The Nuggets get a couple heroic performances from Joey Graham and Chauncey Billups, but they were not enough to overcome the Jazz and a familiar Nuggets foe ... themselves. A long offseason looms for Denver after a disappointing first-round exit from the playoffs (4-2) after a 112-104 loss in Utah.
First things first ...
As hard as it is to swallow that the Nuggets season is over once again way too soon, I have to thank the players, coaches and the rest of the staff for yet another enjoyable season and I once again put my heart and soul into the Denver Nuggets and once again came away disappointed. Only one set of fans will be happy in the end and I'll continue to hope that one day the Nuggets will get there, but the Jazz were just the better team in this particular series.
Congratulation to the Jazz for overcoming injuries to some key role players and being able to put away a dangerous Nuggets team. I was proud that the Nuggets won Game 5 and forced this game tonight and I was proud at the way Denver fought throughout most of tonight's game. Thanks again to the Nuggets for the rollercoaster ride of a season and I look forward to doing it all again next season.
Just because this season is over doesn't mean we're going anywhere. The offseason offers just as much to talk about as the regular season, so be sure to keep checking in and being a part of the conversation here at Denver Stiffs. Another thank you to all the readers ... you Stiffs made this season a great one and going on this ride with all of you was enjoyable, it was hell at times and I'll remember these seasons more than any others because of it all.
Now to some gripes ...
1.) A BIG SCREW YOU to the NBA officials tonight. I think they were afraid a basketball game was going to break out and decided to ruin a fine contest. When the refs were not blowing their whistles this was actually a very intense and exciting game. On the night a total of 70 fouls were called (39 on Denver, 31 on the Jazz), the Jazz went 34-50 from the line and the Nuggets went 27-40. Yes, 90 total free throws ... made for a very bad game and one that just didn't get the flow that it called for and the opportunity for the PLAYERS to shine and be the ones to decide this contest.
2.) I hope the Jazz come up with a game plan to replace their flopping because the NBA darling Lakers are not going to be goated into the type of flops that Denver was and the Lakers are not going to be getting whistled for a lot of offensive fouls. Last season I lost a lot of respect for Chris Paul because of his playoff series with the Nuggets, watching him flop all over the floor disgusted me. Deron Flopilliams, I lost respect for you in this series. Who cares what I think, but watching him diving backwards drawing charges with virtually no contact and watching him grab his face after Arron Afflalo didn't come within a foot of it ... you'd get a black eye playing pick-up ball that way. When Flopilliams wasn't flooping he played great and he didn't need to add the acting to his game to be a dominant player in this series. It was pathetic, disgusting and I lost respect for his garbage antics and the Jazz as a whole for playing up the acting and flopping angle when clearly they didn't need to do it.
3.) Nuggets mental collapse ... it happened yet again. Without Graham's monster 18 point performance in the second quarter (19 points in the first half) the Nuggets would have lost this game a lot sooner than midway through the fourth quarter. Denver looked dead in the water down 40-27 and their body language was showing they were ready to give up. Then Graham checked in and transformed the game, leading the Nuggets almost all the way back and down just two at the half (56-54). Denver then spent the second half battling back-and-fourth until the 6:00 mark of the final period. With the score tied 95-95 the Jazz went on a 6-0 run and put the game out of reach while the Nuggets melted down, lost their cool (K-Mart shoving DFlopill after he drew a foul) and gave up by chucking up threes with over two minutes left in the game. It was almost as if the Nuggets were looking for any reason to self-destruct and they took the Jazz getting into the bonus once again early in the quarter as their motivation to give in and melt down. I don't know why the Nuggets let the officials influence their mental state so much, but once again it was their undoing over anything else. It was sad to see after such an up-and-down season. Tonight Adrian Dantley, Joey Graham, Chauncey Billups and Kenyon Martin all received technical fouls ... ouch.
