I got home from Pepsi Center just in time to see the fourth quarter highlights on Altitude*** showing C.J. Miles clearly and unequivocally stepping out of bounds before Carmelo Anthony committed his sixth and final foul with 25 seconds remaining. What should have been the Nuggets signature defensive play of the game instead cost them Game 2. But it should never have come down to that.
To be clear, I will not blame the referees for the Nuggets losing Game 2 to the Utah Jazz. You can thank Jerry Sloan and the Nuggets lack of seriousness defensively for that. However, it must be noted that the refs dominated the game - on both sides of the ball - throughout the entire second half, and it was despicable. Looking up at the scoreboard midway through the fourth quarter, I said to everyone around me: "If this game goes to overtime, we'll have to play three-on-three because most of the players will be fouled out."
I've seen countless NBA games, and I've never, ever seen a game more overly refereed in my entire life. These refs didn't seem to get the memo that playoff time is when the zebras swallow their whistles and let the players play. The pundits on NBATV wrote it off as "that's just Utah Jazz basketball", which is cute to say except it wasn't Utah Jazz basketball whatsoever. Utah Jazz basketball involves physical play around the rim, but because every ticky-tacky foul (or, in reality, non-foul) that could be called was, on both ends, even the Jazz couldn't play their style.
But speaking of style, the Nuggets seemed to think it was okay to mirror the Golden State Warriors for the second playoff game in a row. Which might be fine when you're shooting 57.1% from the field as the Nuggets did in Game 1, but it's not an advisable way to play when you're only making 46.7% of your shots as we witnessed tonight. The Nuggets were careless defensively until the very end of the game, and ultimately that's what cost them this victory.
Before we jump into the not-so-cheap-seats observations, I want to briefly touch on the C.J. Miles / Melo foul out incident that essentially closed out the game in Utah's favor. From my seat 10 rows up, I couldn't see and never saw Miles clearly step out of bounds as referee Bill Spooner should have. Also, it should be noted that Melo played exceptional defense on Miles on that play until Miles hit half court when Melo committed a somewhat obvious and stupid foul to get himself fouled out. Perhaps as a microcosm of the refereeing all night, Spooner was more concerned with Melo hand-checking Miles than looking at Miles' right foot as it crossed the out-of-bounds line. If that play is called accurately, not only does Melo not foul out but Miles doesn't get two free throws and the Nuggets get a shot to take the lead with 25 seconds left.
But as I opened with above, how the Nuggets were ever in that situation to begin with leaves us fans scratching our heads as much as Spooner's ineptitude should. After all, there was a stretch at the beginning of the fourth quarter when the Jazz had Othyus Jeffers, Kosta Koufos and Ronnie Price on the floor at the same time. Before today, I'd never even heard of Jeffers and I suspect neither did many of you.
Of course, there's a very simple answer to how the Nuggets were able to lose at home to an injury depleted Jazz squad, and that answer is: Jerry Sloan. No team takes on the personality of their coach quite like the Jazz do under Sloan, who refuses to make excuses and demands - and often gets - a great effort nightly from his players. It helps when two of those players are Olympians like Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, but frankly stated the Jazz are playing two-on-five in this series right now, and the Nuggets weren't able to take advantage of that...at home, no less.
And yet in spite of tonight's gravely disappointing loss, I'm confident that the Nuggets can win at least one of two at Utah. We as fans must keep in mind that the Jazz had to make 52.9% of their shots, catch Melo shooting poorly (several of Melo's shot attempts were chippies that just didn't fall), catch J.R. Smith and Chauncey Billups shooting poorly and fall into the most overly officiated game in recent playoff memory to win Game 2. I suspect that the officiating in Game 3 will swing the other way and the refs will let the guys play. Unfortunately, that favors the Jazz but if the Nuggets can prepare accordingly for it, this series next W could be ours.
The View From the Not-So-Cheap-Seats...
...the Jazz players were booed during introductions but Sloan received a smattering of cheers, likely the result of the respect Sloan receives here in Denver. And for good reason.
...Chris Andersen always goes to the locker room right after the national anthem. Does anyone know why?
...seeing Chauncey Billups lay it up when he's wide open on leak outs is still surreal for those of us who watched him dunk with regularity in high school.
...Melo settled for too many jumpers in the first quarter when the undersized Wesley Matthews was guarding him. But as the game went on, Melo routinely took the ball to the rack and got to the foul line.
...midway through the first quarter, an Alex English tribute video appeared on the scoreboard. The crowd went nuts. As someone reared in Nuggets lore, you can never have enough highlight reels like this in my opinion.
