Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Nuggets Give Game Away in Fourth

One of the things that defines a championship-caliber team is its ability to close out a game in the fourth quarter.  From what we saw here tonight, the Denver Nuggets just don't seem to have it.

A tie game at 76-all after three quarters, the Nuggets suddenly let the wheels fly off, allowing the Los Angeles Lakers to put them away within the first six minutes of the fourth.  They'd been sloppy all game, but lucked out, and had managed to lead most of the game.  Things like this happen when the only guy on your team hitting a field goal for eight minutes is Linas Kleiza.  

If anyone caught the live blog, I was puzzled while watching the Nuggets at numerous points, especially in the final quarter.  The aforementioned Kleiza was the only guy taking legitimate shots from the 12-minute mark up until there were about four minutes remaining.  Carmelo Anthony was refusing to take shots, besides off balance leaners while in double coverage.  Chauncey Billups relegated himself to hail mary three point attempts.  Kenyon Martin decided he was a jump shooter.  I can't even recall a shot attempt by Dahntay Jones or Birdman.  JR Smith chucked up one three.  Nene, before fouling out, was about as effective as a corpse on the floor.  Why, with all of these stars, and significant role players on the court, do you not run plays for them?

Does the blame go towards coach George Karl?  Karl has been part of multiple teams that choked mightily, namely all of the Denver teams he's coached that could have achieved so much more, as well as the 1993-94 Seattle team that lost to an 8-seed in the first round, and the 2000-01 Milwaukee Bucks who could have, and probably should have played in the Finals.  We don't know what was going on in the huddle throughout the fourth quarter tonight, but based on the sound clips I heard with about three minutes to go- "You guys are fine!"- something tells me the playcalling was less than superb.  Use the players you have on the court to make things happen.  Use their respective skills to get results from them individually, which leads to collective success.  Players were out of their elements, and their roles on the court, and that, in part, is why they lost.

Of course, Denver also was not the only team on the floor.  For all of the terrible turnovers by Denver (14 in all), a lot were a product of some great defense by the Lakers.  What drives me nuts about this fact though is that the Nuggets beat L.A. on the boards (43-42), in steals (11-5), and had one less turnover (14-15), yet still could not capitalize.  Regardless of how much I lambasted him throughout the game for his inability to shoot free throws (still true, by the way), Lamar Odom still had one hell of a game.  Odom scored 19 points, grabbed 14 boards, and had four of the team's 12 blocks.  His presence is critical to the Lakers' press on inbound passes late in games, and without him, maybe the Nuggets get back into this one in the closing minutes.  Both Odom and Kobe Bryant made their presences felt in this game, and without a Denver star showing up to neutral one or both, the Lakers will take this series.

Now the Nuggets are in quite a hole here going into Game Six.  They're playing shoddy defense, and allowing the Lakers to penetrate on every possession.  They're ignoring their stars, and instead allowing role players to decide their fate.  They're forgetting their respective roles on the court, and instead, are just chucking the ball at the net in the hopes it goes in.  If they want to win this series, they're going to have to reverse that.  The Nuggets are a faster, more athletic team than the Lakers.  Use that to your advantage.  Denver's at its best when they are pushing the ball down the court and scoring on breaks.  If you play the type of ball that L.A. wants you to, you will lose.  The Lakers will use the entire shot clock every possession and grind the game to a halt if you let them.  Carmelo sometimes seems to know his role as one of the superstars on this team, but he still needs to embrace that more with the game in the balance.  Billups, on the other hand, needs to be more aware of his role as a point guard, and only take smart shots (unlike the threes he was tossing up at will late in tonight's game).

For the Lakers, if they do what they did tonight, they could still lose Game Six.  Though they still won, they made a ton of errors that would have come back to haunt them had Denver been more focused.  Kobe and a interchangeable spare part of Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum/Odom can carry this team in a game like this, but at least three players need to step up if they expect to beat Denver on the road again.  On the bright side, however, this game also proved that the team can win without Kobe putting up 35 points, something the Cavs have yet to prove this round when it comes to LeBron.  The way the Lakers are playing late in games, it's hard for me to see them losing this series, but I do think we're headed back to Los Angeles for a Game Seven.  At least I hope so.

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