The team that was built to take advantage of the NBA's lockout-shortened season has suddenly become it's latest victim. A combination of fatigue, injuries and awful execution against the Houston Rockets just handed the Nuggets their first three-game losing streak of 2011-12, and their fifth loss in six games.
Nugget optimists will review tonight's 99-90 loss and point to an injury-depleted, fatigued team that put out a gutsy performance against one of the Western Conference's playoff contenders. And a scrappy playoff contender at that (let's give the Rockets credit where credit is due).
But I saw something different.
I saw an injury-depleted, fatigued team settle for too many three-pointers rather than attack a Rockets squad whose shot-blocking center - Samuel Dalembert - played all of seven minutes. Last I checked, NBA teams weren't afraid to drive inside with 6'9" Patrick Patterson and 6'7" Jeff Adrien guarding the basket. Last I checked, I hadn't even heard of these guys prior to tip-off!
The fatigue of playing a fourth game in five days certainly contributed to the Nuggets' atrocious shooting: 19-33 from the free throw line and 3-22 from three-point range. But the Nuggets' collective unwillingness to drive to the rack and their over-eagerness to continue chucking three-pointers was infuriating. The best shot the Nuggets had to win this game was to be the aggressor and take advantage of the Rockets' lack of size and the altitude. By engaging in a long-range shooting contest, the Nuggets took away their best opportunity to win this game.
Can it get any worse in Nuggets Nation?
Actually, it can. In addition to losing their third straight game, the Nuggets lost forward Danilo Gallinari to a chip fracture in his foot in the third quarter thanks to a turned ankle. I'm not a doctor, but "chip fracture" sounds like Gallo will be missing an extended amount of time. Add Gallo to the walking wounded alongside Nene Hilario, Arron Afflalo and Timofey Mozgov. (The Nuggets were also without Corey Brewer tonight, who was attending to his father's funeral. Our condolences go out to Brewer and his family.)
Seeing a Nuggets bench with only Kenneth Faried, Jordan Hamilton, Julyan Stone and Chris Andersen available was simply surreal. After all, it was this Nuggets team that was supposed to weather the lockout better than any in the NBA, stay healthy and prey on the league en masse. It was this Nuggets team that had the depth and energy to withstand playing four games in five nights. It was this Nuggets team that didn't need a star player to ascend to the top of the Western Conference.
So what exactly has happened to this Nuggets team?
The view from the not-so-cheap seats ...
... with Nene and Afflalo scratched for tip-off, Nuggets head coach George Karl elected to start Faried and Stone so that Al Harrington and Andre Miller could play in their regular, off-the-bench rotation. I completely agreed with this decision.
... suited up - in a suit - Mozgov was gimping just walking. Not good.
... there were a lot of empty seats at Pepsi Center. Getting fans out to see the no-name Rockets on a Monday isn't an easy sell.
... among the many Rockets I had never heard of, rookie (and starter) Chandler Parsons looked gassed from the opening tip and played just 16 meaningless minutes. Who is this guy?!
... it seemed as though Karl wanted the Nuggets to feed Kosta Koufos early, but his teammates almost immediately went away from that strategy and settled for three-pointers early. Gallo in particular was guilty of this.
... it was clear early on that Karl's "trust guys" - Miller, Harrington, Ty Lawson and Rudy Fernandez - were going to get the lion's share of minutes tonight.
... Birdman had a decent game stat-wise, but he has clearly lost a step (or more) and can barely even jump anymore. It's sad to see the Birdman unable to be the Birdman right now, especially when he falls for every head fake thrown his way.
... before Fernandez connected on a three-pointer in the third quarter, the Nuggets were 0-11 from behind the arc. And yet they kept shooting from out there, including Fernandez who made just 1 of his 7 three-point attempts.
... Faried showed bursts of energy but had very little impact on the game. Regardless, knowing his team was fatigued why didn't Karl play Faried more in the second half?
... I'm not sure Stone was actually on the floor but according to the box score he played almost 21 minutes.
... proving why Karl trusts him, Miller came alive in the third quarter and almost single-handedly kept the Nuggets in the game.
... if ever we needed more symbolism for just how ice cold the Nuggets are right now, supermascot Rocky again failed to make his behind-the-back, half court shot before the fourth quarter. Rocky hasn't made his shot since he "Tebow'd" before making one back in December.
Non-Stiff(s) of the Game
-Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry: Scola and Lowry absolutely torched the Nuggets tonight. Scola did a little bit of everything en route to 25 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals and was consistently good throughout the game. Lowry seemed to come on in the second half and finished the game with 20 points, including 5 of 6 three-pointers. And honorable mention should go to Chase Budinger who just killed the Nuggets in the second half, connecting on several three-pointers down the stretch that iced the game for Houston.
Stiff of the Game
-Kevin Martin: It's amazing that the Rockets could win in Denver when Martin - their best scorer - makes just 1 of 9 field goal attempts and even misses a free throw (very uncharacteristic for the 90% shooting free throws Martin). Honorable mention goes to the Nuggets' free throw shooting.
The Nuggets looked like world beaters-to-be when they took down the NBA Champion Mavericks in Dallas on opening night. Now the Mavericks come to Denver on Wednesday carrying their own three-game losing streak with three fulls days of rest. If the Nuggets think settling for jump shots is a strategy for success, you can pencil in their fourth-straight loss now because the Mavericks will be anxious to be handed theirs.