Inspired by the Nuggets heartbreakingly bad performance on Valentine's Day and their overall crappy play of late (including tonight's loss to the Rockets, the Nuggets have now lost three of their last 10 games), I've created a new game that I like to play with myself while watching these games...
...get ready for it...
HOW WILL THE NUGGETS BLOW THEIR LEAD TONIGHT?!!
Here's how the game works. First, the Nuggets build up a big lead. Second, you as a fan guess how they'll blow the lead. Your options are...
a) They stop playing defense.
b) They stop moving the ball offensively.
c) They turn the ball over too much.
d) Their bench disappears.
e) George Karl refuses to call a timeout to stop the opposing team's run.
f) Combination of any of the above.
Next, you get to guess at which point during the game the lead will be blown. Your choices there are...
a) During the second quarter
b) During the third quarter
c) Early in the fourth quarter
d) Middle of the fourth quarter
Against the Rockets on Monday night, I guessed wrong. I guessed that the Nuggets 32-19 end-of-first quarter lead would be pissed away mid-way through the third quarter and it would be the result of a combination of B (not moving the ball) and E (Karl not calling a timeout to stem the tide). Instead, halfway through the second quarter the Nuggets lead had all but evaporated, mostly due to the Rockets' bench production far outdistancing Denver's. By game's end, the Rockets' bench totaled 68 points on 26-47 shooting compared to the Nuggets' bench's 40 points on 12-31 "shooting". And frankly, the Nuggets' bench played even worse than that as many of their makes came during meaningless garbage time.
I don't have definitive statistics in front of me nor do I have the energy to add up all the numbers right now, but if I had to guess how many 10-plus point leads the Nuggets have blown this season, I'd guess that they've done so in about 65-70% of their games. Prior to this recent spate of losing, the Nuggets had been capable of overcoming their blown leads and hanging on to win many games. But those who follow the team closely knew this would be a problem - and a big problem - eventually.
When I interviewed Coach Karl as he neared his 1,000th coaching victory in early December, I asked him specifically about his team's propensity to blow big leads. Here was our exact exchange on that topic...
AF: About this year's Nuggets team specifically, obviously we're all concerned about blown leads. Does winning games "this way" foster bad habits? I suppose only a fan could ask this, but would the Nuggets be better off losing one of these games as a wake up call like they did when the Timberwolves broke their 15-game losing streak by beating us in Denver early last season? And remember, after that loss the Nuggets played quite well.
GK: I am concerned that we have the personality that’s blowing leads. But it’s powerful to say we’ve had leads in every game. I don't know how many teams can say that. So to me, that’s more positive than the concern I have about blowing leads. Also, blowing leads when you’re shorthanded on the road is not unusual in this league. Eventually, talent out-weighs intensity down the stretch of a game.
Well, both tonight and on Sunday night in Memphis the Nuggets weren't shorthanded on the road. So that excuse is not applicable and begs the question: why the @#$% is this team routinely blowing leads?
Given that basketball is a very inexact science, I've always believed that blown leads are a result of a team missing a second gear emotionally and energetically. And that second gear comes from a team playing for something bigger than themselves...something we haven't seen this team do consistently since before Karl got sick last year and only in moments (like the exhilarating Dallas game last Thursday) this season.
Players and coaches can prepare all they want before tipoff, but they have to be able to own the energy of the game after tipoff...and the Nuggets haven't been able to do this lately, especially on the road. I suspect - screw that, I know - it's the result of months and months of Carmelo Anthony trade speculation combined with the future uncertainty surrounding everyone else in that Nuggets locker room that's taking this team down.
Soon after that Karl interview, I wrote that "Melo's winter of discontent is upon us."
Now it won't go away.
NON-STIFF(S) OF THE NIGHT
-Courtney Lee and Shane Battier: Lee smoked the Nuggets off the bench, making eight of his 14 shot attempts en route to 22 points to go along with six boards and four assists. Meanwhile, Battier didn't miss a shot (including from three-point range) and hassled Melo into a horrible shooting night.
STIFF(S) OF THE NIGHT
-The Nuggets Bench: Al Harrington, Ty Lawson and J.R. Smith combined to "shoot" 7-23 from the field while turning the ball over five times. Lawson's +/- was -15 and Harrington's was -14.
There's plenty of blame to go around with regards to the Nuggets awful play of late. But it's nights like this that make one wonder if this team would just be better off if Melo got traded already.