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2008-09 Game 18: Denver Nuggets 104 - Houston Rockets 94

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Box Score | Highlights

We all can exhale now.  The Nuggets have earned a win against one of the other top teams in the west.  This win was important for several reasons.  There is the issue of a lack of wins against the elite teams in the NBA that I mentioned in my preview.  There is the issue of getting away from their defensive mindset and being able to win a grind it out game against a defensive oriented opponent.  Then there was the surprise issue of surviving a game against a good team without Carmelo Anthony.

Melo left the game after playing only 14 minutes due to a bum elbow that has been bothering him for a few days.  Apparently the players did not get the news Melo was out until halftime because Chauncey Billups came out of the locker room a man possessed. 

Chauncey clearly took the burden of winning this game on his shoulders to the tune of 14 points and four assists in the third quarter.  He led the Nuggets to a lead they would never relinquish.  The thing that was most impressive about Chauncey’s performance in the third quarter was the degree of difficulty for most of his makes and assists.  Billups made four threes in the first six minutes of the quarter and continued to excel even after the Rockets realized he was the guy they needed to shut down.

Hopefully Melo will be OK, but the way Chauncey raised his game in Melo’s absence was thrilling to watch.  AI was capable of carrying the offensive load if Melo was absent, but he never displayed the efficiency that Billups showed us tonight.  He was a fountain of cool for his teammates to drink from if they ever started to panic.

As well as the Nuggets played on defense they did give up a plethora of open threes and the Rockets made more than their fair share.   Houston made ten of their 20 three point attempts and the Nuggets still won by ten.  As jakester pointed out in the game thread Houston only shot 21-56 on their two point attempts which equates to 37.5%.  A big key to the Nuggets defensive success was the way they doubled Yao.  George Karl pointed out in the pregame show that doubling Yao with a small guard really does not accomplish anything because Yao is so huge.   Denver doubled him frequently with J.R. Smith and Dahntay Jones who have enough size to bother the big man.  Nothing came easy for Yao and surprisingly enough, he ended up with the worst plus/minus in the game at -19.   Yao was also limited to only 31 minutes do to fatigue, which judging by his plus/minus was actually a good thing for Houston.

The Nuggets poor three point defense is a bit of a concern.  In the previous game against the Minnesota Timberwolves the Nuggets gave up open look after open look.  It ended up not making much of a difference as Minnesota missed almost all of those open looks, but against a hot shooting team like the Rockets not guarding the three point line can be a fatal flaw.

There are three primary ways that a team can get open on the perimeter in their half court offense.  The first is off of a double team.  If the ball is kicked out and swung around the perimeter the result is typically an open three pointer.  The second way a team can earn an open three point shot is through penetration.  If a player drives into the lane and forces the defense to collapse he can then pass out to an open teammate.  The third way to get an open three is with a simple ball screen.  That can either free up the player with the ball or he can draw help and pass to an open teammate. 

The Nuggets are pretty good at rotating off of their planned double teams, but the area they get into trouble is if they have to double someone unexpectedly such as if there is a switch and a guard is stuck guarding a forward or center or off of penetration.  If the Nuggets are going to truly be able to survive with their defense they must become more natural at scrambling and rotating in situations where they are starting off out of position. 

I would compare it to the difference between book smart and street smart.  A book smart team knows how to execute their planned rotations and the Nuggets can do that.  A street smart team can rotate no matter what triggered the help and rotation.  Penetration can come from any direction and only the best teams can help off their man to stop the drive and still react to the kick out pass to close off the three point line.  It takes athleticism, a mental understanding of the defensive principles your team believes in, a chemistry between teammates where they know what each of the five players on the floor are thinking so no one duplicates an assignment and determination because it takes a lot of energy to cover the entire floor for 48 minutes.

The Nuggets have proven they are an improved defensive team, but they are still a step or two below being able to defend at a championship level.

Other Observations from Game 18:

  • The Denver Nuggets are tied atop the Northwest Division with the Portland Trail Blazers at 12-6.  Portland fans complained nonstop about how difficult their schedule was but at this point there really is not much of a difference between the schedule Portland has played and the one Denver has played.  I did not expect either the Trail Blazers nor Nuggets to give Utah much of a fight for the division title, nor did anyone else aside from the most fanatical Blazer supporter.  Denver and Portland are in position to make things tough on the Jazz, but you have to take into account that Utah is right there even though Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer have combined to miss 19 games between them so far this season.
  • I never saw a definitive play where Melo hurt his elbow, nor did I ever see him grimacing or rubbing it.  I am not saying he is faking, but hopefully it is not hurt too badly and he will not miss any further game time because of it.
  • J.R. Smith has had a strange week.  He blew up on New Orleans, then played a measly seven minutes in Minnesota only to come back and have another very good game against Houston tonight.  J.R. has drilled ten of his last 19 three point attempts and his season percentage is up to 34.6%. 
  • After making some strange decisions over the previous couple of games I thought George Karl managed Nene’s minutes very well.  Nene was called for his first foul on the first play He pulled him from the game midway through the first before he was called for his second foul.  He managed to play 35 minutes and ended up with five fouls.  A lot of coaches make the mistake of over sitting a guy and he ends up playing 24 minutes and ending the game with three fouls.
  • As was pointed out above the Rockets shot 37.5% on their two point shots.  A big reason for that was the Nuggets season high 14 blocks.  I can think of at least four point blank shots that were going to go in had they not been rejected.  Without those blocks tonight’s game would have been much different.
  • I pointed out in the game preview that Houston was going to play without Tracy McGrady, but the Rockets were also without Nugget killer Shane Battier so that warrants mentioning.  

Razzle Dazzle Game Stats

The pace factor for the game was a sluggish 89.1 dropping the Nuggets pace factor for the season down to 93.7.

The Nuggets defensive efficiency was a relatively high 105.5, but when a team hits 10 threes in such a slow paced game it is difficult to post a better defensive efficiency rating than that.  For the season their defensive efficiency has risen to 103.9.

The Nuggets had another good offensive showing posting an offensive efficiency rating of 116.7 which was even more impressive considering the Rockets entered the game with the fourth best defensive efficiency rating in the NBA.  For the season the Nuggets offensive efficiency rating is up to 106.7.

Check out The Dream Shake for some insight from a great Rockets blog.