On my way out of Pepsi Center on Wednesday night, I received a text from a friend reading: "I'm still trying to figure out how we won."
I don't know how the game felt on TV, but from the stands it seemed as though the Spurs couldn't miss an outside jump shot (especially from three-point range) while the Nuggets couldn't make a free throw. And amazingly, the Nuggets and Spurs combined for 75 points in the second quarter alone and 16 three-pointers made in the first half...as if this were an ABA game.
And yet, it was the Nuggets who stayed hot from behind the arc in the second half while the Spurs cooled off considerably, especially in the fourth quarter.
The Nuggets were indeed dreadful from the free throw line, missing 14 of their 39 attempts (including one airballed free throw by Nene followed by two almost-airballs from Nene soon thereafter). Which begs the question: how often in NBA history has a team missed more free throw attempts (14 misses) than three-point attempts (nine) and still won the game? I don't know the answer off-hand, of course, but thankfully it happened on Wednesday night.
Even though Tim Duncan was absent from the Spurs lineup, the new-look Nuggets were thrust into a playoff-type test as the Spurs demonstrated why they had already won an NBA-high 57 games. Basically, the Spurs can win playing any way and any style. Until the Nuggets got their act together in the latter minutes of the fourth quarter, I thought San Antonio was going to beat us doing what we do best: picking up the pace. I mean, the Spurs had 69 points...at halftime...and almost hit the century mark before the fourth quarter began.
So maybe it looked differently on TV than it did from the stands, but I guess the Nuggets didn't play all that badly after all. They beat the Spurs in all the hustle stats - free throw attempts, steals and blocks - while dishing out more assists and grabbing just three less rebounds than their opponent.
It seems as though hitting the century mark is crucial for these new-look Nuggets, who improved to 10-1 when reaching at least 100 points since Carmelo Anthony was traded. But as we march on towards the postseason, the Nuggets might need to learn how to win games when they score less than 100. Because after seeing his team lose in an ABA-style shootout on Wednesday night, I guarantee you that Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich - with Duncan on-board - will want to slow down the pace and force our Nuggets into a half court game should the two teams meet in the playoffs' second round.
In the meantime, the new-look Nuggets keep winning and if you want to really know "how we won" Wednesday's game against San Antonio, it comes down to one of the oldest cliches in sports: we just wanted it more. Even though the Nuggets have endured some losses along the way to those 11 wins in the post-Melo world, it's never been because they didn't play hard. And that's an endearing trait that should pay dividends for the remainder of the regular season and well into the postseason.
Even if the Nuggets (sometimes) possess a frightening disregard for defense like their ABA predecessors.
The View From the Not-So-Cheap-Seats...
...surprisingly, the Spurs had a loud and large contingency of fans at Pepsi Center. How exactly is anyone who is not from San Antonio a Spurs fan? And are there that many San Antonio transplants living in Denver?
...(Jeff Morton is going to kill me for saying this, but...) Danilo Gallinari plays hard but he's clumsy and he can't jump. I'll take his effort and sweet shooting touch any day, though.
...no one on the Nuggets receives a louder ovation than J.R. Smith when he enters the game (including Chris Andersen, whom J.R. seems to have surpassed in popularity among the home crowd). The fans just can't get enough of J.R., and that was before he erupted for 18 points off the bench on very precise and efficient shooting.
...has Al Harrington found his shot? Found his game? Is it possible?? That's two good Al Harrington games in a row for those keeping score at home. And this victory over the Spurs was definitely "Big Al's" best as a Denver Nugget.
...Gary Neal and Manu Ginobili killed the Nuggets for 17 and 18 first half points, respectively.
...as a sign of what might be coming in a Spurs/Nuggets playoff matchup, Popovich routinely called time outs attempting to slow down the pace of the game.
...the Nuggets are an above-average free throw shooting team, so it was astonishing to watch them miss 14 in this game. And you could tell that the misses got into the players' heads, especially Nene and Harrington's.
...Raymond Felton reinjured his ankle twice in this game - once in the third quarter and again in the fourth - and yet Nuggets head coach George Karl kept him on the floor and Felton gutted it out.
...the Nuggets hot outside shooting extended to Rocky who made his behind-the-back, halfcourt shot.
...Kenyon Martin had a number of big rebounds thanks to great box-outs under the basket.
...Karl was constantly on his feet working the referees over for a number of suspect calls. In fact, Karl's continued ranting just may have swayed a call (or a non-call) here and there the Nuggets way. This is why working the refs is important!
...by scoring the eventual game-winner, Wilson Chandler proved that Karl has multiple options for end-of-game situations. This could be a great thing as it will confuse opponents, or it could confuse the Nuggets themselves. But damn, it sure is nice having Chandler's long wing span for tight shooting situations like that!
...no one draws up better out-of-a-timeout plays than Popovich, and yet his last-second play call for Ginobili to take a game-tying three was very unimaginative and predictable. The Spurs seemed oddly clueless on their final possession and it wasn't surprising that Ginobili's shot was nowhere near going in.
Non-Stiff of the Night
-Al Harrington: I don't think Harrington has been a "Non-Stiff of the Night" once this season, but we'll take it. With every Nugget starter finishing with a negative +/-, "Big Al" finished with a Nugget-high +/- of +19 thanks to red hot shooting and stingy defense. Harrington also got the Pepsi Center crowd fired up and interacted with them all night.
Stiff of the Night
-Nuggets Free Throw Shooting: Thankfully, the Nuggets won. But 14 missed free throws is unacceptable. Were the Nuggets trying to do their impersonation of the Sacramento Kings in Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals?
The Nuggets are now 11-4 since trading Carmelo Anthony, despite having to play 11 teams with a plus-.500 record. Oh, and the Knicks are 7-10 since acquiring Anthony...just in case you're keeping track.