Who would have thought that the second game of an 82 game season would feel like a playoff game? Tonight was a slugfest ... a sloppy one, but with a happy ending for Nuggets fans.
So, in my preview of the game tonight I asked the question, "What's the kid going to do for an encore?" The question was referring to 21 year-old rookie Ty Lawson. What I didn't realize is that I should have directed the question at the 25 year-old kid who the night after pouring in 30 points; followed up that effort with an inspired and determined 41 points on the road ... in Portland ... in the second game of a back-to-back.
Of course I'm referring to the Superstar Carmelo Anthony. Yes, superstar. Melo has scored 71 points in the last two games and his performance tonight at the Rose Garden was nothing short of spectacular. Melo finished the game with the following stat line: 11-21 shooting, 18-19 at the foul line, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 41 points.
The Nuggets were not getting much help from their bench (13 points) or their frontcourt of Nene and Kenyon Martin. The night after the duo combined for 32 points Big Brazil and K-Mart could muster only 13 total points. So, Melo did what he needed to do to put the team on his back in the absense of J.R. Smith.
I've begun reading Bill Simmons' new book and in it he talks about getting to watch the career of Larry Bird play out and how special it was because it took place during Simmons' formative years. Now, I have watched a legend grow before my eyes in John Elway, but for much of the early part of his career I was too young to fully understand what it all meant. Getting to watch the rise of Melo has been something pretty special for us basketball fans trapped in what Jim Armstrong refers to as a dusty old cow town. Games like this one in Portland makes being a fan all the worth while.
I was watching the game alone and was on the edge of my (couch) seat for the entire fourth quarter. I found myself leaping up after questionable calls (there were plenty on both sides), fist pumping after clutch buckets (mainly free throws) and hoping Brandon Roy's last second attempt sailed wide (phew, it did).
I remember feeling that Melo was on the cusp of breaking through as a superstar during the first two games of the Western Conference Finals and I'm beginning to feel that way again ... and it's only game two of an 82 game season. The race for the Northwest division title started tonight and Denver has first blood with their 97-94 win.
What tonight's game meant ...
You don't want to read too much into a early season win, but you could tell that tonight both teams desperately wanted this game. Nate McMillan and George Karl were playing a chess game towards the end of the final period ... subbing offense for defense. Players were diving for loose balls, over acting on fouls, losing their minds on good plays, feeding off the crowd for the Blazers and wanting to silence the crowd for the Nuggets, doing all they could to get to the foul line, and making the extra effort in every aspect of the game. No doubt about it ... this was a early season playoff battle ... the older brother again beat the younger brother (so to speak.)
I hadn't been overly impressed with Brandon Roy until tonight. I have missed most of his big moments and when he's played Denver he hasn't shined like he did tonight. It was fun watching him and Melo battle a little bit. Roy's 30 points more than overcame his 13.8 average against Denver last season. He's a handful to defend and I'm not sure that Arron Afflalo is yet up to that challenge ... neither is Anthony Carter. I feel like I finally understand the buzz about Roy ... sorry I arrived unfashionably late to the party.
Random thoughts during an important road game
- 11:44 mark ... Greg Oden picks up his first of what I hoped would be many fouls as Nene drove the baseline. You never want a seven-footer with shot blocking skills to get into the flow of the game. So far ... so good.
- 7:43 mark ... Nuggets score their FIRST POINTS OF THE GAME! Too many jumpers and nobody is attacking ... tired legs from the night before? Did the 4:00 a.m. arrival throw the team off?
- Um ... can the Nuggets protect the glass? 8-0 offensive boards in favor of Portland. Oden had around four of them and their guards are getting position on K-Mart ... ?!?!
- Denver finishes the quarter strong and has a 24-17 lead ... for a while it didn't look like the Nuggets would score double-digits in the quarter, but Melo's hot hand took over and Denver went on a 10-0 run.
- Arron Afflalo is wearing white shoes ... why did nobody tell him that Denver goes all-black with the alternative jerseys? Is this a prank? Is Afflalo pulling an opposite of J.R. (who wore black shoes all preseason.)
- Ty Lawson is sporting a headband again. He did not wear a headband in college from what I remember... what does this mean?
- The Blazers go on a 11-0 run ... is this going to be a game of runs? Is Pepto Bismol a secret sponsor tonight?
- 6:32 mark ... Greg Oden picks up his 3rd foul ... muhahaha! He's heading to the bench for an extended stay.
- It's a good thing that Brandon Roy took up basketball and not boxing. I'm not saying he couldn't be a tremendous boxer, but the bone structure in his face would lead to a lot of easy cuts.
- 6:03 mark ... Portland is up 32-29 has found thier man to frustrate Melo ... his name: Martell Webster. He just swatted away Melo's dunk and Melo is mad! Hoping Melo doesn't stay frustrated for long. Oh and this Webster kid can ball a little bit.
- Melo is committed to the defensive end. Looks like he's gunning to get his name in the MVP talk ... or perhaps he's adopted the hated Al Davis' Just Win Baby persona.
- I am looking at Juwan Howard and thinking that he is OLD ... my buddy Mark texts me asking how hold Howard is ... well he was on the Fab-5 team at Michigan that basically invented the baggy shorts look. His teammates there ... Chris Webber (works for TNT and NBATV), Jalen Rose (works for ESPN), Jimmy King (playing ball still in Europe or New Mexico?), Ray Jackson (pretty sure he made me a late night burrito at Illegal Pete's the other night) are all out of basketball. Yes, Howard is old.
