2007-2008 Game 60: Denver Nuggets 126 - Phoenix Suns 113

Box Score (hopefully NBA.com will have the stats up before anyone reads this, which could be weeks or even months)

At the risk of sounding dismissive of the Nuggets performance tonight, that was not much of a test was it?

Phoenix is in big trouble.  I have seen bits and pieces of Suns games since they acquired Shaq, but tonight was the first full game I have watched the newly constructed Suns play and it is quite clear they are a completely different team.  The only time they resembled the Suns of the recent past was when Shaq and Amare were on the bench for the last five minutes of the third quarter, but they still were only a shell of what they used to be less than a month ago.

Nash, Bell and Barbosa are their only three point threats, combining to make eight threes against Denver, and with Amare and Shaq both wanting to play inside the lane is clogged and their spacing is atrocious.  The consistent trickle of three point shooters out of Phoenix has slowly eroded the quality of this team.  From Joe Johnson to James Jones to Shawn Marion this team has somewhat voluntarily destroyed their greatest strength, the ability to spread the floor and bomb the opposition into submission.

What makes things worse is Shaq is a ghost of his former self.  The Suns training staff may be able to keep him on the floor, but they cannot make him be effective.  The most shocking thing I noticed as I watched Shaq play was how poor his hands are.  He is constantly bobbling passes and fumbling away scoring opportunities like a prepubescent nerd in a John Hughes movie.  Losing athleticism with age is expected, but losing the ability to catch a ball should not diminish until arthritis or blindness settles in.

When J.R. hit his sixth three on a beautiful set up by AI with over nine minutes left in the game to put the Nuggets up by 16 it felt like the game was over and really it was.  Would you have felt like any lead with over nine minutes left was safe against the Suns before they traded for Shaq?

Enough about the Suns though.  The Nuggets were tremendous on offense and they played adequate defense.  Melo, AI, J.R. Smith Kenyon and Anthony Carter all played very well on offense.  When both AI and Carter have double digit assists you know the Nuggets played a complete game on offense.  Carter’s assists are proof that the Nuggets ran the floor and AI’s mostly come in the half court offense so you know he was sharing the ball.  

The Suns tried playing Raja Bell on Melo and even though Raja is a good defensive player, he stood no chance trying to guard number 15.  Melo is big enough to shoot over Raja with his midrange game and strong enough to post him up or drive by him.  

I thought AI and Melo both did a good job making sure their jumpers were from no further out than 16 to 18 feet.  AI especially was excellent at getting in the paint or around the free throw line before shooting.  

Defensively Kenyon Martin deserves a great deal of credit for the work he did on Amare.  Kenyon is one of the few players that can match Amare’s strength, and quickness.  Camby obviously stood little chance against the old Shaq, but he worked hard and made sure current Shaq was not a force on offense.  Shaq had as many turnovers as he did made baskets.

But once again the issue is Melo and AI will not shoot 24-45 every game.  In fact, they rarely do.  J.R. Smith is not going to shoot 6-8 from downtown every game.  Anthony Carter is definitely not going to hit 3 of 5 threes every game.  

Do not get me wrong, this was a good win, but if they do not follow it up with a win in one of the two upcoming games with San Antonio and a at least a strong showing in Utah, they will continue to be an unlikely playoff participant.

Other Observations From Game 60:

  • Melo also continued to be a major presence on the glass at both ends of the floor.  Melo is averaging 3.2 offensive rebounds since he cranked up his rebounding starting with the game against New Orleans on December 12th.  To put that in perspective, Tim Duncan is 12th in the league at 3.2 offensive rebounds a game and the list ahead of him is comprised completely of centers.  The fact that Melo is doing it as a small forward is truly impressive.  We have seen him add something to his game every season.  If making the leap to a top notch rebounder is what comes out of this season
  • Why were Melo and AI in the game until the very end?  Was that 13 point lead with two minutes left in danger with the Suns stars on the bench?
  • Linas Kleiza played a solid game, but I think George Karl and Klieza’s teammates have lost some confidence in him.  Starting with his 41 point game against the Jazz LK played at least 31 minutes a game over the next 11 games.  In the 11 games after that he has only played over 20 minutes four times and has not played over 30.  I have also noticed instances where Nugget players have had the option to pass it to him at the three point line and have chosen to look the other way.  Kleiza’s status with both the coaches and players merits paying close attention to throughout the remainder of the season.  Also, I just noticed that ESPN.com says that Kleiza’s birthplace was the USSR.  I hope we have someone watching LK to make sure he is not politically subversive.
  • I keep forgetting to mention this, but over the past month or so the Nuggets have been running a set where Camby and Martin go stand side by side and set a pick for AI.  This is especially frustrating due to the fact that I wrote a long time ago that the Nuggets should run a double screen for AI.  The set would be much more effective if they ran a staggered double screen.  AI would get better separation and the defense would be at a greater disadvantage with staggered screens.  I have seen them run a staggered double screen for AI on a couple of occasions, but they should do it regularly.
  • Nuggets fans should not get too excited about Golden State’s loss against Charlotte.  Denver lost at Charlotte too and Golden State still has a much easier schedule.

Once again, head over to Bright Side of the Sun, where the panic button was hit as soon as the Shaq trade was announced, and if they were on a submarine they would be silently listening to the sounds of the hull cracking with beads of sweat dripping down their faces as the engineer struggles to get the power plant cranked back up again before they plummet below crush depth.

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