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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Late 8-0 Run Lifts Nuggets Over Suns

An 8-0 run in the last 1:25 enabled the Denver Nuggets to beat the Phoenix Suns 126-120, earning a split in their back to back meetings and moving them past Golden State into the eighth spot in the Western Conference. Allen Iverson scored a game-high 31 points on 9-18 shooting from the field and 11-11 free throw shooting. He also had three assists and two steals. Carmelo Anthony had 25 points, eight rebounds and four assists but he also committed eight turnovers. J.R. Smith again provided scoring punch off of the bench (17 points in 28 minutes). Leandro Barbosa, who has moved into the starting lineup recently due to Grant Hill's groin injury, led Phoenix with 27 points. Amare Stoudemire contributed 25 points and 10 rebounds, though he also had six turnovers. Steve Nash got his teammates involved in the first three quarters before erupting for 14 fourth quarter points; he finished with 17 points, 18 assists, four rebounds and three steals. Shaquille O'Neal had another double double (14 points, 13 rebounds).

Most of this game looked like a rerun of the Suns' 132-117 victory over the Nuggets on Monday. Denver again took a big first quarter lead, scored 70 points in the first half and had to endure a Phoenix comeback in the second half. One key difference this time is that Raja Bell, who had 15 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in 44 minutes in Monday's game, was ejected after only playing 21 minutes. He is the Suns' best perimeter defender, so his absence hurt the team, particularly since they were already a bit shorthanded without Hill. Bell received his two technical fouls in quick succession after fouling Anthony on back to back plays and engaging in some jawing with the Nuggets' star, who did more listening than talking and seemed amused by whatever Bell was saying--much the same reaction that Kobe Bryant had a few years ago when Bell pulled his tough guy act in the playoffs (not that Bell is not a tough minded person but it is unlikely that he would physically challenge the much bigger Bryant or Anthony outside the regulated confines of an NBA game). Bell may have received his second technical foul for smiling in bemusement after he was whistled for the second of his two fouls on Anthony and, if so, he joins Rasheed Wallace as perhaps the only players to be ejected for looking at/smiling at an official without actually saying anything or making a gesture/kicking the basketball. One interesting aspect of this whole situation, as Nuggets' broadcaster (and former NBA player) Scott Hastings pointed out, is that when Stoudemire came over to try to calm Bell down and pull him away from Anthony (before the second technical had been assessed) O'Neal reached over and blocked Stoudemire from getting any closer. Hastings speculated that O'Neal had determined that if Bell and Anthony both got tossed it would be in the Suns' interest, so he did not want to break up whatever was happening. At least Anthony learned enough from his conduct last year in Madison Square Garden to not let his emotions get the best of him and do something that could have proven very costly to his team.

The Nuggets are at their best offensively in the transition game or when they can set back screens to open up a player to catch a lob pass for an easy dunk. Otherwise, their halfcourt offense is not particularly imaginative: it consists mainly of either Iverson operating one on one from the wing or Anthony operating one on one from the wing or the post area. Sometimes there is some ball movement--Anthony Carter did have 10 assists--but for long stretches the Nuggets ride or die with one of their two stars going one on one. At a certain level perhaps that makes some sense; after all, you do want the ball to be in the hands of your best players. Still, this kind of "system" is not going to be effective against good defensive teams because it is too predictable and does not involve enough player or ball movement. Yes, the Nuggets can rack up points against lesser teams--or against teams like Phoenix that are willing to run with them--but, like the "old" Suns, they will not have much success in the playoffs (assuming that they even qualify for postseason play).

Even though the Suns lost, they did some things on offense that they were not able to do before acquiring O'Neal--things that will work well for them in the playoffs. Just like in Monday's game, when O'Neal was in the game they made a concentrated effort to get him the ball down low. Their first two baskets of the third quarter came on a Nash alley oop to O'Neal and an O'Neal feed to Stoudemire for a dunk. With Denver leading 95-93 late in the third quarter, the Suns brought the ball down court and instead of running a quick hitting play they fed the ball to O'Neal in the post. He held the ball for six seconds (he was stationed just outside of the three second lane) as some Suns spotted up for potential jump shots while other Suns cut through the lane. Finally, the Nuggets messed up a defensive rotation and O'Neal delivered a slick pass to Brian Skinner for an easy dunk.

In the fourth quarter, the Suns repeatedly used an alignment with a shooter on each baseline, O'Neal at one elbow, Stoudemire at the other elbow and Nash at the top of the key with a live dribble. Nash could use a screen by either O'Neal or Stoudemire. Talk about a nightmare for a defense! This offensive set forces the defense to choose between protecting the paint--thus leaving Nash open for a jumper--or trapping Nash and trying to rotate before he passes to O'Neal or Stoudemire for a dunk. Expect to see a steady diet of this during the playoffs.

The Suns took their first lead of the game when Nash's two free throws with 3:11 left in the fourth quarter made the score 113-112 Phoenix. Anthony answered with two free throws and then Nash responded with a three pointer. Camby buried a jumper to make the score 116-116 and the lead continued to changed hands as Stoudemire and Iverson each made a pair of free throws. Nash made a tough running shot with 1:25 remaining to put Phoenix up 120-118 and the Nuggets faced the very real possibility of being swept in this back to back and falling further out of the playoff picture. Anthony tied the game once again by making two free throws and then the Suns finally blinked: Stoudemire missed a jumper and on the next Denver possession Iverson found Camby at the top of the key with just a few seconds left on the shot clock. Camby's jumper over O'Neal's outstretched arm gave the Nuggets the lead for good and they wrapped up the victory by making four out of six free throws in the final :27.

This was an essential victory for the Nuggets, who still have a lot of work to do to stay in the playoff hunt. Winning the second game of a back to back set on the road after you beat the same team at home the previous night is tough but the Suns gave it a real go despite being shorthanded at the end without Hill and Bell. It cannot be emphasized enough that there are no back to back games in the playoffs. That extra day of rest means a lot to veteran players like O'Neal, Nash, Hill and Bell.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:21 AM

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