All the preseason and early season forecasts have tabbed the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers as the prohibitive favorites to represent the Western Conference in this year’s Finals.
After trouncing the Lakers 105-79 though, the Denver Nuggets reminded the NBA that omitting them from title talk would be erroneous.
Quite simply, few teams have either the offensive firepower or the defensive energy the Nuggets have, yet alone both.
Here’s the rundown on how the Nuggets do what they do.
Because Denver has terrific three-point firepower (6-for-16 at the game at hand), they generate tremendous spacing for their isolations, high and wing screen/rolls, and post ups, where double teams are quickly punished.
This is important because so many Nuggets are accomplished one-on-one scorers while doubling as willing passers.
Carmelo Anthony is Denver’s go-to-guy and has one of the most well-rounded offensive repertoires in the league. It was his 18 points in the second half that turned a two-point halftime nail-biter into a 26-point romp.
Of Anthony’s 25 points, eight came in transition, nine came on baseline drives with strong finishes, four came on cuts without the ball (including a clever fake screen, dive, catch, and dunk), two came on a screen/roll where he shook off the contact of Luke Walton and nailed a jumper, and only two came on a standstill isolation jumper.
Only a select few in the NBA posses Anthony’s combination of speed, strength, and shooting form.
Kobe Bryant has it, no doubt. LeBron is developing the jump shot, but he can’t attack from the multitude of areas on a court Anthony can because he can’t post up and rarely plays along the baseline. Brandon Roy doesn’t have the overpowering strength, and Dwyane Wade doesn’t have the range.
The point being that Anthony is a rare breed in the NBA. He’s even an exceptional passer!
Chauncey Billups couldn’t shake Derek Fisher—1-8 FG—but he got the ball to the places it needed to go to—8 AST, 1 TO.
Arron Afflalo hit his open jumpers—4-4 FG, 8 PTS.
Nene showed off explosive spin moves in the pivot and sank two of his three jumpers, while Kenyon Martin bricked the majority of his awkward drives and line-drive jumpers. Each made nifty interior passes whether on the move or feeding cutters.
J.R. Smith showed off his electric talents to their full extent—7-16 FG, 4-10 3FG, 20 PTS.
Chris Andersen worked hard on the offensive glass with six offensive rebounds among his 11 total.
Ty Lawson showed warp-speed quickness, an accurate jump shot, good vision, and extreme athleticism when he capped off the game with a poster dunk late in the fourth.
If he can remain accurate from the outside, he’ll easily replace the scoring lost with Linas Kleiza overseas.
Of course, the Nuggets had their problems. They missed over a dozen layups, overhandled and overpenetrated at times (especially Smith and Billups), and generated many of their points from poor Lakers court balance.
On the other hand, they demonstrated an unselfishness juxtaposed with their aggression with their sterling ratio of 28 assists on 37 turnovers.
The fact is, Denver has as much scoring punch as anyone, and can easily overcome most of their mistakes with a J.R. Smith hot streak or three.
Denver plays an aggressive double-teaming defense that turned the tide in the third quarter. Wing screen/rolls and corner screen/rolls are trapped aggressively, with the pass back to the middle of the court often overplayed.
When doubling the post, doubles are hard and tight, choking the airspace of the player trying to post up, and forcing the post player to swing the ball to blind spots.
Those double teams result in turnovers (Denver forced 16 Lakers turnovers) which fuel their fast break (16 fast break points).
When asked to play one-on-one, Afflalo did a yeoman’s job holding down Kobe Bryant. While Kobe recorded 19 points, the majority came against Smith, Martin, and Andersen. Afflalo is already filling Dahntay Jones’ shoes nicely.
Denver’s interior rotations were generally on point, forcing the Lakers to miss a dozen layups of their own.
Denver’s rambling, scrambling style coaxed the Lakers into taking more bad shots than they’re accustomed to, which proceeded to more run outs and more transition opportunities.
Martin and Anthony made several exceptional defensive rotations.
However, while the Nuggets defensive blitz allowed them to take control in the third quarter, they also showed many holes which will need to be corrected.
Too often Smith would give up on Kobe’s drives, leaving Bryant with uncontested pull-ups. Smith also was totally flustered when presented with a baseline screen causing Chris Andersen to switch onto Bryant.
The resulting no-match led to an easy score for Kobe. The hope is that as Smith gets back into playing shape, his defense will pick up, a reasonable expectation.
While Martin had no problems shoving Kobe to the floor on off-ball cuts, he was abused on the glass by Odom and Bynum early in the game.
When Bynum attacked Andersen directly, the Birdman was unable to spread his wings and contest. Also, simple pump fakes would get the Birdman to spread his wings and soar out of the play.
Nene’s interior rotations were hit-or-miss, and he too had trouble with Bynum’s length and strength around the basket.
The Nuggets responded to their first major test with a satisfactory performance on both ends. However, the caveat is that the Lakers were playing the second game of a back-to-back on the road, and were without Pau Gasol.
The Nuggets can also counter that J.R. Smith is still rounding into form after his early-season suspension.
The Nuggets won the first battle between the two conference powers, but a three-week January-February stretch where the Nuggets go to San Antonio, Los Angeles, Utah, and Cleveland, while hosting Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Sacramento will better determine how capable the Nuggets are of winning the war.