LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the circus known as the Miami Heat invade Pepsi Center for a late Friday night affair with our Denver Nuggets. With the game being on national TV and the Heat coming off back-to-back overtime losses, it's going to be a hard fought contest.
When the Miami Heat made their lone trip to Denver last season (oddly enough, on January 13th then, too), Nuggets fans were cheated out of seeing LeBron James play as "The King" had turned his ankle the night before in Los Angeles in a tough loss against the Clippers. Playing the second of a back-to-back, coming into Denver late from Los Angeles and being King-less, the Heat were easily routed by the Nuggets to the tune of 130-102.
The Nuggets' romp that evening was spearheaded by J.R. Smith who connected on eight of his 14 three-point attempts off the bench while Carmelo Anthony poured in 21 points and Chauncey Billups dished out 13 assists. After Melo and Billups were traded, the new-look Nuggets played at Miami in March and put up an admirable fight before losing by just five points, again led by Smith who had 27 points in the game.
J.R. Smith may be long gone, but the Nuggets don't seem to have any problem putting up points, averaging 103.6 ppg in a season where scoring is down across the board due (presumably) to lockout rustiness that will linger for some time. In fact, the Nuggets score more per game than any team in the NBA except one.
You guessed it, the Miami Heat (at 106.4 ppg).
Additionally, the Nuggets' possess the NBA's second-best field goal percentage by shooting 48.7% from the field. The lone team better than Denver in that department?
You guessed it, the Miami Heat (at 48.8%).
The Nuggets and Heat are also in the top-five for assists (Nuggets being first, Heat being third), free throw attempts (Heat being first, Nuggets being fourth), steals (Nuggets being first, Heat being fourth) and turnovers (Heat being first, Nuggets being fifth).
Are the Nuggets and the current Eastern Conference / would-be NBA champions really this similar? In a sense, yes, because both teams push the ball, play up-tempo and are young and dynamic enough to survive the intense lockout schedule. At least the Heat were before they had to play on the road at Golden State against the Warriors and Los Angeles against the Clippers, two Pacific-coast squads that handed the Heat two overtime losses in a row.
In both overtime losses, James failed to come through for his Miami teammates and it's been so talked about on ESPN and on the internet, that James actually felt the need to Tweet about it...
To be clear, this is very bad news for the Nuggets. The last thing the Nuggets need is an ego-bruised LeBron James, a Heat squad hanging on two straight overtime losses and with two days in Denver to acclimate to the altitude, no less. I don't need Nuggstradamus to tell me that Friday night won't be another Nuggets blowout.
That said, the Nuggets have been historically solid against the Heat. Going back to the 2002-03 season, the Nuggets have beaten the Heat 14 times in 17 tries, including nine straight wins at Pepsi Center. Moreover, James remains shaky in clutch situations. He has had his moments of glory to be sure, but he's much more comfortable as a front runner. And thus, a super tight game could favor Denver (even though we haven't found our go-to guy yet and seem to be much better at being front runners ourselves).
Other than the embarrassing loss at home to the Hornets on Monday night, the story of the Nuggets' 2011-12 season so far is one of beating the teams they were supposed to beat while losing to the teams they should probably have lost to anyway (like at Portland, at the Lakers and at San Antonio). With the Heat having a full day's rest and their key roster members healthy, they are the favorites on Friday night.
Scouting the Heat...
LeBron James: James may disappoint in clutch situations, but he's having his best all-around season ever and may end up being the league MVP for the third time by season's end. Averaging 29.0 ppg and an astounding 57% shooting from the field to go along with a career-high 8.5 rpg, James has become more patient offensively and is routinely playing closer to the basket ... making him ever more dangerous to play against.
Dwyane Wade: Wade's numbers are down across the board, but he remains one of the NBA's best players and one of the league's most clutch players, as well, having already canned two buzzer beaters this season.
Chris Bosh: Bosh is quietly having a very efficient season and stepped up big time against the Hawks in a thrilling triple-overtime victory during which neither James nor Wade participated.
Eddy Curry: One of my perpetual Stiff List denizens, Curry pledged to get into great shape this season and still isn't healthy enough to appear in an NBA game.
Shane Battier: I'm actually a big Battier fan, but his attempt to gravy-train his way to his first NBA Championship has him averaging career lows in scoring (3.7 ppg), field goal shooting (32.6%) and three-point shooting (32.0%), his supposed specialty.
The Nuggets sure could use a nice bookend victory after an awkward week by beating the Eastern Conference champs.