Nuggets wont get stung in first round by Hornets
Throughout my school days I was a notoriously lousy test taker. I would breeze through my homework and show up to class, but I never really put much effort into the homework and never bothered to participate much in the classroom. And my test scores reflected it.
I didn't think I was cut out for the classroom so I left school. I took a semester off and worked construction. I was told by two framers, who were both in their 40's, that after a few months of working in the sun I'd be begging to go back to school. They were right. I couldn't take the heat anymore and I needed to change.
So I went back to school and decided to be more active. I sat in the front of the classroom and participated in class discussions, asked questions, and actually took the time to understand how the homework was preparing me for the test. Real smart guy huh? Well, it all seemed easier and I felt more complete and felt that I was learning something useful and the best part? My test scores showed it.
Well, that's how I see these playoffs starting for the Nuggets. For five seasons the Nuggets have breezed through the regular season (not always in the win column), but stumbled in the playoffs ... which is the true test of a team.
Wanting a change and needing a change the Nuggets decided to make a change themselves. The roster as we all know saw some changes. Gone was former Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Camby ... gone was the energetic Eduardo Najera ... and after three games Allen Iverson was also shipped off.
Head Coach George Karl came into the season with a "we tried it your way, now let's try it my way" philosophy that stressed defense and team play over the old way of just trying to rack up points on isolation plays.
The Nuggets acquired Chauncey Billups and finally the team had its on the floor teacher. Billups made the team understand that the regular season is the lead up to the test of the playoffs. If you focused in the regular season then the playoffs would not be as difficult.
So the Nuggets have used 82 games to prepare for their first test ... the New Orleans Hornets. It's time to see what they've learned.
Denver: Chauncey Billups (Anthony Carter)
New Orleans: Chris Paul (Antonio Daniels)
For the Nuggets Billups is the floor general. He'll dictate the pace and he often likes to pull the ball out on fast breaks if he doesn't see a sure bucket. He's steadied the ship for Denver all season and kept the team in games with his ability to hit the long ball and get to the foul line. Against the Hornets he averages below his season totals with 16 points, 4.8 assists, and 31% from three-point land. I wouldn't mind seeing his scoring stay around the same, but he has to be the distributor for the Nuggets and he must get his three-point shot up to his season average of 41% in the series. If Billups can get the Nuggets easy shots on offense and be deadly from beyond the arc then the Nuggets will win this series.
Billups' backup AC likes to turn up the pace and get the Nuggets running. I don't want to see AC forcing half court passes to Linas Kleiza and Melo if they are not open, but you can't change who you are in the playoffs and expect to have success. I also hope that George Karl will give most of Carter's minutes to J.R. Smith and not ask AC to guard Peja or Rasual Butler.
For the Hornets Chris Paul is their team. Denver took to trapping him off screens and it has worked beautifully so far. Paul averages just 3 turnovers a game, but against the Nuggets he's averaged 5.3 turnovers a game and that's his highest rate of slip ups against any team. Paul has averaged 20.8 points and 11 assists against the Nuggets this season. He shoots 81% from the foul line and likes to get there any way he can. Paul will work the refs as much as he can and has a knack for being able to initiate contact and draw calls. If Denver can corral Paul in this series the Nuggets can win it in 5 games. If Paul has his way the Hornets will be almost impossible to beat.
Paul's backup Antonio Daniels has pushed the pace against the Nuggets just like AC does. He's a shoot first guard who when on can hit the three and he doesn't hesitate to challenge Denver at the rim.
As important as Billups is to Denver, Paul is that and more. I'd give the advantage at the point to the Hornets and Chris Paul, but just slightly.
Denver: Dahntay Jones (J.R. Smith)
NO: Rasual Butler (Julian Wright)
Denver starts Dahntay Jones, but he really just bides time for when J.R. enters the game. Jones has done a pretty good job this season harassing Chris Paul and allowing Billups not to have to cover him the entire game. I think Karl will continue to start Jones and bring J.R. off the bench and I hope Jones can be a pest to Paul all series.
J.R. Smith. Thank you New Orleans for trading him to Chicago! And thank you Chicago for taking two crummy picks and Howard "I'm Old" Eisley for Mr. Swish. Smith has averaged 15 ppg this season, but pumps that up against his old club to 21.3 ppg and 42% from distance. My hope for J.R. is that he realizes he can get to the rim any possession he wants. He needs to forget about the long ball and focus on getting to the rim. His shots will be there all series if he can prove he's a treat early to blow past his defenders on the way to his typically breathtaking drives. J.R. is Denver's biggest weapon off the bench and can score anywhere from 10-45 points a night. He's the total wildcard for Denver. But it's no secret that J.R. can score against the Hornets and I'll bet they are game planning to stop him.
The Hornets shooting guard is Rasual Butler. We are all familiar with him. He's a long 6'7'' guard who loves to shoot the three. Butler has not damaged the Nuggets this season from long range. He averages 8.3 ppg against the Nuggs and has been a non-factor thus far. If the Hornets want to make any noise in this series they'll need guys like Butler to step up.
Julian Wright may not get a lot of burn in this series, depending on how he's playing. The Hornets can use another long range threat in Morris Peterson off the bench if Wright proves to be nothing but a waste of space. The young kid out of Kansas has great athleticism and likes to pull up around the foul line, so Denver will have to be wary not to let him gain confidence in this series.
I see J.R. Smith having a breakout series and doing all the things Denver needs him to do. His defense has made strides this season. He sometimes will lose focus, but when he decides to play some D he's been surprisingly good. Advantage Denver.
