeter. The ball goes to Fisher, who promptly sends it to a wide, wide open Trevor Ariza beyond the arc.
Ariza finishes the night with 17 points on only nine shot attempts. He's the primary beneficiary of Denver's defensive lapses:
- [1st, 3:17] The Lakers have found a formula they like: Bryant just off the elbow on the right wing, and, again, it's Carmelo creeping over for the double. When Anthony commits, Ariza cuts through to the weak side where he hides behind the Nuggets' zone. For a second, it looks like Billups will pick him up on the rotation, but Jordan Farmar puts a crimp in that plan by floating out to the top of the circle. Billups follows him there, which frees Ariza for a basket cut. Bryant hits him underneath for a reverse slam.
Your 2009 Los Angeles Lakers. Gladly accepting their opponent's challenge against their first option to leverage an open shot for their second. They shoot 60% from the floor in the first half with 16 assists on their 21 field goals.
And Mr. Gasol?
- [3rd, 10:39] The Lakers feed Gasol at the mid-left post, then send a double-team at him, even though he's 18 feet from the basket. The Nuggets' rotation is a mess. With Dahntay Jones doubling Gasol, Bryant retreats to the weak side perimeter. Nene doesn't know whom to account for, and is frantically tagging various Lakers as they swarm around the court. Gasol watches him closely, patiently. Just as Nene settles on Andrew Bynum, he realizes Bryant is alone on the perimeter. The instant Nene breaks for Bryant, Gasol hits the now-open Bynum underneath for an easy slam.
The Lakers had ignored Gasol for much of the series, and relegated him mostly to dribble hand-offs at the pinch post when they used him at all -- an absolute waste. When you have the best passing big man in basketball, it's a crime not to utilize that talent. Friday night, they abided.
The Lakers' issues in this postseason has never been about heart, and rarely been about effort. It's a matter of execution, exploiting their vastly superior skill set in a system perfectly tailored to their talent.
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
LOS ANGELES -- Half an hour after the Denver Nuggets landed at LAX around noon, they were on the Lakers' home floor at Staples Center in their street clothes. While Nene, wearing slides, took some shots, Carmelo Anthony reminded reporters that the Nuggets had things in proper perspective.
"We're confident, but not cocky," Anthony said. Then, doing his best Aaron Brooks imitation, Anthony added, "We're just excited about being here."
Across the court, George Karl sat on the scorer's table, dangling his legs, echoing a similar sentiment. "There's a humility to who we are," Nuggets head coach George Karl said. "There's a quiet happiness, not an obnoxious happiness or an arrogant happiness with our success."
Self-deprecation seems to be the rhetorical weapon of choice for Lakers opponents.
Karl held court for quite a while, and one of the themes he returned to repeatedly is that while most teams have to win before they can arrive, this Nuggets team had to arrive before they could win.
According to Karl, the transformation was twofold. The first change was a shift back to defense as the focus of Karl's coaching, as it had been in Seattle. "I spent two and a half years on a sabbatical trying to learn a different way and I was wrong," Karl said. "I lost my direction, and players now know that I enjoy the defensive end of the court more than I do the offensive end of the court."
In truth, the Nuggets' defense was respectable last season (10th in the NBA in defensive efficiency per 100 possessions), but they bumped that ranking up to 8th in 2008-09, and have allowed a stingy 101.3 points/100 possessions in their 10 postseason games.
Karl cited the team's behavior away from the arena as the other big conversion. "We were pushing the limits of off-court professionalism," Karl said. "We have moved to a very good place in our culture."
Karl enumerated the factors for that culture shift -- the maturation of certain players and the arrival of others, such as Chauncey Billups.
"Chauncey came in and said, 'This is the way it has to be. This is the only way you can be successful,'" Karl said. " A lot of the things Chauncey says in the locker room are things I've been saying for two or three years that they've gotten tired of listening to. All the sudden they're saying, 'This guys been to the conference finals seven years in a row. Hmmm.'"
After the Nuggets last loss in Los Angeles -- a 116-102 drubbing on April 9 -- Nuggets forward Nene said, "It's frustrating. They played their game and we didn't play our game."
The Nuggets might lose again at Staples Center Tuesday night, but it probably won't be because they didn't play their game.
"If someone beats us, that's what they'll write," Karl said, "They beat us."
Forget about Kobe -- the Nuggets have their hands full with the Lakers' seven-footers. Orlando needed to learn how to win -- it took them all of 72 hours. And Rick Sund deserves an "Atta Boy," in Atlanta.