Adrian Dantley: A.D. had his hands full with this team and did an alright job, but not a George Karl job. We saw tonight that a couple guys deserved perhaps more minutes and some guys less and A.D. didn't get some guys involved early enough in this series to be difference makers, but I'm not sure even Karl would have done much different. It sucked not having Karl there to rely on and I never thought I'd miss a coach as much as I did in George's absence. The calming factor he gives can't be replaced.
Chauncey Billups: 30 points, 8-19 shooting (11-12 free throws), 8 assists and just 2 turnovers in 38 minutes. Smooth was a warrior tonight and did all he could to keep Denver in the game. His 17-point outburst in the third quarter was HUGE, but it wasn't even Denver's best individual performance in a quarter ... unreal. Billups was looking to distribute and he was looking to score in the second half. I don't know if I'd enjoy playing alongside Billups as much as I would with Ty Lawson, but Billups is a fine basketball player and may have just had one of his last seasons as a truly elite point guard. Time will tell, but he's not getting any younger ... tonight though he tried to put the team on his back and did so in the third quarter.
Joey "The Bulldozer" Graham: Bulldozer's performance in the second-quarter of 18 points on 8-10 shooting may have been good enough to earn him a solid contract next season ... at least one with multiple years on it. Graham's only game of logging any type of meaningful minutes and he puts up 21 points on 9-14 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds (4 offensive) in just 25 minutes. Graham's style makes you wonder what could have happened if he would have replaced some of the ailing Birdman's burn. It seemed Graham matched up quite well with Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap and his aggressive behavior on the floor is something the Nuggets sorely lacked. Hell of a game by Graham and I don't really expect him to be back in a Nuggets uniform next season as he'll be a free agent. Denver could use him, but if he's not going to get any minutes again why would he even entertain coming back?
Ty Lawson: The rookie is anything but anymore. Lawson put up 10 points and handed out 3 assists in 22 minutes. The kid even outdid himself by throwing down his second dunk of the season on seven footer Kosta Koufos. Lawson was a huge factor in this series and I kept wanting to see him on the floor more and more. It'll be very hard for Denver not to find more minutes for him next season and the logjam at the guard spot is going to have to be addressed in the offseason. I don't know if there is room for Billups, Afflalo, Lawson and J.R. Smith. Lawson hit a few big shots tonight and did all he could to keep the Nuggets in this one.
Carmelo Anthony: Melo had a rough rough night shooting the ball tonight. I'm not so sure his percentage would have been so low if he would have not taken a number of difficult shots in the game. Melo has never been a great or even good shooter when he comes off a spinning fade and yet he still likes to attempt those shots. Melo was just 6-22 from the field, 0-4 from three-point land, but 8-10 from the foul line as he scored just 20 points on the night. Melo was once again big on the glass as he grabbed 12 rebounds (3 offensive) and he had 5 assists on the night. It seemed Melo knew his shot wasn't falling so he was doing other things and was a great rebounder in this entire series. Melo also knew he had to at some point try to take over a little bit in the fourth quarter and provide Graham and Billups with some scoring relief. Some nights you just don't have your shot and tonight Melo didn't have his shot and he lacked explosiveness around the rim once again and had some shots blocked that should have been dunks. Melo improves aspects of his game in the offseason and he needs to improve his verticle ... not sure how he does this, but that is what Steve Hess is for.
Johan Petro: Just 12 minutes for Frenchie ... I thought he played quite well when Dantley had him on the floor and I thought he could have played more. His defense was pretty good and his offensive game makes you think he could really become a key role player in the right system. Denver's system fits Petro's style and I'd like to see him back with the team next season, but young big men with talent get contract offers and I think Petro may have to listen to some opportunities in the offseason. Johan scored 5 points and grabbed 4 boards tonight in limited time as he dealt with what plagues him ... foul trouble.
