LOS ANGELES - Simply put, last season we didn't lose games like this. It just didn't happen. And thus, what will hopefully be a just brief aberration in the middle of an otherwise great season raises several red flags.
First off, let's be clear about one thing: tonight's lethargic and often lazy performance by the Nuggets isn't a cause for panic or alarm. It's still too early in the season for that. That said, our two greatest offseason concerns finally reared their ugly heads tonight: the lack of a true big man and the absence of a no-one-believes-in-us spirit, the latter being of biggest worry for me.
The Nuggets had (semi) legitimate excuses for their first three losses at Miami, at Atlanta and at Milwaukee. Those were all tough, playoff bound teams (yes, it looks like the Bucks may be playoff bound) who had the advantage of catching the Nuggets on either back-to-back nights or just generally fatigued from having to play multiple back-to-backs within a few weeks.
But while sitting in the Staples Center stands watching our Nuggets waltz through three-and-a-half quarters, I couldn't figure out what the Nuggets excuse for a bad effort was tonight. After all, since returning to Denver from that six-game road trip, the Nuggets had a walkover victory against the Lakers, three full days rest followed by another walkover victory - this time against the Raptors - followed by two full days rest leading into tonight's affair against the injury-riddled, struggling Clippers. And then it hit me: the Nuggets had NO excuse for a bad effort tonight and served one up nonetheless.
In fact, the only person on the Nuggets side of the affair exhibiting any emotion tonight was head coach George Karl (maybe I got to Karl about the whole working-the-refs thing, because he's been visibly more animated with the officials since our lunch last week...I'm just saying) who pulled several Norman Dale impersonations, desperately trying to get tossed on at least two occasions as assistant coach John Welch fought to hold him back. As I was yawning midway through the second quarter, I was secretly hoping someone would toss me out of there, too.
But Karl's much welcomed outbursts at the refs weren't enough to salvage one of the more poorly played Nuggets games in some time. And even though the Clippers tried desperately to hand this game to our Nuggets in the fourth quarter (they are, after all, the Clippers), the Nuggets wanted nothing to do with securing a victory tonight. Worse, they ran away from victory, allowing the Clippers to steal a win they should have never been in a position to take in the first place.
For those who didn't see the game and will only read the box score, you'll wonder how the Nuggets lost. After all, Carmelo Anthony shot a splendid 12-20 from the field and 12-13 from the free throw line (when Melo shoots over 50% and gets to the line over 10 times, the Nuggets are usually assured of a victory). The field goal percentage was fairly even. As was the rebounding. And of course you'll note that the three-point shooting was dominated by the Clippers while the Nuggets shot themselves out of the game with a four-of-17 night behind the arc.
What the box score won't tell you is that J.R. Smith rushed a lot of bad shots. That Melo was routinely late to close out on Rasual Butler (pronounced "Russell" by the Clippers inept P.A. announcer) who ultimately smoked us. And that the Nuggets never had a defensive presence inside whatsoever, mustering just three blocks - all from Kenyon Martin - and none from the center position. (To be fair, Nuggets backup center Chris "Birdman" Andersen wasn't even there but this game again showed us that Nene belongs at the four-spot, not the five.)
But more than anything, the box score won't show you that the Nuggets - with the exception of a quick burst in the opening minutes - never owned the energy of this game. The "every game is important" and "no one believes in us" swagger that had this team playing hard and competitively on a nightly basis for the first half and then the latter part of last season was completely absent tonight.
Like their football-playing brethren in Denver, the Nuggets need to get their mojo back...and fast. Oh, and just for fun, when the Bulls come into Pepsi Center to face the Nuggets tomorrow night, it will be our Nuggets fourth back-to-back affair out of 13 total games played. Had the Nuggets played the right way tonight, they might have had a legitimate excuse to lose tomorrow. But given that they exerted as little effort as possible, whatever excuses remained are no longer on the table.
Some quick observations from the not-so-cheap seats...
...I haven't seen Karl this hot with the officials in years. Literally years. I don't know if it was caught on TV or not, but at one point Karl threw such a tantrum that he slipped and fell over (belly first) onto the scorer's table and almost knocked some fans food over. It was pretty funny.
...J.R. Smith's 360-degree layup was totally unnecessary, totally unreal and totally amazing.
...What's it going to take to get the Clippers DeAndre Jordan into a Nuggets jersey? The guy has a giant wingspan and giant hands. Oh, and he's a legit 6'11" to boot.
...Melo hurt his hand during the first half and was continually shaking it throughout the game while grimacing, too. Did they mention on the broadcast what happened there? We couldn't tell from the stands.
Photo courtesy of AP Photos: Mark J. Terrill