Jeremy Wagner of Roundball Mining Company: "You can talk about Kobe Bryant all you want, the Nuggets biggest concern should be how they can handle [Andrew] Bynum and [Pau] Gasol. With the starters on the floor Kenyon Martin is going to have to guard one of them and he has a serious length disadvantage against both. Most likely Kenyon will be guarding Gasol and for all his defensive desire and talents he is in a big hole ... Pau can shoot his 15-18 foot set shot over Kenyon at will and when he goes into the post his jump hook will be impossible for Kenyon to stop. Nene is relatively better equipped to cover Bynum than Kenyon is for guarding Gasol, but Bynum still has a significant length and weight advantage over Nene. On the other hand, Nene has done a decent job against Gasol in the past so will Denver choose to stick Kenyon on Bynum and double the heck out of him should he get the ball in the post thus creating one major mismatch instead of two less than desirable matchups?"
Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub: "This Celtics team could not play championship-caliber defense consistently. Their defensive numbers slipped a bit against Chicago, a mediocre offensive team, and it was likely, if not inevitable, that Orlando was going to score on Boston at least once or twice in this series. And the Celtics could not rely on their offense and their three-point shooting to carry them, as they did against the Bulls. Orlando's defense was the best in the NBA this season by some metrics. The tendency will be to look for what the Celtics did wrong -- to ask why Doc Rivers waited so long to try a small lineup, to wonder why Ray Allen shot so poorly until Game 7, to ask why the Celtics defenders had so much trouble guarding Mickael Pietrus tonight, why Eddie House couldn't get free, and on and on and on. The reality is that Orlando is a very good basketball team that presents major match-up problems for Boston sans [Kevin] Garnett."
Bret LaGree of Hoopinion: "Considering both the ownership situation and his brief tenure I'm going to give Rick Sund the benefit of the doubt for the time being. I don't believe that's simply a matter of being fair. By signing Flip Murray and Maurice Evans for a combined $4 million he earned the benefit of the doubt. The veteran pair combined to ably back up three positions while helping to accelerate the team's transformation, one which started following last season's trade for Mike Bibby, from an offense incapable of making three-point shots into a more diverse and dangerous team to guard."
THE FINAL WORD
Cavs the Blog: John Krolik revisits the Cavs-Magic regular season matchups.
Orlando Magic Daily: Much respect for Mr. Paul Pierce.
Daily Thunder: Thabo Sefolosha -- the next Shane Battier?
(Photos by Noah Graham, Brian Babineau, Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
It's unknown when the trope "matchup nightmare" first entered the basketball lexicon, but I imagine it happened at some point between Magic Johnson's rookie season and the emergence of Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki.
Nowitzki's versatility makes him a nearly impossible cover. Normally, the primary defensive function of a power forward is to push his guy off the block. Nowitzki, though, neutralizes a good post defender because he actually prefers to hang out at the elbow, where he's one of the best 18-foot jump shooters in the game. When the defender steps out, the taller Nowitzki can shoot his high-arching turnaround shot over most power forwards, or, if he's so inclined, he can put the ball on the deck and drive to the hole. Nowitzki might not be the quickest 4 to the basket, but his defenders have to crowd him because he's such a deadly shooter. If Nowitzki can get that first step, it's a foot race between him and the weak side help. Dirk will win most of those battles because he's a strong and deceptively quick finisher.
Chris "Birdman" Andersen: Slowing down Dirk
(Doug Pensinger/NBAE via Getty Images)
Early on Sunday afternoon, it looks as if Denver has absolutely no answer for Nowitzki. On Dallas' first 13 possessions, Nowitzki converts all six of his field goal attempts from the floor, and chips in an assist to Josh Howard. Dirk isn't merely beating Kenyon Martin. He's having his way against virtually every Denver defender -- Nene, Carmelo Anthony, the Nuggets' guards off the switch, et al.
The best player on the floor is in a Mavericks uniform and Dallas leads by eight at the end of the first quarter.
As Hubie Brown explains, George Karl has clearly made the decision to play Nowitzki straight-up. With the exception of the occasional trap along the sideline, Denver defenders will have to fly solo against Nowitzki in the middle of the floor. Karl is adamant: If Dirk is going to beat his Nuggets, he won't do it as a playmaker.
At the 10:03 mark of the second quarter, Nowitzki checks back in for Dallas, and is immediately picked up by Chris "Birdman" Andersen. Nowitzki's first touch of this sequence comes at the 8:33 mark when he draws J.R. Smith -- and a J.R. Smith foul -- on the switch. After that, the game at the Dallas end of the floor changes:
- [2nd Quarter, 8:23] Dampier sets a hard down screen on Andersen to give Nowitzki a little space at the foul line. J.J. Barea feeds Nowitzki there, but Andersen doggedly fights through the Dampier screen and closes that space in a hurry. That's the first thing about Andersen: Dampier takes most defenders out of this play with what's essentially a lineman's block -- but not Andersen. He's back in Dirk's face before Dirk can face up. Dirk chooses to back Andersen in -- first with the right shoulder, then he reverses course and pounds with his left. Andersen absorbs every blow, and you sense he loves every minute of the contact. Birdman's feet are bouncy and he's got his right hand on Dirk's back. Nowitzki hasn't made much progress. He pivots to his right and, trying to draw the foul on Andersen, flings the ball at the basket -- but Andersen doesn't budge. He never bites on the shot and, in turn, denies Nowitzki the contact. The ball draws nothing.
