Box Score

The Denver Nuggets played stifling defense and utilized a deadly offensive attack to defeat the Dallas Mavericks in Chauncey Billups return to the Centennial State.

OK, maybe I am getting a little carried away. I just really wanted Chauncey to have the perfect return to Denver. Even though the Nuggets played a very sloppy first half (hoards of missed shots in the paint) and showed some defensive breakdowns on the perimeter, the Nuggets pulled out a tough victory against an even sloppier Dallas Mavericks team.

Dallas rode the hot hands of Jason Kidd (six threes), Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki all night long and got a boost from Gerald Green off the bench in the second half who missed a three from the corner that would have tied the game on a play that required the Mavs to inbound the ball and score with only 0.4 seconds left.

The Nuggets switched most of the screens in the first half and because of that they seemed to lose their defensive integrity when it came to defending the paint and rebounding. The Nuggets have some versatile defenders where switching can pay off from time to time, but as I have written in the past, switching seems to reduce the intensity and personal responsibility required to play great defense. As a direct result of the switching Dallas was able to dominate the paint in the first quarter and they were able to dominate the offensive glass. In the second half the Nuggets made an adjustment and stopped switching on every screen. This shut down the paint and greatly reduced the Mavs offensive rebounding, but the trade off was that there were significant cracks on the perimeter.

Dallas shot 35 threes and probably at least 32 of them were open looks. The three primary reasons Dallas found themselves open behind the arc was poor transition defense, poor rotations and the third reason was flat out good offense by the Mavs. Threes will usually be open in transition as players are trained to retreat to the paint to choke off the easy shot and then work their way back out to their man. If a player is willing to float to the three point line in transition, he will probably be open, especially when the offense has numbers. The trick is as a team when you are not outnumbered, you must communicate and locate the shooters who are drifting behind the line.

Even with those breakdowns on the perimeter I continue to see a pretty pronounced difference defensively from last season. The Nuggets as a team continue to pay much more attention to the details required to play good defense. It all starts with knowing where both the ball and your man is all the time. Even notorious flibbertigibbets (now that is one word I did not expect to be in spell check) Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith are 100% more attentive on defense. Everyone is defending cutters, helping on screens and ready to help.

Individually the Nuggets have the talent to be good defenders. Kenyon has always been a physical defender who takes pride in making things hard on his man and he played Dirk very tough tonight. We all know Anthony Carter knows how to play D even when he is overmatched such as against Kobe he still knows where to be and when. Likewise, Nene has always been a good defender all over the floor and Chris Andersen has been putting forth great effort off the bench. Now we add a very capable and intelligent defender in Chauncey Billups to the mix and the Nuggets have the makings of a team capable of getting big stops in ways other than forcing a turnover.

Getting back to the game it was interesting to see how Dallas defended Carmelo. They waited to send the double team until after he put the ball on the floor. The benefit to that was even though Dallas waited to send the double the entire team was focused on Melo. This allowed him to hit cutters by the rim for easy opportunities. Even after he was doubled I though Melo made very good decisions with his passes. He finished the game with six assists and I really liked how he played on offense. He did not force any bad shots and played very unselfishly. Melo may not put up the best numbers of his career this season, but so far after three games I think he has shown some significant growth mentally compared to last season.

Of course, the real question on everyone’s mind is how did Chauncey do? I though he fit in almost seamlessly. He ran some nice pick and rolls with Melo and Nene. He showed he could hit the three and played solid defense. The presence of Anthony Carter allows the Nuggets to work Billups in slowly as he does not need to play 40 minutes a game. I though Chauncey missed a couple of opportunities to pass to an open teammate under the hoop and took a couple of questionable perimeter shots, but all in all he had a successful first game. He stated out shooting 1-7 from the floor and a lot of that seemed to be nerves as he missed a couple of easy shots.

It was a nice win and 2-3 sounds so much better than 1-4 doesn’t it? Denver has a very winnable game on Sunday at home against Memphis and they have yet to see either J.R. or Melo really get things going offensively. Good things are ahead for this team.

Other Observations from Game 5:

– Nene was spectacular. He finished everything around the basket and showed some much improved touch with his left hand around the rim. He also made a huge defensive play stripping the ball from Brandon Bass with 13 seconds left and the Nuggets up two that pretty much sealed the game. It is a treat to see him healthy and playing well.

– The Nuggets countered the Mavs big three point shooting night with an amazing performance from the free throw line. They shot 37-40 and needed almost every one of those to eek out a win (except for the last one, but keep reading for some thoughts on that one).

– Dahntay Jones made almost no impact on the game tonight as and long as J.R. Smith put forth a very good effort on defense as he did tonight, there is little reason for Jones to play more than five or ten minutes, especially if the Nuggets are not running.

– Hopefully Linas Kleiza returned to us tonight. He played 15 minutes and scored 14 points. He was very aggressive going to the rim and stopped settling for his jumper so often, although he did take a ridiculous 18 footer as he faded off of a screen to the baseline after receiving a pass.

– Remember how in the past you could not make contact with a player driving to the basket. It certainly seems like officials are allowing much more contact than they did last season. I am a player though and I think I have already adjusted to it mentally.

– The Nuggets are playing at a slower pace than they did last season. They are still at the top of the league though with a pace factor of 97.2. That is a full six possessions slower than they played last season. In the offseason I called for a switch to a more methodical, more defensive oriented team with players who could shoot. Don’t look now, but that is the direction the Nuggets are heading in.

– Many fans like to point out how George Karl is tardy when is comes to calling timeouts to stem the tide of a run by the opposition. Tonight I thought he was guilty of that. Denver opened up the fourth quarter with a seven point lead. They pushed it up to ten with a free throw by Andersen and a layup by J.R. Kidd drained his sixth three and then Jason Terry hit a jumper to cut the lead in half. Instead of calling timeout then, Karl waited until Dallas tied the game at 84 before stopping play. There were three other chances to call a timeout before the Nuggets completely lost the lead, but Karl did not do it. I think Karl has been more active during games this season and I think the team appreciates that. It would be nice to see him use his timeouts more readily in situations like that.

– I thought the Nuggets made a few mistakes in the last second of the game. Melo made a mistake not missing his final free throw with 0.4 seconds left on purpose. He made the free throw and it allowed Dallas to call a timeout, advance the ball and they ended up getting a very good look to tie the game. Had Melo missed his free throw sure the Nuggets are only up two and a three point shot would win it, but the Dallas player would have had to grab the ball, turn and throw it the length of the floor to win. As Hubie Brown pointed out, that is a far less likely scenario than giving them the chance to inbound the ball from the coach’s box. On the final inbounds play I also think every defender should be out at the three point line instead of staying with a guy inside the line. I thought they also wasted a defender by having Kenyon guard the inbounds pass. He would have been much more effective by having his back to Kidd and watching for who was cutting to the ball. As the play unfolded, Kenyon was guarding the pass to the wing or middle of the floor, but the pass went into the corner and he was basically worthless. Had he been facing the floor he could have run at Gerald Green. As it was, Anthony Carter made a good adjustment and challenged the shot after Chauncey overplayed the screen and was absolutely left in the dust by Green on his cut to the corner.

– Kenyon is getting pretty banged up with a sore hamstring and a bruised wrist. He is fighting through it, but he certaily missed a couple of easy shots that you would typically expect him to make. He did hit all of his free throws and played tough D on Dirk.

– I thought the crowd was much better than against the Lakers. It probably helped that there were not a bunch of bandwagon fans cheering for the visitors.

Enjoy the win and make sure you head on over to Mavs Moneyball for Wes’ take on the game.