The Nuggets' dangerous game of playing down to the level of their competition finally bit them in the ass tonight.
Just over three and a half hours ago, the Cavaliers had a six-game losing streak, the Nuggets had a four-game winning streak and the Nuggets hadn't lost a game to an Eastern Conference opponent all season long. That all changed as the Cavaliers got to 100 points first and the Nuggets couldn't get to 101, even though they had four seconds to do so at game's end.
The Nugget defenders (apologists?) will argue that Ty Lawson was fouled by the Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving on the game's final play and that Lawson should have been given two free throw attempts to finish out the game. But there should be no defense of the Nuggets' performance tonight. The Nuggets shouldn't need a bailout from the referees for the second game in a row against a crappy team to win a home game.
So how did the Nuggets manage - on a full day of rest, no less - to lose to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Denver on Wednesday night? In a nutshell, they played like a team on the second of a back-to-back on the road rather than a team that's been resting at home. All the signs of fatigue (inexcusable fatigue, mind you) were there: missed jumpers (including many air balls and shots that barely grazed the rim), virtually no three-pointers made, missed free throws and ... worst of all, a full game's worth of matador-style defense.
And again, Nuggets head coach George Karl insisted on overplaying his "trust guys" of Al Harrington, Andre Miller, Arron Afflalo, Lawson throughout the second half. Throw in a winded Nene - who made no attempt whatsoever to put a body on penetrating Cavalier players - and Irving and his teammates were able to slice and dice the Nuggets' defense with ease to bring home the victory for the Cavaliers as the fourth quarter wound down. I think Nuggets fans would agree that more Kenneth Faried and a slightly higher dose of Corey Brewer (despite his dreadful shooting performance) in the second half would have helped immensely. (Give Karl credit for giving Chris Andersen some playing time in the second half, though. Yet again The Birdman played spirited basketball which is good to see.)
Like many of you I suspect, I have no problem with the "trust guys" to wrap up games. I just don't like seeing them rode throughout the entire fourth quarter to the point that they're completely gassed in the final two minutes of each game. Harrington in particular - who actually had a fine game considering how exhausted he clearly was - looked like he was going to collapse and die on the court midway through the fourth quarter.
So much for my delusions of a six game winning streak for the Nuggets.
Watching this team game after game, I'm finding the 2011-12 Nuggets to be somewhat of a tease. They enthrall us with big victories like at San Antonio and at Houston, only to implode at home against the likes of Sacramento and now Cleveland. These Nuggets have now lost home games to the Jazz, Hornets, Warriors and Cavaliers ... and the Kings could just have easily been on that list. And simply put, with the favorable March home schedule bestowed upon us, now is not the time to squander games against the NBA's basement dwellers.
If you want to take any positives out of tonight's game, I can only point you to the performances of Faried, Andersen and Harrington. Everyone else seemed tired and tentative. Collectively, the Nuggets never wanted to win against the Cavaliers. They just didn't want to not lose.
And if I'm a Cavaliers fan tonight, I have to be encouraged by the play of Irving. Because unlike our Nugget players, Irving wanted to win this game and showed so by delivering two clutch, aggressively-driven baskets on the Cavaliers final two possessions. The kid is a stud and just going to get better ... at which point he'll take his talents to ...
Non-Stiff(s) of the Game
-Kyrie Irving: 18 points, 8 assists, 3 steals and 5 rebounds for the 2012 Rookie of the Year. But more importantly, he took over the game at the end and showed the poise that will make him a future All-Star.
-Antawn Jamison: Jamison smoked the Nuggets for 26 first half points.
Stiff(s) of the Game
-Danilo Gallinari and Nene: Nene had some nice late-game buckets, but his defense was simply dreadful and cost the Nuggets the game on the Cavaliers' final possessions. And while we might need to give Gallo some slack as he's recovering from his ankle injury, 1-7 shooting is never acceptable. Especially when it's all jump shots.
Just when optimism was back in Nuggets Nation, the Nuggets turn us all into pessimists again. Will this team ever get serious about winning winnable home games?