- [2nd Quarter, 7:55] Isolation for Nowitzki against Andersen way out on the left side of the arc. Andersen assumes a defensive crouch and takes a mean swipe at the ball as Nowitzki faces up. Dirk snatches the ball back, then takes a hard dribble with his left and goes baseline. On the drive, Birdman has Dirk on a tightrope, well underneath the hoop. Andersen funnels Nowitzki to the weak side where Nene stuffs Dirk's reverse layup attempt. Nowitzki finishes the afternoon 2-7 against the Birdman-Nene combination, 10-15 against the Nuggets' other defenders.
- [2nd Quarter, 6:50] Andersen crowds Nowitzki at the top of the arc, really harassing him. Nowitzki moves forward with his patented sequence, left shoulder, then right shoulder. Andersen stays with him, as Nowitzki leads them to a spot inside the left elbow. Dirk elevates and, with Andersen's hand in his face, launches a fall-away jumper that's no good.
When Kenyon Martin checks back into the game for Nene at the 4:11 mark, he assumes Dirk Duty, and Andersen slides over onto Dampier and general help duty. On the next Dallas possession, Dirk draws Smith on the switch up top, backs in the Nuggets' guard, and works himself an easy 5-footer.
Andersen earns another stint on Nowitzki for the better part of the fourth quarter, during which Birdman outscores Dirk, 4-2. Nowitzki's only bucket comes on an offensive rebound that rolls his way, which he puts back up for a 10-foot jumper against Anthony Carter. The only time Andersen gets beat is on a defensive switch when he draws Jason Terry, who unleashes a quick jumper over him from about 20 feet [4th Quarter, 10:04]. But Andersen exacts revenge on the very next possession:
- [4th Quarter, 9:28] Terry draws the Birdman at the same spot out on the left wing. This time, Terry tries to take Andersen off the dribble. The Jet's layup is promptly swatted into next week by Andersen, and Denver ignites the break. How nice a luxury it must be for George Karl to know that he can switch his center onto a speedy little guard and feel comfortable that his big man can not only stay in front of the drive, but challenge the shot at the basket.
- [4th Quarter, 9:10] Andersen effortlessly runs through a (moving) screen by Antoine Wright off the ball at the elbow, and meets Nowitzki out on the right wing in isolation. Dirk faces up, but then rushes his half-hearted rocker step and subsequent jumper. The shot is off.
- [4th Quarter, 7:16] Andersen fouls Nowitzki as Dirk brings the ball upcourt. After the Mavs inbound it on the side, Nowitzki gets the ball at the top of the key opposite Andersen. For the first time in isolation against the Birdman, Nowitzki acts decisively. That's probably a good instinct, only Andersen anticipates Nowitzki's left-handed drive beautifully and establishes himself at the spot for the easy charge call. Hubie: "A great defensive play."
- [4th Quarter, 6:51] The Mavs are in transition. Jason Kidd gets the ball to Nowitzki in the right lane. Dirk, at the time he receives the pass, is actually ahead of Andersen, but Birdman catches him from behind and gets a piece of Dirk's layup attempt. Billups applauds proudly from the bench. Last week, we characterized many of Dwyane Wade's defensive blocks as "horror flick" plays -- just when you think Wade is out of the play, he comes in for the kill. Andersen is a horror show, too -- only he's not a furtive killer that we never see on screen. He's Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, walking in broad daylight with a pneumatic air gun.
Nowitzki gets only one more meaningful touch against Andersen. Ironically, he beats Andersen off the dribble, only to lose the ball as he makes his approach for the basket -- the last of Dallas' 20 turnovers.
It's doubtful Dirk Nowitzki will be bottled up for the entire series (and to be fair, Dirk went 12-22 from the floor, a solid performance, even if he tailed off). Dallas will make some smart adjustments. For one, they should figure out a way to generate more mismatches for Nowitzki, something they were able to accomplish in the first qua
rter. Andersen is a scrappy recoverer as the big man in a ball screen, but Dallas has the capacity to get Nowitzki more space, regardless of who's defending the two-man game.
Meanwhile the Nuggets have to be pleased. The top assignment for any team facing Dallas is neutralizing Dirk Nowitzki. It took Denver a quarter to find the lock, but they did. Andersen's shot-blocking and help defense are well-known and highly regarded, but today he proved that he can match up in isolation with one of the most gifted offensive power forwards in the NBA.
