Against the wishes of the bloggers, fans and pundits alike, to finish tonight's game Nuggets head coach George Karl yet again deployed his "trust lineup" featuring the aging Al Harrington and Andre Miller, plus Aaron Afflalo, Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari. And Karl's trust was repaid with the Nuggets biggest victory of the season.
All season long, Nuggets head coach George Karl has made the fans go mad wondering about his lineup selections.
Why oh why, we have wondered aloud all season, would Karl ride Miller and Harrington into the ground when more athletic youngsters like Kenneth Faried are available?
Why oh why, we have wondered aloud all season, would Karl play small when he has three young seven-footers in JaVale McGee, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov on his roster?
Why oh why, we have wondered aloud all season, would Karl give Corey Brewer any playing time, given that Brewer routinely air balls three-pointers and is a total spaz on the court on both ends?
Whether there's a method to Karl's madness, pure dumb luck or a combination of both, Karl answered all those questions tonight in the Nuggets' glorious 105-102 victory over the Rockets - a must, must, must win for a Denver team that days ago was on the verge of slipping out of the playoffs and is now positioned to finish as high as sixth.
Even though you and I probably wouldn't have limited Faried and McGee to 22 and 17 minutes, respectively, in the second of a back-to-back against an nonathletic team like Houston, Karl went with his gut (and his limited appetite for risk) and relied heavily on Afflalo (42 minutes), Lawson (36), Gallo (34) plus the old guys, Harrington (27) and Miller (26), each of whom played most of the final quarter on fumes.
With the glaring exception of Gallo - more on him shortly - the other four "trust guys" delivered. For the second game in a row against the pesky Rockets, Lawson and Afflalo delivered at least 20 points and played aggressively throughout. For the second game in a row, Miller dished out at least 11 assists off the bench (he had 13 tonight - wow). And for the second game in a row, Brewer was a unforeseen spark plug that had everyone on both teams confused ... more so the Rockets than our Nuggets, thankfully.
If there's one negative thing I can find in the Nuggets' awesome back-to-back wins against the Rockets it has been Gallo's disappearing act. Gallo is presumably being groomed to be "the man" in a Denver Nuggets uniform, and yet for the second straight mega-important game he had little impact on the outcome. Say what you want about Carmelo Anthony, but in a big regular season game he wouldn't have settled for less than 9 field goal attempts (Melo always saved his stinkers for playoff closeout games ... sorry, had to). Let's hope this isn't a harbinger of things to come from Gallo when the playoffs begin.
But thanks to Gallo's teammates - just about all of them - the Nuggets will likely make the playoffs for the ninth consecutive year. Quite an achievement for a franchise that was historically Stiff-worthy prior to 2003. And like the 1994-95 Nuggets and the 2007-08 Nuggets who scared us into "must-win" late regular season games just to make the playoffs after pissing away too many should-win games throughout the year, the 2011-12 Nuggets won the big games they absolutely had to win.
And for that, Karl and the "trust guys" deserve some accolades.
Non-Stiff(s) of the Game
-Aaron Afflalo and Ty Lawson: Afflalo had a monster second quarter, Lawson had a monster fourth quarter and they each made big shots in the fourth quarter to deliver the Nuggets' second-straight victory against the Rockets, all but ensuring a playoff seed for Denver. More importantly, it was Afflalo and Lawson's shot selection that made their performances great on Monday night: the Nuggets' starting back court combined to shoot 19-31 from the field. Impressive!
Stiff(s) of the Game
-The Referees: It's hard to pick on one Houston Rocket who had a bad performance in tonight's contest. The fact that the Rockets are even in the playoff conversation is a testament to how much they've overachieved this season. The referees, however, put forth a Stiff-like performance. Missing calls left and right, the referees almost cost the Nuggets the game at the end when they needed a replay to confirm it was Nuggets ball with 4.6 seconds left despite totally missing Goran Dragic (pardon the pun) dragging Afflalo to the floor on a rebound attempt.
After winning their two biggest games of the season in back-to-back fashion, the young Nuggets should have the confidence to finish the regular season strong and enter the post-season as a underdog team ready to give the elites fits in the first round.