While blowing out the previously red-hot Memphis Grizzlies, the Nuggets proved why even without Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, this team is loaded with talent. And more talent is on the way.
This was the most fun I've had at a Nuggets game all season. Yes, the Nuggets' recent thrilling victory over the Mavericks on an Arron Afflalo game-winner is hard to top, but even that game had the dark Melodrama cloud hanging over it as had every game this season. For the first time this season, the Nuggets played a game where all we as fans cared about was the game itself.
Making the game even more fun was seeing the newest Denver Nuggets - Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton and Timofey Mozgov - introduced during the third quarter to a boisterous standing ovation. Here we were watching our roster-depleted Nuggets run all over the Grizzlies and just a few feet away were four substantial additions to the roster ready to join the squad.
Seeing the new Nuggets standing in the Pepsi Center corner, I had an epiphany: the Nuggets now have two solid starting fives! Given that only 24 games remain on the Nuggets schedule and meshing new players together can be a tall order, perhaps head coach George Karl should - no joke - play two separate starting fives at a time. The first starting five would be the squad that dominated the Grizzlies tonight from end-to-end: Nene at center, Kenyon Martin at power forward, J.R. Smith at small forward, Afflalo at shooting guard and Ty Lawson at point guard. Then the second starting five would be a squad that's already used to playing together from their days in New York: Mozgov at center, Al Harrington at power forward, Gallinari at small forward, Chandler at shooting guard and Felton at point guard. Oh, and just in case the Nuggets need more ammunition, we have Gary Forbes available at the swing positions and Chris Andersen at the power positions.
On my way out of Pepsi Center after game's end, I mentioned my two starting fives strategy to Scott Hastings who replied with raised eyebrows: "It's interesting. And we could just run people out of the building!" You bet we could.
Like the rest of the Pepsi Center crowd, I couldn't have been more proud of the effort our Nuggets gave tonight - both offensively and defensively. For the first time in a very long time, the Nuggets played stingy defense in the first half and held their opponent to just 42 first-half points. While Melo was here, we'd routinely give up 42 points in a single quarter. And it was that stingy defense that sparked repeated fast breaks and easy baskets. This is the way basketball is meant to be played, folks.
And when basketball is played the right way, everyone can find the basket. Harrington actually made more shots than he missed. J.R. regained that sweet shooting stroke that continues to tease many of us into thinking he could be an All-Star. The Birdman had a season-high 15 points. And even supermascot Rocky made his behind-the-back half-court shot after just a few tries!
Seeing the Nuggets tremendous effort tonight - against a worthy opponent mind you - showcased just how poisonous the Melodrama was to this franchise. Remember how Nate, Jeff and I all predicted that this team could go big places in our preseason previews IF Melo stayed? In hindsight, I suspect the Melodrama cost us at least five wins, if not more. This isn't to kick Melo in the rear on his way out of Denver, it's simply to re-state the obvious that despite Melo's alleged "professionalism", the theatrics surrounding his future were a colossal distraction for the players and coaches...and despite their best efforts, they couldn't overcome those distractions on a nightly basis.
With those distractions finally, and thankfully, in the past, the Nuggets can get serious about the business of basketball on the court. Tonight was a major first step in that direction, and I look forward to many more spirited efforts from a team that will be saying "Melo who?" for the remainder of the season.
The View From the Not-So-Cheap-Seats...
...I was able to catch much of Josh Kroenke and Masai Ujiri's pregame press conference while driving to Pepsi Center. Of all the things I heard, it was most interesting to hear Ujiri "promise" to "reward George Karl" for Karl's coaching effort to date. Looks like Coach Karl will be getting that much deserved extension soon. Also of note was Kroenke's confirmation of the rumor that Melo told him "New York or Chicago" when Kroenke and Melo got together in Baltimore in the offseason. Meaning, Kroenke knew all along that Melo had no interest in being in Denver long term and moved swiftly to trade his lone superstar.
...throughout the night, the US military was honored. And before you think this was a shameless way to appeal to the fans in a post-Melo world, I can assure you that this was scheduled weeks ago.
...before tipoff, Afflalo took the microphone at halfcourt and thanked the troops and then thanked the fans for their continued support of the Nuggets.
...before player introductions, the Nuggets "dance" squad put on a number to get the crowd riled up. It was unnecessary. Tonight's Pepsi Center crowd was a very sophisticated basketball crowd (more on that shortly) and was ready to give their full support to the remaining players.
...J.R.'s first quarter burst sure was fun to watch. When J.R. plays within himself and within the flow of the game, he can be phenomenal to watch.
...as noted above, this was perhaps the best defensive performance of the season for a first half.
...when the ex-Knicks/new Nuggets suddenly showed up in the third quarter, the Pepsi Center crowd gave them a standing ovation and erupted with cheers. You could tell the newcomers appreciated this Rocky Mountain homecoming and I, for one, hope they stay for the remainder of the season.
...midway through the fourth quarter, the remaining fans began a "Who-Needs-Mellllooooo" chant. Hilarious.
...there were noticeably less trophy girlfriends and wives at this game and more true basketball fans in attendance (male and female, I might add). I rarely get approached by fans who know who I am at games, and tonight I was approached by no less than seven different Denver Stiffs readers (all of whom are attending "The Carmelo Anthony Going Away Party" on Friday night) who had been given tickets from their friends, bosses, etc and were just thrilled to be there. If the Nuggets organization can show more respect for the game itself and drop the ticket prices to an affordable rate, this could be a positive trend: real basketball fans attending NBA games!
Non-Stiff(s) of the Night
-George Karl: Playing with a shorthanded lineup against one of the NBA's hottest teams, Coach Karl got the best possible effort out of his roster which produced one of the most well-balanced attacks of the season to date. Everyone who touched the floor produced in a positive fashion, with only The Birdman finishing with a negative +/-.
Stiff of the Night
-Lionel Hollins: The Grizzlies' head coach could only watch with his mouth agape as his well-rested Grizzlies got torched by the undermanned Nuggets. They were beaten so badly that in the fourth quarter, Hollins spent more time talking to my friend Chad who was sitting next to the visitors' bench than he did actually coaching.
I might be a little too geeked up after watching this Nuggets victory tonight and I certainly don't want to get ahead of myself. But if it weren't for the Nuggets having just 24 games to go against many very tough opponents while incorporating new personnel simultaneously, I'd be incredibly bullish on what this new-look Nuggets team could do this season.