Shortly after doing what "experts" do and telling everyone who I thought should win everything, I took a few minutes today to reflect on it.
Of all the picks, the one I feel best about is Nene as Most Improved Player. (And no, that's not just because David Thorpe and I made that same pick, although it helps!)
There's a really obvious reason: About this time a year ago Nene returned from having a malignant tumor removed. He had been out for two-and-a-half months.
But that's not all! He did the Lance Armstrong: Started with some potential, fought off testicular cancer, and came back as an absolute beast.
There are some players that you admire. There are some players you respect. Then there are some you fear.
The proper attitude for a big man in the paint is be an owner, not a renter. You want to be the mayor of that place. You want to walk around like it's yours, and you'll be in charge of what happens there.
A lot of big men get themselves some territory down there for a moment or two, do what they have to do, and then leave. But the real hombres settle in for the night.
Nene is starting to get like that, and that's a foundation of the Nuggets' becoming a juggernaut of team that ran away with the second in the Western Conference sweepstakes.
Although his rebounding is down a little bit, Nene's numbers are way up in nearly everything else -- not just compared to last year, but compared to his entire career. He's having an all-time season, and it's not close.
Consider these one year improvements:
- His PER is up from around 11 to around 19. 15 is average.
- His True Shooting Percentage will finish the season at about 65%, compared to 46% last season.
- By the metric of Win Shares he has gone from last year's 0.3 to this year's 9.5 and counting.
- His fouls per 36 minutes, meanwhile, are down from 6.2 to 4.0.
- His free throw percentage is up from 55% to 72%.
Remember, he was once discussed as a bad contract. Not anymore.
Now, do I think he'll win the Most Improved player award? I do not. So I'm going to hand him another award: The guy who is going to be huge in the playoffs that no one is talking about right now. Either they'll win a title, or somebody is going to have to beat the Nuggets. It is not going to be easy. And when they are winning playoff games, I promise you'll be noticing that big Brazilian guy banging around making life difficult for opponents.
If that's not a big improvement over what he was doing a year ago, I don't know what is.
(Photo by Victor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images)
Is the Spurs-Suns rivalry still relevant? How about Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Marc Iavaroni? The TrueHoop Network has all the relevant information:
John Krolik of Cavs the Blog: "On the road against a tough Magic team and still without Z, the Cavaliers were able to establish a rhythm early, but at about the midway point of the second quarter lost their momentum and never really grabbed hold of the reins after that. After they put up monstrous lines against the Kings, the league's 3rd best defense was able to hold LBJ and Mo to a combined 14-42 from the field...
Without Z, we just don't seem to have enough to beat elite teams on the road. It's not the worst admission in the world, but you would hope that we could at least hang a little tougher with these games and not lay eggs on national television.
We'll start with LeBron. I actually don't think he did anything all that wrong, despite the fact that he had one of his worst games of the year. A 23/8/8 line is nice, but taking 30 attempts with a true shooting % of 38 is tough for a team to bounce back from and not all that good.
LeBron took it to the hole, but again seemed to shy away from making really aggressive moves, possibly because the Magic were able to cut away the corners and possibly because LeBron was completely unable to get to the foul line despite driving and getting contact, only shooting 6 free throws the entire game."
Graydon Gordian of 48 Minutes of Hell: "I'll be honest: There is nothing I love more than beating the Suns. Some commenters have suggested that in order for a team to be a true rival they must have beaten us in the playoffs in recent history but in my opinion that is not the definition of a rival. Do they make your blood boil? Do they make you rise out of your seat? Does every single match-up (even regular season games) have an added element of intrigue? Well, that's a rival. So, yes, we have bested the Suns time after time over the last 6 or so years. But this is about more than final scores. Opponents who inspire the depth of emotion I feel deserve the term 'rival.' And, as so many Suns-Spurs games have, this contest did not disappoint."
Ryan Schwan of Hornets247: "...It was announced that David West will be heading to Phoenix to take part in the All-star game again this season, and much like last year, there's a bit of storm raging around the internet about his selection. I have to admit that at first I was a bit torn by this selection. I am, first and foremost, a Hornets fan, and I'm pleased he's being recognized for his production despite being one of the quietest and least self-promoting players in the league. Still, the fact remains I'm also a stat-geek, and by any measure there were better producers in the West that got left off the team. There are three players in particular I have a hard time dismissing out of hand as worse than Fluffy: Manu Ginobili, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. I could be persuaded to put Nene on that list as well."
THE FINAL WORD
The Painted Area: Marc Iavaroni, we told you so.
Valley of the Suns: Hack-a-Bowen?!
Hardwood Paroxysm: The Spurs-Suns rivalry is kaput.
(Photos by Fernando Medina, Barry Gossage, Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)