In the midst of a season that has made most of us as cynical as ever about the state of professional sports, Thursday's Nuggets/Mavericks game reminded Nuggets and NBA fans alike why professional basketball is still the greatest show in sports.
Nuggets fans deserved this one.
We've been through a lot.
For once, it was nice to watch a basketball game while only caring about the game itself. And the fans at Pepsi Center set the tone early by cheering loudly - with nary a boo - when Carmelo Anthony's name was announced before tipoff.
The Nuggets players - Melo included - rewarded their fans' show of class by putting forth a spirited effort and halting the Mavericks impressive 10-game winning streak. Lest we forget that it was these same Nuggets who stopped the Lakers opening season eight-game winning streak several months ago. Point being, when the Nuggets are healthy and distraction free, they can be a damn good team. Especially at home.
Not only did the fans need this one, but the Nuggets coaches and players did, too. As mentioned in my game preview, the Nuggets hadn't beaten a team of substance since defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder on January 19th at Pepsi Center. And now, after besting the red hot Mavericks in the most thrilling fashion possible, the Nuggets find themselves just one game away from New Orleans (currently holding the fifth-seed in the Western Conference), tied with a Utah team that will now have Tyrone Corbin at head coach (good luck) and three games ahead of the sneaking-into-the-playoffs Memphis Grizzlies.
I'm still abuzz after watching Arron Afflalo smoothly can that game-ending jump shot. It was Afflalo's first ever game-winning shot and I can't remember the last time a Nugget not named Carmelo Anthony made such a big shot. But what made this game special wasn't just Afflalo's game-winner, but the overall contribution from his teammates combined with the stellar play of the Mavericks bench...which set a season record with 72 bench points (kind of a phony number considering two of their starters didn't start nor play in the second half).
As a fan whose passion for NBA basketball was developed watching Doug Moe's Nuggets of the 1980s, I'll take a hard-fought 121-120 game over a 92-90 slug-fest any day of the week. Would I like to see the Nuggets play a little more defense? You bet. But given how grossly undersized we are (the Nuggets Curmudgeon I was sitting with was happy to point out that once again, our opposition had four players taller than the Nuggets' tallest player), a frantic pace might be the only way the Nuggets can rack up wins right now.
I was most fortunate to watch this game from directly behind the Mavericks bench, so I had a somewhat different perspective than I normally get at Pepsi Center. Here's the View From the Not-So-Cheap Seats...
1st Quarter: "The Chauncey Quarter"
...before tipoff, I said hi to Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri and chided him for calling the Lakers just days after my post suggesting that he call the Lakers to exchange Melo for Andrew Bynum. Not admitting whether or not such a call was made, Ujiri swore that he hadn't read my column but laughed at the assertion that my column gave him the idea.
...after seeing Ujiri, I said hi to Mark Cuban - whom recently emailed me back when I sent him my SB Nation column suggesting he's the only owner who can save the NBA's broken revenue-sharing system among owners. I've met Cuban many times and he's always been gracious, and on Thursday he agreed that the NBA revenue sharing system needs to be changed and that he's "working on it."
...Melo's wife LaLa was seated in her usual courtside seat alongside former Bronco Brandon Marshall. Supermascot Rocky stole one of Marshall's shoes and tossed it into the audience, and Marshall was most graceful while being picked on.
...the Mavericks have more assistant coaches than the Nuggets...a record I didn't think could be broken.
...after missing Wednesday's game at Golden State, Chauncey Billups came back ON FIRE with 18 first-quarter points. Billups just looks great physically, too.
...the Nuggets were very sharp throughout the first quarter, finishing the period with a 33-19 lead.
2nd Quarter: "The Barea Quarter"
...the Mavericks diminutive backup point guard Jose Juan Barea single-handedly brought Dallas back into this game. Barea would finish the game with a +/- of +15, second best on the team. The best +/- of the night belonged to Brian Cardinal...proving once again that the +/- system is a bit flawed. But you can't say enough about Barea's effort tonight. He absolutely killed the Nuggets. Finally, Kenyon Martin had enough and blocked Barea's last field goal attempt of the half out of bounds. Barea and K-Mart both chuckled, and exchanged a gracious high-five with each other.
...throughout the second quarter and again in the second half, the Mavericks played Barea alongside guards Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle was clearly concerned about the run-and-gun Nuggets and was willing to play small ball.
...despite being up as much as 18 at one point in the first half, the Nuggets finished the first half up just one point.
3rd Quarter: "The Carmelo Quarter"
...Carmelo Anthony had a great game throughout, but he owned the third quarter in particular despite facing Shawn Marion, who also had a solid night defensively as well as offensively.
...Melo and Billups were so hot, that they each had at least 30 points entering the fourth quarter. I'd like to know the last time two players had 30 points apiece before the fourth quarter even begins.
...unfortunately for the Nuggets, Melo and Billups weren't the only ones making their shots in the third quarter. Terry was hot, too, and propelled the Mavericks to a 92-88 lead entering the fourth quarter.
4th Quarter: "The AAA Quarter"
...they were having scoreboard issues throughout the night at Pepsi Center, and before the fourth quarter began Cuban berated the scorekeeper and questioned if the score was even accurate.
...it took us a while to notice it, but Mavericks starters Peja Stojakovic and DeShawn Stephenson didn't get a minute of playing time in the second half.
...until very late in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets defense was about as bad as it's been all season long.
...one of the fans I was sitting next to had a great call: he said Rick Carlisle looks just Lloyd Christmas from Dumb and Dumber.
...Melo picked up on his big third quarter and had an even bigger fourth quarter.
...Billups took a few too many errant, early-in-the-shot-clock three-pointers in the fourth. BUT! At least he followed his own shot, preserving the Nuggets chances to win the game.
...from my seat, it was hard to tell if Melo actually kicked Dirk Nowitzki that drew Melo's sixth and final foul, or if Nowitzki just did a great acting job to sell the foul. Regardless, the basketball gods sided with Denver as Nowitzki - who is usually automatic from the free throw line (unless it's Game 3 of the NBA Finals...sorry, Mavs fans) - missed two huge free throws late in the fourth quarter.
...no one was bigger than Arron Afflalo in the fourth quarter. With the Nuggets down 119-110 late in the fourth, Afflalo scored seven points and then hit the biggest shot of his career, the game-winner with no time left. Standing just one row back from the entire end sequence, I was screaming at Billups to "SHOOT! SHOOT! SHOOT!" well before he passed it to Afflalo, but Billups' patience was rewarded when he had the Mavericks' defense scrambling and found Afflalo for the game-winner. After the Nuggets completely botched their end-of-game execution at Golden State the night before, it was great to see them pull this one out. And you know what else was cool? No one was more excited in the entire building than Melo when Afflalo hit that game-ending jumper.
Non-Stiff(s) of the Game
-Arron Afflalo, Chauncey Billups AND Carmelo Anthony: These three scored all but 25 of the Nuggets points on Thursday night and seemed to do it in sequence with Billups' owning the first quarter, Melo owning the third and the first half of the fourth quarter and Afflalo closing the game. Moreover, with Afflalo stepping up like this and J.R. Smith being non-existent in the game, it's fair to question whether or not J.R. needs to be brought back at all next season.
Stiff of the Game
-Peja Stojakovic and DeShawn Stevenson: Two of the Mavericks five starters combined to shoot 1-5 from the field in just 18 combined minutes of playing time.
On my way out of the arena, I overheard one fan say to another: "Wow, there's just nothing like a close NBA game! It's way better than a football game." I couldn't have said it better myself.