Is it February 4th or June 4th?
I have never seen a more intense game before the All-Star break. Ever.
Both teams deserve a great deal of credit for the way they played. Everyone knew what was on the line tonight and the effort and passion was absolutely incredible from both teams. The crowd was great as well and brought the best out of both teams.
The difference tonight was every Nugget seemed to take personal responsibility for the outcome of the game. Denver has been quick to blame injuries for losses all season long and they could have gone that route with Camby sitting out. Tonight I sensed from the way the Nuggets were playing had they ended up losing that not one of them was going to say anything along the lines of, "Well, we tried, but what do you expect with Marcus out?"
They knew no matter who was out there on the floor, it was a must win game.
The Nuggets received contributions from every player who played significant minutes. Carmelo struggled on offense after the first quarter, but pulled down 15 big rebounds. AI was horrible from the floor early on, but laid low in the middle quarters and once he got going was able to hit some shots, including a three to put the Nuggets up one with 39 seconds left and the game winner in OT. Kleiza was again efficient on offense and played very good defense on Brandon Roy in the clutch. Carter only took three shots, but he triggered a few fast breaks with his excellent lead passes up the floor. Martin helped provide some beef in the paint and pulled down a crucial 11 boards. J.R. Smith had a couple of his typical lapses, but kept the aggressive attack the rim attitude going for the Nuggets when he had the ball in his hands and fought for rebounds as hard as he ever has.
Above all, the player that I thought embodied the effort the Nuggets brought from start to finish was Eduardo Najera. I get the feeling that George Karl can get Najera to play no matter how badly he is hurt. He is a gritty competitive player and I am proud of him tonight.
Najera skipped the Bobcats game with bruised ribs. I imagine the bruising has spread after tonight. Najera was drawing charges, throwing his body around in the paint and fighting through screens. Several occasions he was very slow to get up and it was obvious that he was hurting. Even so he never let it affect his effort or the quality of his play.
Najera also did a good job when he had to guard players like Webster and Outlaw on the perimeter. He was special.
This game was as tight as they come, but as inconsistent as Denver has been this season, they have consistently proven that they are comfortable in end game situations even when they are down by three or four points in the last two minutes. They have repeatedly pulled out games like this even against good teams. The Spurs game in Denver comes to mind as does the recent game at Memphis, the game at Sacramento where Kleiza hit the game winner at the buzzer, the OT game against the Rockets, the most recent game against Minnesota in Denver and now tonight.
The Nuggets are great at locking down on defense and getting just enough on offense to push them over the top.
Everyone likes to pontificate about how the Nuggets have to play 48 minutes of defense and I always blather on about playing with focus for 48 minutes. The reality is in a game that lasts two and a half hours, and sometimes longer, it is impossible for all five players on the floor to be completely focused the entire time. There are going to be mistakes and errors. A team’s rhythm will come and go on both ends of the floor.
The key is that the effort must always be consistent and that effort must be carried out with passion to ensure the effort is meaningful. Tonight the Nuggets played with effort and passion for 53 minutes. There were breakdowns on D and sloppy play on offense, but effort and passion carried the Nuggets through those stretches.
I think at this point in the season the Nuggets know what is at stake game in and game out. There will be stretches where they lack that special mixture they had tonight like the third quarter in the previous game against Charlotte. They will take quarters off here and there, but they must rise to the occasion and fight that lethargy that is bound to sneak in against the Sonics and Grizzlies.
Right now Denver is 29-18. To reach 50 wins they must finish the season 21-14. I think 50 wins gets them in the playoffs, but will pit them against the Suns, Mavs or Spurs. They need to get to 53-55 wins which means winning 24-26 of their last 35 games. That will take all they can give game after game, but this team can do it if they carry the right mindset and spirit into every game they play.
Next up is Utah at the Pepsi Center. If the Nuggets win they will be tied atop the division with the Jazz and will hold a 2-0 lead in the season series. If they lose they will be behind the Jazz by two games and will be 1-1 for the season series with two games remaining to be played in Utah.
It only gets more and more difficult from here on out.
Come on Nuggets, let’s do it.
Other Observations From Game 47:
- The officials were definitely letting a lot of interior contact go, especially as the game wore on. That really benefited Portland because the Nuggets, and especially Melo, were trying to get their shots in the paint. Melo was hacked repeatedly with no call on more than one occasion. However, Portland played almost exclusively on the perimeter on offense so the Nuggets could not take advantage of the way the game was called. Contact that is allowed in the paint is not allowed on the perimeter.
- Portland is a very, very good team, but I wonder if they are going to start to fade. They are now 5-7 over their last 12 games and they have struggled down the stretch recently in close games. Another bad omen is they are no longer blowing teams out. They had 11 wins by eight or more points during their 17-1 run. In the twelve games since then they have only won one game by eight or more points. Almost every game they play is close and their youth is showing in those tight contests.
- A quick look at the numbers shows that the Nuggets won the battle of fast break points by 12, 23 to 11 and the points in the paint by 40 60 to 20. Denver was able to push the pace more than Portland would have liked and they hung tough on the glass outrebounding Portland by two, 53 to 51.
- It is amazing how quickly Martel Webster can go from hot to cold. He reminds me a little of Voshon Leonard. I have seen a handful of games where he catches fire for a quarter or even longer and then all of the sudden it is gone. Who would have guessed that he would miss two out of three free throws in overtime after the way he was hitting in the second half?
- Karl has come under fire for not using his timeouts when the Nuggets opponent is making a big run. Apparently he knew how important this game was as well. When Portland went on their 16-0 run in the second quarter Karl called two timeouts in an attempt to slow them down.
- J.R. has missed his last four or five dunk attempts (I cannot remember for sure if Okafor blocked an attempt in the last game or not). I love his aggressiveness, but he needs to learn that he does not get extra points for throwing it down. It is better to make a lay in than pound the ball off the back of the rim.
- Brandon Roy always makes the right decision when he is coming off a screen and as a team Portland is a very deft at setting each other up for open shots. On several occasions the player with the ball would drive past a teammate only to flip it back and screen off both his man and the shooter’s man. The "basketball IQ" of this young team is off the charts and that is why they are so difficult to beat.
- Melo was making me absolutely nuts the way he was playing in the post in the second half and OT. To be fair, as mentioned above no fouls were being called inside, he was getting bumped the entire time and he is playing only his second game back from his ankle sprain. That being said, he would hold the ball and then either make a slow move or spin away from the basket and take a turn around jumper. He is not an explosive leaper from a standstill or when he is pressured. As soon as he stops moving in the paint and starts pump faking or pivoting his shot is going to get blocked. He must make sure he is on the move when he elevates or else he must dish it off. The way Portland was collapsing into the lane on him he had options to pass even though no one was cutting for him.
- On Roy’s last shot of the game the ref on the baseline never signaled if it was a two pointer or a three pointer. He started to raise a hand and then seemed to think better of it. Instead of looking at Roy’s feet and making the call, it was almost as if he thought to himself, "If it goes in the replay will bail me out so I do not need to make a call." In case you were wondering, Roy’s foot was on the line so at worst the game would have gone to a second OT had that shot dropped.
- One thing I wondered is why Kleiza was on the bench so long as time ran down in the fourth quarter. He has been a great force for Denver closing games as of late. Karl took Kleiza out at 5:41 and did not reinsert him until only 1:39 was remaining in regulation.
One last thought. After the game a reporter asked Melo, "Who do you think is tougher, Portland or Utah?"
Carmelo answered, "We are."
I love it.
It is almost enough to make me think this team has what it takes to make some noise in the playoffs.
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