...the Nuggets PA announcer had to beg the fans to wave their towels from the first quarter onward. All I could think of was ESPN's Mike Tirico's comments before the Celtics/Heat Game 1 on the playoff atmosphere in Boston: "Here in Boston, they don't need towels to remind them that it's playoff time." I wish this were the case in Denver, too. Enough with the stupid towels.
...Melo did flagrantly foul Williams - right in front of us - but felt visibly remorseful while Williams writhed in pain afterward.
...give Adrian Dantley credit for running a nice play to get Johan Petro involved out of a late first quarter timeout.
...J.R.'s assist to Melo at the 6:15 mark was the best pass of the game.
...Utah's ball movement throughout the second quarter was amazing. They're one of the more disciplined and patient teams I've seen in a while.
...the crowd wasn't as boisterous as it was against the Hornets last year. I think this is because we expect the Nuggets to win this first round series, rather than just being happy to be there as we've been in years past. We're going to need a better crowd earlier in Game 5.
...I commented to my seat mate that the Nuggets - again - aren't taking this game seriously defensively in the first half. And tonight, that lack of seriousness cost us big-time.
...more aptly put, our defense SUCKED in the second quarter.
...I was convinced that the halftime score would be 63-63. Little did I know it would be 63-51 in favor of Utah.
...I labeled the third quarter "The K-Mart Quarter." Without K-Mart's exceptional effort on both ends throughout the third, the Nuggets have no shot to win this game.
...J.R. broke out his gold shoes and promptly hit his first three-pointer. Unfortunately, he didn't make many more and played erratically.
...not only did the refs make a series of suspect ticky-tacky calls on both ends throughout the third, but they were insistent on whistling make-up calls throughout the period as well. Watching the refs take over the third was unbearably frustrating. We didn't pay for our tickets to watch the referees blow their whistle on every possession.
...the refs need a redefinition of what a "no-call" should be in a playoff game. Most flops should just be no-calls. As should breathing on your opponent. Again, the refs did everything they could to slow down and ruin Game 2...for both teams.
...Nene laid out a great foul on Paul Millsap. Millsap played tough even though he was consistently getting his ass kicked out there.
...the text messages started coming in fast and furious: "What the @#$% is happening out there?!!!" seemed to be the usual text received.
...the fans revved up a loud "YOO-TAHHH SUCKSSS" chant. Not exactly.
...after Rocky sank his half-court, behind-the-back shot I was convinced we were going to win.
...as the Jazz kept scoring at will, it donned on me: we're playing like the @#$%^& Golden State Warriors!
...when Kyle Korver nailed a huge three-pointer at the 1:28 mark, the crowd collectively uttered: "F--K!!"
...a few plays later, Korver clearly charged over Nene and then Chauncey clearly charged over Korver on the next play. Annoying.
...as mentioned above, from my seat it looked like Melo played aggressive and then stupid defense on C.J. Miles down the stretch. I had no clue that Miles stepped out-of-bounds and Spooner missed that call. I'm mad at myself for questioning Melo on that play during the game.
...there seemed to be some confusion at the very end of the game regarding who - Ty Lawson or Chauncey Billups - was supposed to bring the ball up. Not good timing for in-game confusion and I don't understand why Dantley didn't have a play ready to go for a no-timeout situation like that.
...at game's end, the deflated crowd sloughed out of the building in a depressed fashion. But I have faith that the Nuggets will win at least one of two at Utah.
Non-Stiff of the Night
-Jerry Sloan: Missing his starting center, starting small forward and playing a lineup that includes multiple second round picks and "never heard of him before" guys, Sloan somehow pushed his Jazz to victory over the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. I've never counted out a Jerry Sloan-coached team, and tonight was further evidence of why. Said Sloan during his postgame press conference: "Sometimes you get tired of taking a butt-kicking. You have to step up and fight back a little bit." Hopefully the Nuggets take that advice into Game 3.
Stiff of the Night
-The Refs: Even Jazz fans should agree with me that the refs were completely out of line tonight, calling 17 more fouls than were called in Game 1. The refs almost ruined an otherwise competitive and hard-fought playoff game.
***I've since seen the Nuggets/Jazz Game 2 highlights on NBATV which - most curiously - didn't bother to show the slo-mo angle where Miles is clearly stepping out-of-bounds right in front of Spooner as Altitude did. Hmmmm....
Photo courtesy of Getty Images: Doug Pensinger