Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
The Nuggets regular season ends on April 17th when the team closes out the regular season at home against the Phoenix Suns. Who the Nuggets will play in the post-season is beginning to become clear.
While I advocate for a Denver Nuggets vs. Memphis Grizzlies playoff series in the first-round this post-season -- it doesn't appear the Nuggets need to do anything to make that series a reality. The two teams are on a collision course to meet in the playoffs and that's fine by me.
Back in the 2005-06 season the Los Angeles Clippers angled to play the Nuggets in the post-season. That year the Clippers finished 2nd in the Pacific division with a 47-35 record, but "somehow" finished the season with a 3-5 mark in their final eight games. The Nuggets went 44-38 and won the Northwest division. Due to a rule change, the Clippers had home-court advantage in that playoff series -- as they had the better regular season record.
The Clippers went 3-1 against the Nuggets during the regular season and the team led by Sam Cassell, Corey Maggette, Elton Brand and Chris Kaman destroyed the Nuggets in the post-season as well, in five games (4-1). The Clippers won Games 4 and 5 by scores of 100-86 and 101-83. Kenyon Martin was infamously suspended during the series for a blowup in the locker room and the Nuggets fate was doomed. It is hard not to recognize how the Clippers regular season success against the Nuggets translated to the post-season. That is not always the case -- the Nuggets went 3-1 vs. the Jazz during the regular season in 2009-10 -- as the Nuggets lost to the Jazz (4-2) in the 2010 playoffs.
This season the Nuggets can be on the positive side of -- at least -- one playoff series win. Would I predict the team to go even further? Let's wait and see what the match-up will be. But whether the Nuggets end up with the No. 4 seed or the No. 5 seed, I see a win against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Currently, the Nuggets are the No. 5 seed and they have a comfortable lead on the Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers. The Grizzlies are holding down the No. 4 seed with a 39-19 record and they are 10-3 since making their blockbuster trade to bring in Tayshaun Price, Austin Daye and Ed Davis; while shipping out Rudy Gay.
Could Memphis be experiencing addition by subtraction with the departure of Gay? He was the team's leading scorer and frequent shot taker and that may not have mixed well with head coach Lionel Hollins' philosophy (even though Hollins wanted the team to keep Gay). The Grizzlies are able to play big with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and they like to grind games out. They are not a team that is able to score a lot of points -- they are last in scoring in the Western Conference with 91.7 points per game -- and they also do not light things up from the three point line. Their style is almost tailor-made for the Nuggets.
George Karl's team is the fourth highest scoring squad out West -- 103.8 points per game -- but they have yet to put up triple digits against the Grizzlies through three games. The Nuggets have figured out a way to beat Memphis at their own game. Denver is 2-1 against Mike Conley and the Grizzlies with the final match-up coming on March 15th in Denver (not a back-to-back for either team!).
Let's take a look at what transpired in the three games from earlier this season:
Nov. 19th, Game 1: Nuggets (5-6 record at the time) win 97-92 in Memphis (8-2 record).
The Nuggets went into Memphis on a three game losing streak and got beat down by the Spurs in San Antonio the game before. This was a huge road win for Denver and a game that Karl refers back to when he calls his team "mentally tough".
...with 14 seconds left, Gallo hit a big time three pointer when the Nuggets were up by one point. This was after an ultra aggressive drive by Ty Lawson (thank you Ty) and kick out. However, Gallo's steal from Jerrod Bayless just before that shot was most likely a bigger play. While Gallo cooled off in the second half (after shooting 5/6 in the first half) he got to the free throw line and was consistently aggressive. All in all, great game from my favorite Italian who finished with 26 points and 5 rebounds.
Dec. 14th, Game 2: Nuggets (12-12) win 99-94 in Denver against the Grizzlies (14-6).
Heading into this game the Nuggets dropped one in Minnesota against the Timberwolves. The Grizzlies were still considered one of the top teams in the NBA and were 6-3 since losing to the Nuggets.
Karl starting Kosta Koufos on Zach Randolph (Mr. Low Post) and Kenneth Faried on Marc Gasol (who plays primarily in the high post) paid off. The high scoring big men for Memphis shot a combined 7-22 from the field and they combined for just 20 points and 14 rebounds. That was huge since Z-Bo averages 17 points and 12 rebounds and Gasol averages 15 points and 7 rebounds on the season.
McGee's efforts tonight didn't go unnoticed by Karl. In fact, Karl went away from his usual closing lineup that features Faried at center in favor of McGee.
"I thought he had a good feel for the game. His length was bothering a lot of shots," Karl said. "It is a step forward for him. Right now, who finishes the game, is determined by who I think is probably mentally in the game."
Dec. 29th, Game 3: Nuggets (17-15) lose 81-72 in Memphis (19-8).
The Nuggets were finally coming into a game against the Grizzlies on a little bit of a roll; having defeated the Lakers and Mavericks before heading to Memphis.
That was one of the ugliest games of basketball I've ever watched.
There were more bricks in this game than Arundel Castle. The Nuggets and Grizzlies sluggish performance netted them a grand total of 73 points in the first half - combined. The lethargy of the Nuggets' second game of a back to back seemed to infect the Grizzlies, and all night each team played a rough brand of physical, dirty, hacking and grabbing basketball. The Nuggets kept it close until the final few minutes, when the fatigue of their 22nd road game on a back to back away from the Pepsi Center finally caught up to them.
