It sounds a little weird to say that you're "proud" of your favorite sports team. But I can't think of a better adjective to describe how I feel after watching the Nuggets gut out a Game 5 victory against the Jazz on Wednesday night.
First off, I'm proud of Carmelo Anthony for showing us - and, perhaps, himself - how a 26/11 game can be much more effective than a 39/11 game. Melo may not have shot well early, but he consistently took the ball hard to the rack and got to the free throw line eight times for 15 attempts. Additionally, most of Melo's rebounds were defensive, he turned the ball over just once and played pretty good defense against C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews. I'd argue that his performance tonight was even better than his Game 1 outing.
I'm proud of Chauncey Billups for shaking off a streak of off nights and delivering a fine performance in the second half to give the Nuggets the shot-in-the-arm they desperately needed. Chauncey's defense may not have been affective on Deron Williams in the first half, but he stepped it up in the fourth quarter and was aggressive offensively without settling for the long ball.
I'm proud of Kenyon Martin for staying around the basket for put backs, passes off double teams and big rebounds.
I'm proud of Chris "Birdman" Andersen who - while still not looking right - kept fighting in the absence of Nene and made some huge defensive plays in the fourth quarter.
I'm proud of J.R. Smith for turning the ball over a mere one time, allowing the game to come to him, and nailing the three-pointers we count on him to make.
I'm proud of Ty Lawson for admirably anchoring the point guard position when Chauncey got into early foul trouble.
I'm proud of Aaron Afflalo for giving a solid performance on both ends. He never missed a shot!
I'm proud of Johan Petro for stepping into the void left by Nene, and in spite of some suspect shot attempts, never giving up and being a valuable contributor tonight.
I'm proud of Adrian Dantley and his coaching staff for finally putting a game plan together and sticking with it (more on that shortly).
And finally, I'm proud of this team's collective effort after days of uncertainty and useless drama that threatened to tear them apart. You could tell watching this game that much of the commotion was media-driven and didn't effect what was happening inside that Nuggets locker room.
Now comes the hard part - doing it again on Friday night. If we've learned anything in this series thus far, it's that the Jazz are at their weakest when the game is up-tempo and the possessions are fast and furious. Whether it's because the referees finally swallowed their whistles and let the Nuggets play, or it's because the game plan demanded speed, the Nuggets have finally figured out how to beat the Jazz: run them out of the damn building and attack the rim while doing so.
Clearly the more aggressive team on Wednesday night, the Nuggets attempted 42 free throws to 25 for the Jazz. And simply put, the Jazz can't win a game like this. They just don't have the horses for it. Hence why the Jazz thrive when the game is foul-heavy, slowed down and methodical. The Nuggets "random offense" that we all learned about this week just isn't effective in a traditional half court game. The trick now will be how the Nuggets replicate Game 5's pace into Game 6...but I'll let Nate ponder that for his preview on Friday.
In the meantime, I have a sore throat from yelling and screaming too much. I hope it wasn't the last time I'll be doing so inside the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center.
And I trust that head coach George Karl had a wide-eyed smile on his face watching this game. For the first time in several games, they finally played his style of basketball.
The View from the Not-So-Cheap-Seats...
...I sat about 10 rows up across the Nuggets bench in the first half, so I might have missed some things many of you saw on TV.
...we had yet another Jimmy Goldstein sighting, and I'm convinced the Nuggets have a winning record when the enigmatic super fan is in attendance. Last time I saw Jimmy, it was after the Nuggets Game 1 victory over the Jazz.
...before tipoff, MC Hammer's "2 Legit 2 Quit" blared on the sound system. The crowd ate it up.
...Melo didn't shake a single Jazz player's hand before tipoff. This was a great indication of how seriously he would be taking the game.
...in the first quarter, K-Mart's throw down of the Jazz's stiff center Kyrylo Fesenko was reminiscent of the "Thuggets" days. We need that mentality back in this series.
...and then K-Mart shot a long jump shot...something he should never, ever, ever (did I mention ever yet?) do again.
...in the first half, every time the Nuggets grabbed a defensive rebound the entire coaching staff jumped out of their seats and yelled "GO! GO! GO!" You could see there was an emphasis on pace tonight and it worked. Alas, a game plan!!
...Kyle Korver has turned into Sasha Vujacic. He can't hit a shot to save his life.
...during one of his stupid trivia routines (the answers are always given to the contestants ahead of time), Mark Randall's own last name was spelled wrong as "Randal" for one of the answers.
...when Nene went down with his knee sprain, I couldn't see what happened from my vantage point. Anyone?
...for the second half, I switched seats with a friend and got to sit right behind the Jazz bench. Amazing seats except I was surrounded by Jazz fans on all sides of me. They were loud and obnoxious, but were also super nice and good sports.
...seeing Wesley Matthews up close, it's remarkable how athletic and quick he is. He's faster than any Nugget not named Ty Lawson.
...Melo and Chauncey came alive in the third quarter and it was beautiful to see!
...watching Jerry Sloan work is a treat. He's usually calm and collected until something sets him off and then he erupts. But in every timeout, his players were remarkably attentive to his every word.
...I have a new appreciation for how the Jazz crash the offensive glass and was convinced that they were dominating the Nuggets on the boards. The box score, of course, indicated otherwise.
...Deron Williams doesn't sweat. No, really, he doesn't sweat.
...Melo's pass to Birdman for a missed slam was a great play. They clearly patched up whatever misunderstanding they had in Game 4.
...Birdman looked worse and worse physically as the game went on. He could barely walk in the fourth quarter.
...my favorite stat of the night: the fouls called were even (26 for Utah, 25 for Denver) but the Nuggets had 17 more free throw attempts. That's what smart, aggressive basketball does for you.
...the Jazz are like zombies. No matter how many times you think they're dead, they keep coming back. I have nothing but the utmost respect for this team.
Non-Stiff of the Night
-Carmelo Anthony: Melo did exactly what we've been asking of him for several games now - he took the ball to the rack continuously and aggressively...and finally got some calls! Hopefully now a lot of readers understand why four or five trips to the free throw line don't cut it, but eight or nine trips can sway a game for you.
Stiff of the Night
-Kyle Korver: Doing his best Sasha Vujacic impersonation, the normally sharp-shooting Korver went 0-for-6 in Game 5 after going 1-for-5 in Game 4.
If Nene's sprained knee causes him to miss Game 6, the Nuggets aren't allowed to use this as an excuse. Lest we forget that Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur are still out for Utah.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images: Doug Pensinger