The road trip that may determine the outcome of the Nuggets season begins tonight in Detroit. If Denver can go 4-1 they will likely pull even with Golden State by next Monday. If they come back to town after a 1-4 trip, all may be lost. Finishing with a 3-2 or 2-3 record will keep us mired in the status quo of playoff uncertainty.
To this point the month of March that we have been dreading has seen the Nuggets go 5-3 thanks to the three game home court romp they just completed. There are eight games left in the month and the only easy game on the slate is in Memphis although that is at the end of this current five games in seven nights trip.
Focusing on tonight’s opponent, Detroit beat the Nuggets in Denver last month in a game where Denver just could not get their act together. Detroit controlled the pace of the game and they actually outscored the Nuggets 17-10 in fast break points. With the fast break shut down they struggled to score easy baskets as proven by their 36% shooting for the game and impish 34 points in the paint. Even so, Denver had a chance to tie the game with four seconds left.
Detroit is 26-6 at home, but those six losses include dropping games to Chicago, Philadelphia and Sacramento so they do let a game slide here and there, just not very often.
The key to this game will be pace. Detroit plays at the slowest pace in the league averaging 90.1 possessions per game while Denver plays at the fastest pace averaging 101.9 possessions per game. It is vital for Denver to get some easy buckets because when Detroit can get their half court defense set up they can easily handle an isolation based offense like the Nuggets.
The good news is this will be a perfect test to determine if we saw the dawning of the Nuggets that we have wanted to see all season, as displayed against Toronto and Seattle, or if that was just a blip on the radar against some bad teams. Denver will need to push the pace, move without the ball on offense and play good defense specifically challenging shots and fighting for rebounds.
Detroit is also a very good rebounding team. Denver battled them to a near draw on the glass in Denver last month and they will have to do the same tonight. Antonio McDyess and Jason Maxiel place a high priority on going after every rebound and the Nuggets front line will have to match their enthusiasm.
Detroit does not have any specific player that Denver will struggle to guard, but the excellence of their execution is what makes it difficult to defend them. Whether it is Rip Hamilton running off of a series of screens or a set designed to get an open shot for Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince or Chauncey Billups they run every set with precision and purpose.
Carmelo continues to be a difficult matchup for Detroit, but AI is much less of a problem for them. Iverson is typically content to dribble and dribble which allows their solid team defense to make things very difficult for him. That is why Denver must continue to play the style of offense they displayed against Toronto and Seattle.
To be honest, I have no idea what to expect tonight. I hope and pray that we see the team that played four full quarters against Toronto and Detroit, but I fear we will see the Nuggets revert back into the isolation heavy sluggish team that lost to Detroit in February.
Whichever team we see tonight will probably tell us what to expect from Denver on this road trip and in turn, for the remainder of the season.