Yet overshadowing another close loss on the road is the injury to Ty Lawson, who exited the game midway through the 4th quarter. His left leg was seen wrapped in ice on the sidelines and he did not re-enter the game.
All three games have been grind-it-out contests. The only loss suffered by the Nuggets was the lone game where one of the teams was coming in on the second of a back-to-back (Denver). The homer in me will now tell you that Denver is really 2-0 versus the Grizzlies, but again that's the homer in me. This last match-up is crucial as Denver can win the season series versus the Grizzlies and if the two teams finish with the same record come mid-April - Denver would get homecourt advantage in a playoff series.
To get back to the Nuggets beating Memphis at their own game - let's consider some of the following:
The Nuggets are up tempo without being finesse. They lead the NBA with a preposterous 57.4 points in the paint per game, having scorched the Lakers for 78 the other night. They also lead the NBA in fast-break points (19.5 per game), offensive rebounds (13.5) and second-chance points (16.3). -Ian Thomsen, Sports Illustrated - Feb. 28th.
With the stats from Thomsen in mind -- check out how things have gone for the Nuggets in the three contests versus the Grizzlies:
|Fastbreak Points||Paint Points||Nuggets Free Throws||Grizzlies 3-pt|
|Game 1||10 points||50 points||20-28 (71.4%)||6-17 (35%)|
|Game 2||27 points||50 points||23-26 (88.5%)||7-19 (36%)|
|Game 3||15 points||48 points||11-18 (61.1%)||5-19 (26%)|
The Nuggets were below their season average in the fast-break points department (19.5) in two of the three games. No surprise that the game with 27 fast-break points came in Denver. The Nuggets were below their points in the paint average (57.4 points) in all three games. And the Nuggets were well above their season average in two of the three games in the free throw department -- as a team Denver ranks 29th in the NBA with a 69% free throw average.
The reason I included Memphis' three-point percentages is because they performed above their season averages in two of the three games. On the season the Grizzlies rank 22nd in league in three-point percentage -- 34.6%. They rank last (30th) in both three-pointers attempted on the season (797) and three-pointers made (276).
Conley leads the Grizz in threes attempted per game with 3.7 and makes with 1.4 and shoots a respectable 36.7% from downtown. The only other guys that really stretch the floor for Memphis are Tayshaun Prince (1.2 attempts per game), Austin Daye (2.4 attempts per game) and Quincy Pondexter (2.7 attempts per game). Those three all shoot above 40% from the outside, but they are very selective in their attempts.
With the Grizzlies unable to stretch the floor, it puts additional pressure on Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The Nuggets have done a tremendous job against those two this season. Consider the numbers:
On the season Randolph averages 15.7 points and 11.6 rebounds. Gasol averages 13.9 points and 7.8 rebounds.
|Game 1||12 pts (6-15)||16 pts (5-7)|
|13 rebounds||6 rebounds|
|Game 2||10 pts (5-12)||10 pts (2-10)|
|5 rebounds||5 rebounds|
|Game 3||12 pts (6-13)||6 pts (3-9)|
|7 rebounds||9 rebounds|
Neither player has lived up to their season averages -- in both categories -- in any of those games. Randolph beat his rebounding totals in the first game and Gasol was above his scoring average in the first game, but overall the Nuggets have done a great job neutralizing the Grizz big men.
But something the Nuggets have yet to do? Play the Grizzlies without Rudy Gay. He was the focal point of the offense while he was in Memphis and Karl said he had the freedom to take any shot he wanted. Gay scored 22 points in the first game, 21 points in the second game and 19 points in the third game against Denver. With more emphasis on getting the ball to Randolph, Gasol and Conley it will be interesting to see how much different the Memphis plays.
It is still my belief that the best first-round match-up for the Nuggets is the Grizzlies. Denver has shown they can play at the FedEx Forum and it should not make a difference which team has homecourt advantage. The Grizzlies inability to stretch the floor plays into the Nuggets style - more inside play could give the Nuggets plenty of opportunities to create steals and lead to fast-breaks.
But can the Nuggets keep up their fast pace in the post-season? Experts have weighed in and said the Nuggets are fun to watch, but that they cannot play fast in the playoffs.
"My question is: How many have tried?" said Karl. "How many teams have had as much talent as we have?
"I don't buy it. I see basketball won in many different ways all the time," said Karl. "My answer is: We're gonna find out."
Karl also pointed out that the Nuggets played fast against the Lakers in the playoffs last season -- and the team had success. The Miami Heat play uptempo, as do the Thunder and most of the teams in the Western Conference playoff picture - sans the Grizzlies.
It would make one heck of a series to see the Nuggets and Grizzlies square off. Two hard working teams that play the game with two different philosophies. The Grizzlies play physical, slow-down ball and the Nuggets play physical uptempo ball. Who would win?
Mark me down for the Nuggets.
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Save the Date - 3/19 March Madness Stiffs Night Out!
On Tuesday, March 19th we're going to kick off March Madness by watching the Nuggets take on the Thunder in Oklahoma City at 6pm from Jake's Food & Spirits. Free appetizers and 2-for-1 drinks will be served.
We will be distributing NCAA brackets for $10, with all of the proceeds going to the Denver Hooperz, a local non-profit that provide after school basketball programs to at-risk youth. Prizes - including Nuggets tickets - will be given out to bracket winners. Also, the Colorado Sports Guys (Nate Timmons and Ross Martin) will be live podcasting throughout the event - and it's Nate's birthday!