Kenyon Martin: 38 minutes, 4 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 assists. Mr. Do It All this season for Denver just wasn't anywhere near healthy. Martin had play after play around the rim where he would have finished by letting go of said rim and slapping the backboard, but he just wasn't himself. Had it not been the playoffs, Martin might not have played. Enough can't be said about him not being 100% ... he was Denver's best player for a stretch this season when he was a double-double machine and it was hard to watch him try to battle in this series knowing we were not getting the K-Mart we know. Another guy who isn't getting any younger or healthier and has a fat expiring contract. Not sure how the looming lockout will affect what Denver does with Martin, but you can bet they will entertain and pursue offers for the emotional leader of this team. Something just wasn't right about Martin in this series ... if you recall in the Clippers series a few years ago, Martin actually was asked not to play because his attitude was so poor. K-Mart attributed his bad attitude to his sore knees and I just feel like he was again not fully mentally into this series because his body once again betrayed him.
Arron Afflalo: Poor kid found himself in foul trouble all night long. Just 18 minutes for Afflalo and a very frustrating game from him. After not missing a shot in Game 5, AAA scored just 5 points and was a non-factor as he spent too much time on the bench. This guy will only get better and is a key piece for the Nuggets to build around. I'd almost bet Afflalo will be in the gym working on his game in the coming days.
Chris Andersen: Along with Martin, Bird just wasn't himself. Is it just me or did Bird look a little heavy all year and we all know he was banged up all season long. Birdman is a 20 minutes or less player in the NBA. If Bird is not near 100% healthy then he cannot be a factor. Asking Bird to not be Bird doesn't work. This guy is a short minute game changer and needs to be flying around blocking shots and getting putback dunks in order to be effective. We saw in this series that Bird's game is built on his athleticism and next season he should come back with less weight and the coaching staff should limit his minutes so he can be as effective as he can be. It's weird to think that less is more, but for Bird it's true. I hope the coaches realize this and the front office as well ... that means Denver must find a guy to play 15-20 minutes a night to go along with Bird, Nene and K-Mart (assuming all are back next year).
Malik Allen: Thanks for allowing us Stiffs to call you Tacos, thanks for your veteran voice and good luck doing whatever it is you are going to do next season. I have a feeling he will not be back with the team.
Anthony Carter: Only saw a few minutes in this series and he really no longer has a role with this team on the floor. The Nuggets should look to develop a very young guard next year and Carter is taking up that roster spot right now. Thanks for your service, but your time with this team is over.
Crimestopper Renaldo Balkman: Best of luck figuring out your role with this team. The contract extension made zero sense after seeing how Denver plans on using him ... to hold down the towels on the sideline. Balkman may be used in the offseason as a trade filler as I'm not sure he'll ever have a role on this team.
J.R. Smith: I don't know what to say about Smith. His body language tonight was sad. He didn't want to be on the floor or at least that is how it looked. Is J.R. Smith just a streaker scorer and a whole lot of wasted talent? Smith has been one of my favorite guys on the team and I love watching him when he's mentally into the game and doing the right things on the floor. But when Smith is off ... as we all reallize, he hurts this team. Denver depends on Smith whether he knows it or not and when he plays bad then 2-3 guys have to try to make up for that. Smith's 3 points in 20 minutes just doesn't cut it. I know I'm going to waver all offseason on this question: Is it time to trade J.R.?
Nene: I think some Denver fans wanted to see this team without him and now, how do we feel about it? Nene is too unselfish (when can you say that?) and doesn't appear to have the inner drive to ever take over a game the way it looks like he can. He was missed tonight, but how much? Denver's front office must decide if they need to upgrade this position as well. Every good team has a dominant big man and Denver could really use a big man with a reliable jumper and an abundance of post moves ... Nene looks like that guy sometimes, but that is Denver's issue as a whole ... they are a sometimes team right now.
I have so many questions and thoughts ... this is going to be a long offseason indeed.
Thanks Nuggets and thanks to the Nuggets.
Photo courtesy of AP Photos