The Denver Nuggets are currently at a low point this year, finally getting over a season-high three-game losing streak Tuesday night.
And even though Denver won Tuesday night, it was obvious on the losing streak that something was missing for the Nuggets—namely, Carmelo Anthony.
And the dilemma of playing with a superstar that needs the ball in his hands to be effective is that the team falls into some bad habits.
For Denver, those bad habits circle around isolation play—an oxymoron when it comes to playing NBA basketball, the quintessential team game.
When Melo’s in the game, his Nuggets teammates dish him the ball and hope he creates scoring opportunities.
While Melo has the ball, the rest of the team stands still as they know the odds of receiving a pass from the star are slim to none and the problem compounds itself because the other players don’t get open when they don’t move.
Earlier in the year, when the Nuggets were without Carmelo due to illness and injury, the rest of the team blossomed into their roles and the team played extremely well.
Ty Lawson broke down defenses with his speed and dished the ball with ease. Arron Afflalo played solid defense and JR Smith knocked down shots at opportune times. Most of all, Nene cut to the hoop and scored easy buckets inside.
The Nuggets had movement, and the game came effortlessly.
On Dec. 10 against Toronto, Harrington was on top of his game with 31 points and six boards, Nene went wild with 26 points and six rebounds and Billups was his old self, scoring 21 and dishing eight assists. Denver soared to a 123-116 win without their leading scorer.
But for the most part, the Nuggets have struggled without their star.
In the Dec. 8 game against the Celtics, Lawson shined with 24 points and seven assists, although the Nuggets lost, and they had almost no chance at beating Boston that night. Al Harrington tried to do too much, shooting an abysmal 3-10 from the field and 1-7 from the charity stripe. Chauncey Billups was far too quiet with a mere five points and a total of five fouls.
In the loss to the Spurs, Billups was big with 20 points and he added seven assists. Likewise, point guard Ty Lawson scored 22 but only had two assists. And besides Lawson, the Nuggets bench had only six points, and the Denver was more than doubled up in fourth quarter points at 14 to the Spurs 29.
Christmas night versus the Thunder, Nene was again dominant with Melo out, working a double-double of 21 points and 12 rebounds for the Nuggets. But with JR Smith in the starting lineup (and struggling in this game) Denver’s bench was again defined by the quick and athletic play of Lawson. Lawson scored 19 and dropped five dimes but the Nuggets again couldn’t close the game.
In Sunday’s game against the Sixers (12-18), much remained the same as Lawson scored 14 with three assists and the rest of the bench scored a combined 15 points. Plus, Martin failed to score, which hurt the Nuggets chances even against a sub-.500 squad at home.
In all three games a few things were constants.
Lawson played extremely well. He averaged 18.3 points and 3.1 assists
Besides Lawson though, the “second team” and bench in general played terribly.
Harrington often tried to do too much, driving and losing the ball due to his height. With Chris “Birdman” Andersen and Kenyon Martin both back, Shelden Williams has lost playing time. He’s not the flashiest player, but Williams' strong rebounding prowess and ability to get into good position is underrated.
Basically, when George Karl starts JR Smith in place of Anthony, the bench loses its biggest scoring threat in JR. Lawson has been carrying the load, but he can only do so much and the rest of the supporting cast isn’t playing well enough to keep the Nuggets afloat in the second halves of games.
Also, during the losing streak, Denver couldn’t find a way to pass the ball effectively for scores as they were out assisted 49 to 69 in the three games. On average, that’s a mere 16 dimes per game for Denver, not nearly enough to be effective.
Another constant is Denver’s faulty fourth quarter play. In the three-game losing streak, the Nuggets were outscored 54 to 84 in the fourth quarter of games, absolutely pathetic scoring numbers for Denver at the end of contests.
George Karl on the Nuggets finishing games: “The problem is not that we’re not playing good basketball, the problem is we’re not finishing games. Some of it, there’s reasons. Sometimes it comes with the face that we have…different guys out, different guys in.”
Then tonight, the Nuggets finished the first half strongly, with JR Smith hitting a three-pointer and Arron Afflalo stealing the ball and laying it in for a five-point swing. Denver found themselves up seven points to start the second half, giving them some leeway since they have collapsed in the second half much lately.
The Nuggets passed the ball well and stretched their lead to as much as 20 points in the third quarter, basically putting the game away before they got to their dreaded fourth quarter. It was also the first time this season that all five starters had scored over 10 points.
Overall, there was good movement, both by players and by passing, Billups stepped up to lead the Nuggets and Denver beat a team they should have without Melo.
What's Denver's biggest problem without Melo?
Still, tonight’s game wasn’t pretty and better teams would have likely played the Nuggets tougher and possibly beat them without Anthony.
In all, the Nuggets are now 2-4 without Carmelo Anthony this season and when the star misses games Denver is an inconsistent team.
Without Melo, the pressure is placed on Billups’ shoulders and the backups must find ways to produce or the Nuggets can’t win. Denver needs someone else besides their point guards to show up in games that Melo doesn’t play, and in the future, Denver will have to have someone else step up to produce on the offensive end.
Whether it’s Afflalo, Nene, Martin, Harrington or someone else, the point guards cannot be counted on to create all the points.
Of course, the Nuggets will receive at least one player in return for Anthony, and even if that guy can’t fill the superstar’s shoes, Denver has to use draft picks to build with young players as well.
Denver has shown some signs that they can play good basketball without Melo, but they’ve also shown some scary tendencies as well.
(If) when Carmelo Anthony is gone, someone will have to step into the spotlight and take over games, or the Nuggets will have to transform their identity and once again play team basketball, instead of the isolation that’s bred poor habits of standing and watching by a majority of Denver’s players.
Either way, this most recent string of absences by Melo is a telling sign for the Nuggets as they move onto the future.
Rich Kurtzman is a freelance journalist actively seeking a career in journalism. Along with being an NBA, Denver Nuggets and Denver Broncos Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com, Kurtzman is the CSU Rams Examiner, the Colorado/Utah Regional Correspondent for stadiumjourney.com and a weekly contributor for milehighhoops.com.
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