You didn't think it was going to be that easy, did you? Despite some very shaky moments in the fourth quarter, the Denver Nuggets held on and left Miami with their best win of the season, defeating the Heat 111-107. Kenneth Faried led the way again with 24 points and 10 rebounds, but it was again a true team effort that enabled the Nuggets to pull this one out.
It looked as though this game was going to get out of hand early. Denver appeared tentative in the first quarter against the defending champions, shooting an abysmal 7-23 from the field while allowing the Heat to make 13 of their 23 shots. The starters seemed as though they were nervous and Miami looked like they were going to run away with it as they staked out a 30-20 lead after the first frame.
Thankfully, the Nuggets' bench players had other ideas. Led by Evan Fournier, Darrell Arthur, and Aaron Brooks, the Nuggets' reserves absolutely blitzed the Heat in the second quarter. Fournier provided the spark, playing tough defense, hustling, and knocking down shots. His energy gave the Nuggets the impetus they needed and after a steal from Arthur led to a huge dunk from Quincy Miller, the Nuggets found themselves tied. By the end of the quarter, they would have a five-point lead at 58-53.
The second quarter really was a thing of beauty. The Nuggets outscored the Heat 38-23, with 36 of those points coming from the bench. The shooting turned around, as Denver hit 15-23 shots in the frame, including six three-pointers. Also, the Nuggets were extremely aggressive on defense, forcing seven steals before halftime and holding the Heat's stars at bay. Fournier led the team with 12 points in the first half.
Normally, the team has a bit of a letdown in the third quarter, especially if they have the lead at halftime. Tonight that wasn't the case. The stout defense continued, and the Nuggets starters got it going a little bit. Faried had 11 points in the quarter, and Ty Lawson was orchestrating the offense. Even though his shot wasn't falling, he kept driving to the hoop and either drawing fouls or setting up teammates for easy buckets. Meanwhile, the Nuggets' defense had the Heat looking inept on offense. They didn't hit their first basket of the period until six minutes in, and Denver ended the third quarter up 85-71.
The lead got all the way up to 16 early in the fourth on a J.J. Hickson jump hook, but sure enough the Heat began to whittle the lead away. Ray Allen, who was the only Heat player that seemed capable of knocking down shots, had 14 of his 22 points in the final quarter. Miami also stepped up its defense, and the drives the Nuggets were getting so easily earlier seemed to disappear. Compounding the newly competent Miami defense were several uncharacteristic mistakes from Lawson down the stretch and some ugly missed shots.
This time, Arthur came to the rescue. He ended up with a season-high 18 points, including a jump shot late in the game that bounced around on the rim a few times before slipping through the net. Arthur also drew a foul from beyond the three-point line on James and knocked down all three free throws, which negated a three-pointer Allen had hit on the previous possession. After surviving some questionable shots from Miami, Denver just had to seal the deal from the free throw line. When Faried banked in his first of four straight made free throws, I knew the Nuggets were going to win. They ended up making 11-12 free throws in the fourth quarter and 25-29 for the game, crucial components for a tough road victory.
Basically, this was the most fun I have had watching the Nuggets this season. The Randy Foye game-winner against the Clippers was awesome, but this was on the road against the defending champions in a game in which the Nuggets were 11-point underdogs. From the second quarter on, the team played aggressive, composed basketball and were rewarded with a victory. It really makes you wonder what this team could look like next season with a healthy roster and after adding a possible impact player in the draft. For now, I'll be content with this sweet victory in a season full of sour losses.
Game Observations -
- Thank goodness for the bench, because the starters outside of Faried didn't do a whole lot this game. Lawson did have 13 points and 9 assists, but only shot 2-7. Foye, Wilson Chandler, and Timofey Mozgov combined for 17 points on 5-18 shooting.
- Ray Allen led the Heat with 22 points. LeBron James had 21 and Dwyane Wade had 19. It was a bizarre game for James, who never really tried to take over the game even though the Heat were trailing for quite some time. He took a couple of three-pointers near the end of the game when it seemed like he could get to the rim at will. Oh well, I'll take it.
- Chris "The Birdman" Andersen had a strong game against his former Denver teammates, scoring 14 points and swatting four shots. I miss the Bird, and I really miss his mohawk.
- Confession: I can't stand Dwyane Wade. Most Heat-haters take up their beef with LeBron, but Wade really gets under my skin. I just don't think he has much game outside of the occasional circus shot and drawing phantom fouls. He's not a good shooter or defender, and he flops almost as much as his teammate Shane Battier. The play where he slipped and fell trying to save a ball Allen had thrown and drew a foul on Fournier, who was a couple of feet away, made me want to throw my shoe through the television.
- I liked what Scott Hastings said in the second quarter about how the Nuggets should respect the Heat but not genuflect to them. First of all, terrific word choice. Second, it's great advice, and the Nuggets seemed to do exactly that.
- Lawson leads the NBA with 10.8 assists per game in March.
- Fournier cooled off a bit in the second half and ended up with 14 points on 6-14 shooting, but he was the key player for the Nuggets in the second quarter. His aggressive play inspired Denver and soon everyone was following suit. Brooks also had a strong first half and has played admirably as the back-up point guard. One player I didn't expect to have an impact was Quincy Miller, but he actually had a decent game, scoring five points and providing adequate defense on James.
- This is the first time the Heat have lost back-to-back home games since March of 2011. Yep, this was pretty much the definition of "big win" for Denver.