Denver: Carmelo Anthony (Linas Kleiza and Renaldo "Crime Stopper" Balkman
NO: Peja Stojakovic (James Posey)
The Nuggets have one of the best small forwards in the league with Melo. My major concern with him is her playoff performance. Melo seems to get too serious come playoff time and I think he forces his game. Melo for the first time has a great draw with the Hornets. I don't believe N.O. has anyone who can guard him. Melo has had his way with the Bugs all season. He's averaged 25 ppg on 51% shooting, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1.67 steals. Peja guarding Melo is a joke and when the Bugs try to put their pricey defensive stopper on him in Posey ... well Melo should own him as well. If Melo will take the ball to the rim in this series it'll open up his entire offensive arsenal and that'll lead to great things for the Nuggets. I fully expect the double teams to come, like always, and Melo will have to prove that he can now overcome them.
Linas Kleiza ... well he's either on or he's off. And when he's on he'll get Denver 15+ and when he's off he's often the worst player on the floor and his own worst enemy. If LK shoots more than two threes a game he's a detriment to have on the floor. If he's getting to the rim and attacking the boards then he can be a major factor.
Renaldo Balkman ... Karl loves playing him at the power forward spot and I don't see The Crime Stopper getting any playing time, unless something crazy happens. If LK is not on his game and Karl doesn't solve it by putting in the Crime Stopper then the Nuggets can expect a long series.
The Hornets small forwards are wily veterans. Peja has been plagued by a sore back a la Kenyon Martin and his shooting touch has been off. In his last five games he's shooting 7-24 from three point land ... good for 29% and well off his season average of 37% from deep. Peja has killed Denver this year. He's averaging 20.7 ppg on 50% shooting from deep. Denver loves to leave him open for some unknown reason and he's made them pay all season. Listed at 6'10'' he's a big guy who can get shots off even when you have a hand in his face. Whoever guards him needs to keep a body on him at all times. His quick release is too much for just a hand ... but if you can get in close he's going to have to work for his buckets.
As for Posey ... he's slipped some. He was key for Boston last season and the Hornets brought him in to be their stopper. Well, he hasn't done much to stop Melo this year and I expect Melo to go at him all series and out quick him! haha. On offense Posey is not much of a threat to do much, but he can hit clutch shots if left open.
As good as Peja can shoot I just don't see the Hornets stopping Melo enough ... advantage Nuggets.
Denver: Kenyon Martin (Chris Birdman Andersen and Renaldo Balkman)
NO: David West (Melvin Ely)
KMart is Denver's stopper. He has a great matchup going against a not very athletic, but deadly shooter in David West. Kenyon has an opportunity to really win this series for the Nuggets with his defense. If KMart can stay out on West on the pick-and-pops the Hornets two man game of Paul and West love to run then the Nuggets will take this series easily. Martin has been lax to say the least on defense lately and I'm hoping he's just been saving his energy for the playoffs. On offense Martin shouldn't really need many plays ran for him. He's most effective when he's grabbing boards or climbing the sky for put-back dunks. I'm sure we'll be seeing his laser jumpers and push shots, but I hope Kenyon doesn't overstep his role.
I hear there is now a Facebook group petition to make the Birdman Colorado's State Bird. Andersen isn't on the floor a ton with Nene, but Karl has been running that lineup more recently. As long as Bird is rebounding and going for reasonable block opportunities he'll be a great big off the bench ... like he's been all season. Bird averages 5.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks against the Hornets this season. He'll be asked to keep the Hornet bigs off the glass as they average 9.8 offensive rebounds a game. Bird will get the fans flapping whenever he enters or leaves the game and the team will feed off his energy.
For the Bugs David West is key. He's the second leading scorer and a great jump shooter. West averages 18 ppg, 8 rebounds, and 1.67 blocks per game against Denver this season. He will have to work hard for his shots with Martin blanketing him and perhaps some Balkman pestering him.
The Hornets are pretty thin in the front court ... like Denver. Melvin Ely may get the back up duties here and he's a scrappy player who will attack the glass, but otherwise has a limited game.
Advantage: Even. I see KMart's defensive ability really keeping West under wraps.
Denver: Nene (Chris Andersen)
NO: Tyson Chandler (Hilton Armstrong and Sean Marks)
Nene could be a huge factor in this series. He'll be guarded against Chandler who goes 7'1'' and 235 pounds. Tyson hasn't played against Denver this season and for all his energy on the boards, he's not a huge factor to block shots. Nene should bully Chandler around all series down low. Tyson will probably lack some quickness with his recently healthy ankle and that could spell trouble for him all series. Nene has been playing soft after taking lots of abuse this season from the opposition. Nene must maintain his mental focus and desire to destroy the rim. I'm hoping after seeing Nene slam home a shot in Portland with his left hand ... that he's feeling better and will be able to go left when he needs with authority.
Chandler has only played 45 games with the team this season. His injured ankle has limited him so much that the Hornets tried trading him to the Thunder, but he failed his physical (toe) and was sent back to The Big Easy. Tyson is a big X-Factor in this one as we haven't seen Denver face him. He averages 8.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 1.24 blocks. If you are not familiar with Chandler he's sort of Bird-esque, but not quite the shot blocker. The Bugs don't run much offense through him and he'll get his points off rebounds and alley oops.
Hilton Armstrong and Sean Marks did a great job against Denver this season. They both provide size and while not great offensive game, they can get on the offensive glass. Armstrong has more talent than Marks, but can get into foul trouble. I don't know how effective either guy will be or how their playing time will be divided. Just know that Hilton has more athleticism and shot blocking ability and Marks should be a mark all series if he's on the floor.
Advantage: Denver. I just don't buy that Chandler has the ability to come back after missing most of the season and be a real factor in this series.
Denver can win this series. The fact that Denver faces Chris Paul is scary in itself, but the Nuggets have enough guards and schemes to frustrate Paul.
I'll take Denver in 6