Nuggets Eclipse Suns, 126-113Wednesday night's ESPN game provided a good opportunity to check out two of the most enigmatic teams in the West: the perennially underachieving Denver Nuggets and the new-look Phoenix Suns. Phoenix arrived in Denver for the second half of a back to back after beating the Blazers in Portland 97-92 on Tuesday, while the Nuggets have been off since they lost 103-89 at Houston on Sunday. You can dismiss the concept of a "scheduling loss" if you insist but one of the big differences between playoff basketball and regular season basketball is the amount of time off between games. In any case, Phoenix led by as many as eight points in the first quarter but the Nuggets took control with a 16-0 second quarter run and cruised to a 126-113 victory, dropping the Suns to 3-5 since they traded Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat in exchange for Shaquille O'Neal.
Many people were skeptical of the O'Neal trade even before any games were played and now the doubters are out in full force. Before we even analyze what is happening on the court, let's do a "Woody Paige" and look at the schedule: the first loss of the Suns' Shaq era came at the hands of the Lakers, one of the hottest teams in the league; that was followed by a win against Boston--the team with the league's best record--and then a loss to Detroit, the second best team in the East at the moment. The third loss came in New Orleans in the second game of a back to back. Philadelphia delivered the fourth loss; that looks bad, because the Sixers are currently just 28-33--but the Sixers have won 10 of their last 13 (admittedly, several of those victories were against weak teams). The Nuggets, fighting for their very playoff lives in the super competitive West, provided loss number five of the Shaq era.
Before the Nuggets-Suns game, Hubie Brown assessed O'Neal's impact so far, pointing out that the Suns were the worst rebounding team in the league before acquiring Shaq but that they now have a positive rebounding differential. Brown noted that this advantage on the glass has been translated into improved fast break production. O'Neal had a season-high 18 rebounds against Denver and the Suns outrebounded the Nuggets 40-39. O'Neal also scored 12 points on 5-6 field goal shooting and looked more mobile and active than he has at any time this season. The problem for the Suns was that the Nuggets' guards and small forwards simply murdered them. J.R. Smith came off of the bench to score 20 points in 21 minutes. Allen Iverson had 31 points, 12 assists, five rebounds and 0 turnovers. Steve Nash may be a two-time MVP, but the only way he is even going to slow down Iverson is by tripping him with one of those trophies. OK, a lot of guys have problems checking Iverson and the Suns tried to "hide" Nash for most of the game by having him cover Anthony Carter--but Carter had 11 points and 11 assists, essentially canceling out Nash's production (12 points, 13 assists).
Small forward Grant Hill spent a lot of time chasing around Iverson, which left shooting guard Raja Bell to deal with Carmelo Anthony, who pushed Bell all over the court, snaring 13 rebounds--including six on the offensive glass--and scoring 30 points. At times, Anthony seemed to have a look of disbelief on his face that Bell was trying to guard him. Clearly, the Suns could have used Marion here but since the Suns no longer have him they have to take better advantage of the mismatches that are in their favor, such as O'Neal posting up much smaller defenders like Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin and Eduardo Najera. The Suns have another 21 games to get used to each other before the playoffs begin and in the postseason they will have at least a day off between games, so I still think that they can be a formidable playoff opponent. Swapping Marion for O'Neal may have cost them some regular season wins but by upgrading their size and rebounding they are better constructed for playoff basketball.
Even though the Nuggets looked great in winning this game, they may not even make the playoffs. Brown noted before the game that they are fourth in the league in scoring and have Camby--who he called the league's best defender--patrolling the paint but he stressed that the other four players must step up on defense. When Moses Malone won his first MVP largely on the strength of his offensive rebounding, he thanked his teammates for missing so many shots; Camby, who is gunning for his third straight shotblocking crown, could similarly thank his teammates for blowing so many defensive assignments. The Nuggets trail the Golden State Warriors by one game for the final playoff spot and they are just 14-17 against teams with plus-.500 records. They were obviously geared up to play a Suns team that they felt had run up the score on them earlier this season but the Nuggets are just 4-5 in their last nine games, hardly the kind of closing push that will earn a postseason berth.
The Nuggets have two All-Stars in Iverson and Anthony--and Brown said that he thought Camby should have made the team as well--but their team defense on a night in, night out basis is not good. Denver went 32-8 down the stretch in 2005 after George Karl took over as head coach and ever since then the Nuggets have fooled a lot of people into believing that they are on the verge of being legitimate contenders; they even fooled themselves, with several of their players saying before this season that they would win 60 games (they are 36-24 now, which means that 60 wins is mathematically impossible).
It is amusing to read or listen to mainstream media "experts" who have no idea what they are talking about; no one can predict everything correctly but many of these "experts" are so frequently completely wrong that they are fortunate that their salaries are not linked in any way to their statements actually making sense or being accurate. For instance, at the start of this season, Stephen A. Smith declared that the Nuggets would make it to the NBA Finals and that the Cavaliers would not even qualify for the playoffs. Here is what I wrote about the Nuggets in the 2007-08 edition of Lindy's Pro Basketball: "Each year we hear that this is the season that Denver will emerge as a legitimate title contender, but the Nuggets have consistently been a lower echelon playoff team for four straight years, winning between 43 and 49 games and losing in the first round of the playoffs each time." In my Western Conference Preview, I ranked the Nuggets seventh and wrote, "Carmelo Anthony is well on his way toward stringing together a Kevin Garnett-like run of first round playoff losses."
In order to win consistently in the NBA, you must rebound and defend. Those things are not glamorous but, as Pat Riley said decades ago, "No rebounds, no rings." Rebounding and defense are why the Spurs are always a very good team and why the Cavaliers' Finals run last year was not a fluke; rebounding and defense are why the Nash-era Suns have never made it to the Finals and why the Anthony-era Nuggets' playoff runs always end in the first round. To get over the top, a team usually also needs a star player who can create offense for himself and his teammates but Denver is proving that you can have two guys like that and still not be a great team if you don't also have a collective commitment to playing defense.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:25 AM