- The half is over and Denver is down only one (43-42) after playing basically like garbage. The Blazers have taken 51 shots to Denver's 27 ... yes a difference of 24!!!! How is Portland only up by one?!?!
- Coming back to start the second half TNT reminds us that Portland is out-rebounding Denver 29-18 and their bench is outscoring Denver's 17-6. Things are not looking good. I could see Portland going on a run and breaking Denver's will ... then again Melo is playing some great basketball and trying to win this thing by himself.
- 9:40 mark ... Oden picks up his 4th foul and heads back to the bench. I guess the refs are trying to make up for the lack of whistle blowing they missed out on in the preseason. Pryzbilla is in and about a minute after checking in picks up his 4th foul on a great "Kobe-esque" move by Melo ... basically #15 ran into Pryz and acting as if he'd been sideswiped by a bus. About a minute later at the 7:15 mark Pryz picks up his 5th foul. More Juwan Howard please!!!
- The Nuggets basically have one scoring option and he used to rock the corn rows. Melo is going to have to win this thing by himself. Melo just pulled down the Nuggets first offensive rebound and BRICKED the dunk. The TNT guys are saying Melo just looked over at them with a look of embarrassment ... don't worry Melo, I was only able to dunk dodge balls in high school.
- Denver held Brandon Roy to just 7 points in the first half, but he's erupted with 11 in this quarter ... he just made Melo look all kinds of silly with a sick pull back jumper. Portland is up 58-54, but can't seem to pull away.
- 2:27 mark ... Roy just buried a three-pointer, Karl just took A.C. out for Afflalo and the game has a feel that it could slip away at any moment ... gut check time for Denver.
- Denver goes on a mini 5-0 run thanks to Billups' three and Birdman's 2-2 clutch foul shooting. The camera is zoomed in on Bird and he looks heavy in the face. Am I nuts? Are other people seeing this? Birdman looking sort of like a penguin this year ... no flying!
- What's with the three stripes shaved into the back of Roy's head? Anybody know what this is about? I used to put bars in the side of my head. I love the design shaved in the head look ... it started from what I remember with Anthony Mason of the New York Knicks and Ron Artest is trying his best to bring it back. Roy seems on board with this too.
- 0:57 mark ... Nene fouls his old mentor Juwan Howard. Howard looks like his cialis just kicked in as he celebrates the call. Seeing Howard and Nene out there together gives me chills ... like 17 wins kinds of chills ... go away Howard!
- 0:45 mark ... Nene goes 1-2 from the foul line ... he's 1-5 tonight from freebie territory and his jumper isn't working tonight. Forgettable game for the big fella thus far.
- With seconds remaining Ty Lawson misses a floating runner from the baseline ... Roy is moving with the ball up the sideline and is getting ready to launch a desperation shot ... this shot is going to go in ... the shot goes in ... 67-62 Portland to end the third. Roy with a 28-foot heave ... could this shot be the difference?
- Does Denver have enough firepower to overcome another 5 point hole? When is Portland going to pull away ... this is a dangerous game by the Blazers ... they can't seem to get a big lead and Denver is doing just enough to stay in this road game.
- 11:23 mark ... Afflalo is now using a very weird defensive strategy ... he's just hugging his man and drawing fouls!
- 10:56 mark ... Afflalo fouls Andre Miller. This guy is a fouling machine tonight!
- Denver comes into the quarter 23-33 from the foul line ... if these 10 free points come back to haunt the Nuggets it won't be the first time ... 10 misses cost the Nuggets a few playoff games last season ... glad that's back!
- 10:45 mark ... Juwan Howard committs a loose ball foul and is upset about it. He lips, "That's not a foul!" ... in 2009 everything is a foul!
- 9:37 mark ... Bird swats Rudy Fernandez's dunk attempt ... Fernandez uses his off-hand to try to push Bird away ... foul on Bird! These refs are just "trrrble" ... both teams growing frustrated with the calls. Portland up 71-68.
- 7:18 mark ... Rudy Fernandez hits a big three pointer ... 10 points in about two and a half minutes for Rudy. Looking like J.R. Smith out there ... I miss J.R. ... Nuggets need his scoring. Portland is up 81-74 and the Rose Garden is rocking ... can the Blazers put the Nuggets away?
- Nuggets go on a mini 4-0 run as Melo and Lawson both hit layups. Lawson is fast ... not sure if he can finish with his left hand, but man ... he's fast.
- At the 5:03 mark with Portland leading 85-81 ... the game became crucial with every possession and here is how things played out from that point:
- The Blazers finished the game 1-4 shooting and in six trips to the foul line only converted 7-12 free throw attempts.
- The Nuggets finished the game 3-9 shooting and in five trips to the foul line they converted 9-10 free throws ... Melo going 7-8 out of those 10 attempts.
- Denver found a way to win this game--very impressive considering Denver had no business even being in this game.
- The play that showed me a lot of maturity and desire to win happened at the 0:12 second mark when Billups missed his 19-footer that would have given Denver a three point lead. Melo had the ball and instead of trying to force something he trusted his teammate to come through for him. We've seen the great players do this throughout their careers ... think Michael Jordan to Steve Kerr. On a night where Melo scored 41 points he was willing to defer to his teammate at the end of the game. If that's not a great sign of a winning attitude I don't know what is.
Thumbnail photo courtesy of: Don Ryan AP Photos