You knew it could be one of those "anything can happen" kind of days when the Chicago Bulls had taken it to the Miami Heat in an overtime win, and the Los Angeles Lakers rose from the dead and handed the Oklahoma City Thunder a four point loss behind 42 from Jodie Meeks. The Denver Nuggets are already notorious for slow starts this season, but have been especially bad about it during day games (even prior to this campaign), and you could only hope the oddness of the day would bring about uncommon things for the boys in blue as well today against the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Arena (and what looked like the 17 Smoothie King employees who accepted free tickets to resemble a crowd today. Brutally empty arena to wrap up Mardi Gras week).
The Nuggets came out of the gates playing inspired ball today, with quick rotations, great ball movement, and... believe it or not, a reasonably cohesive defense. Brian Shaw's "reduced complexity" defense seems to be paying early dividends for the team, and you can only hope that success breeds a passion for the concepts as a whole. The Nuggets quickly built a double digit lead they maintained for the better part of the half.
The starters played exceptional ball throughout the first quarter, with Ty Lawson having 5 assists and Kenneth Faried collecting seven points and six boards in a very active period, and the Nuggets led the Pelicans 29-17 to close out Q1.
The second quarter brought in the bench, and with it six minutes of frustrating basketball. Although the Pelicans never took the lead back, with issues of their own up and down the floor, the Nuggets bench was out of rhythym, sync and energy, and the first two minutes of the quarter were completely filled with turnovers by each squad. I think the Pelicans were as surprised as anyone to break the turnover streak, and the Nuggets looked completely unfamiliar with their assignments and disengaged. Shaw took a couple of timeouts to collect the team, and from the six minute mark until Shaw brought the starters back in, the second stringers settled in nicely. Starters maintained the lead to close it out, and the Nuggets led 54-43 at the half.
And then the quicksand of the third quarter came, and with it the inverse of the Nuggets hot start. Slow rotations, an avalanche of turnovers, and inattentive defense caused the Nuggets to press the reset button on the game. The Pelicans made their adjustments to compete with what the Nuggets had thrown at them early, and the Nuggets did not seem to "adjust back" with any new sets or schemes. The Pelicans outscored the Nuggets 30-19 in the quarter, and suddenly it was the tale of the final 12 minutes, tied up at 73 all.
The turnover cavalcade continued into the fourth quarter, with several Nuggets contributing to New Orleans coffers, and the Pelicans took an early seven point lead in the first three minutes. Ty came out for his last breather with 7:30 left in the quarter and the Pelicans still up by five. You had to hope the bench players would be able to gain some traction with Ty out, and contrary to their first half showing, several of the second stringers shone. When Aaron Brooks was fouled on a long three halfway through the quarter, his three made free throws closed the gap to one, and the race was on. Brooks then nailed a three out of a New Orleans timeout, and the Nuggets took the lead back over.
The Nuggets played small ball to close out the last six minutes, with a lineup of Wilson Chandler and Faried up front, and Randy Foye joining Lawson and Brooks in a three-guard lineup. It was a tight battle from there, as New Orleans decided to match the Nuggets small ball lineup and leave Davis to roam the middle. Denver was just a little more crisp in their execution, Chandler took over guarding Davis to much better effect, forcing Davis into some tough shots Faried simply could not. It all came down to the wire over the last couple of minutes, and a tipoff between Davis and Brooks in the New Orleans key gave the Pelicans the ball with 16.2 seconds on the clock, and the Nuggets ahead 94-92. Chandler and Faried played exceptional defense on Davis, and Anthony Morrow collected a ball poked away by Faried to drop in a shot over Ty and send the game to overtime.
Both teams looked tired but determined into the extra frame, with Shaw sticking with the small ball lineup and both sides gutting out some sloppy play. Davis made his mark in the period with some impressive rebounds, hitting his free throws, and an impressive block of Ty, and with 51 seconds left in the game, the Nuggets were down by 4 and the ball in the frontcourt. Four shots went up at the rim, and the Nuggets could not find the bottom of the bucket, finally turning the ball over on an errant pass which also fouled Randy Foye out of the game. Sadly, the Nuggets fizzled when it mattered most, and Denver drops a heartbreaker to the Pelicans 111-107. After having two 16 point leads in the game, the Nuggets will have little time to question what went wrong before finding themselves at the Charlotte Bobcats tomorrow night on the second half of this early back-to-back (5p.m. MT start tomorrow night).
Kenneth Faried had a solid double double, with 22 points and 14 rebounds, and gave good defensive effort tonight. It's tough for me to tell as a layman how much of Anthony Davis' night was due to Faried's defensive shortcomings, and how much was just an impressive night by Davis (who went OFF with 32 points, 17 boards, six blocks and three assists. The Brow is for real, my friends.). Ty had a nice double double as well, with 15 points and 12 assists (but his 6 turnovers were a huge factor in the game). Chandler had 14 points and 7 boards, and played the most effective defense of the night on Davis. Aaron Brooks was the Nuggets primary bench contributor, with 15 points in 22 minutes of play. Although Brooks is still finding his way with the Nuggets scheme, he's been a net positive in his early time in Denver.
I know you think I'm picking on you, J.J., as you almost had another double double with 12 points and nine boards. But your seven (SEVEN!) turnovers and non-existent defense were a huge problem in the game. The Nuggets bench settled down in the first half when J.J. was pulled. I still hope his new role off the bench is better suited to him, and there have been positives since that switch, but wow. A rough game for Hickson. Evan Fournier is playing better and better defense (although he still picks up far too many unneeded slap fouls), but would have had three points in his 13 minutes if not for a garbage three to close out the game. The Nuggets will need more consistent production from Fours as he grows into his game. Randy Foye played hard but ineffectively, notching seven points and four turnovers in 45 minutes of play. That output is not going to get it done under any circumstances.
All in all, a disappointing night for the Denver Nuggets, who seemingly had a win in their grasp. On the upside, the team seems to be playing better and more focused ball of late, and the swirling rumors of coach/team issues seem to have quieted for the time being. What did you see, Nuggets Nation?