While Democrats and Republicans squabble over the future direction of the United States, Nuggets Nation is as strong as ever.
No Melo. No problem.
As noted in my game preview, I suspected that tonight's victory over the Rockets would be the most winnable game of the Nuggets current three-game road trip. What I didn't foresee was the Nuggets turning a major first quarter deficit into a fourth quarter walkover win, thanks to combination of stingy defense and smart shot selection.
For the second season in a row, the Nuggets are playing elite basketball consistently, are overcoming adversity and are doing it late into the season. Just when we thought J.R. Smith might be a distraction thanks to rumors of a team suspension earlier this week followed up by rumors of a summons to be served in Houston, J.R. put up his best performance in a month. And on a night that the Nuggets had every excuse to mail it in (on the road and missing their best player) after finding themselves in a 31-16 hole after the first quarter, they dug deep and pulled off their first victory at Houston in three years.
If Chauncey Billups isn't included on the list of reserves for the All-Star Game to be announced tomorrow night, this will be nothing short of a travesty. In games without Carmelo Anthony but with Billups, the Nuggets improved to 3-1 including wins over Cleveland, Charlotte (a game in which Kenyon Martin was ejected early) and now at Houston. And overall without Melo, the Nuggets are a more-than-respectable 5-2. How many other teams would fare that well missing its best player for seven games?
Winners of eight straight and 11 of 13 (note that the Nuggets two losses were by a combined five points...wow), there are plenty of accolades to go around in Nuggets Nation, starting with head coach George Karl who clearly understands the pulse of his team right now and seems to be pulling the right strings. Whether or not deciding not to suspend J.R. was Karl's final call, we'll never know. But if J.R. continues to play at or near the level we saw tonight, it will prove to be a very smart decision (better to let J.R. take his lumps in the press and from bloggers like me rather than from the organization and the coach).
Next in line for props from the fans has to be Billups and Kenyon Martin, the veteran leaders who have kept this team afloat in Melo's absence and did so yet again tonight. In an interview I did on AM 1510 Mile High Sports Radio a few weeks ago, I scoffed at the suggestion that K-Mart deserved All-Star consideration. Seeing how well K-Mart continues to play, this may not be such a far fetched idea anymore.
Remarkably, the Nuggets are finding ways to win even when they're falling woefully short in key categories. For example, in tonight's game the Nuggets dished out a mere seven assists as a team - seven! - which is a Nuggets franchise record for the fewest assists in a victory. And on top of the low assist number, the Nuggets couldn't shoot straight from three-point range, making just 23.5% of their attempts behind the arc. But they made up for those shortcomings by being aggressive offensively, taking it to the rack and getting to the free throw line 39 times to the Rockets 19.
Simply put, the state of Nuggets Nation hasn't been this strong since the mid 1980s.
Non-Stiff of the Night
-J.R. Smith: Adamant supporters of J.R. have been calling me out in the comments for being too harsh on J.R. I stand by everything I've said about J.R. all season, but to prove that I don't have a vendetta against him (because, of course, I don't) he gets our Non-Stiff of the Night Award. Even though he made just three of his eight three-point attempts, he made two of his last three attempts, including back-to-back three's to help blow the game open midway through the fourth quarter. Moreover, J.R. seemed to take good shots tonight, something we need to see more of.
Stiffs of the Night
-Shane Battier and Chase Budinger: This Rockets duo combined to shoot 2-12 from the field and were flop-city on defense all night. Seeing Battier and Budinger flounder against the more athletic Nuggets was further proof of why the Rockets have no prayer of making any noise in the postseason this year...if they even get that far.
Photo courtesy of AP Photos: Pat Sullivan