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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Nuggets Stun Celtics by Playing Good Defense

The Denver Nuggets defeated the Boston Celtics 94-85 on Friday night, earning their first victory against a team with a winning record this season and handing the Celtics their first home loss of the year. The Nuggets were playing their third game in four nights and had looked lackadaisical at times during Thursday's 110-99 loss at Cleveland--but after Boston opened the game with an 8-0 run the Nuggets played with energy and enthusiasm, building a 15 point lead. The Celtics rallied to go back in front by the end of the third quarter but with the score tied at 84 late in the fourth quarter the Nuggets seized control by going on a 10-0 run.

Carmelo Anthony scored 18 points and had a game-high 13 rebounds, while Chauncey Billups had 18 points and a game-high seven assists; in the final 2:50, Billups had a big three point play, made a pair of free throws and had two assists, thus playing a part in every point Denver scored in that late, game-deciding outburst. Ray Allen led the Celtics with 26 points, 18 of which he scored in the first quarter. Paul Pierce added 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists, while Kevin Garnett had 16 points and nine rebounds. Eddie House scored 13 points off of the bench but the remaining seven Celtics who played combined to produce just 11 points on 4-20 field goal shooting.

Here are some comments/observations about a very interesting contest:

*ESPN's Mark Jackson referred to Boston's Ray Allen and Eddie House as "born shooters" but Jeff Van Gundy strongly disagreed, arguing that shooting is a learned skill that can only be mastered after thousands of hours of practice. Jackson said that he spent thousands of hours practicing but could never shoot as well as Reggie Miller or Ray Allen. Van Gundy responded, half jokingly, by pointing out that Jackson used his off hand too much on his shot release but that Miller and Allen shoot the ball correctly. What Van Gundy is talking about is called "effortful study" and there is a body of research that shows that, in endeavors as diverse as music, science and sports, mastery is achieved only after an individual devotes at least 10,000 hours of "effortful study" to his craft; in line with Van Gundy's quip about Jackson's shooting technique, the significant thing about "effortful study" is not simply practicing mindlessly for 10,000 hours but rather practicing proper techniques for that period of time. You can read more about this in my posts titled Clyde Drexler Explains How He Developed His Jumping Ability and Basketball, Chess and Boxing, Part II.

*During a timeout early in the game, Denver Coach George Karl implored his players to finish out defensive possessions by getting rebounds. Meanwhile, several disinterested players looked at the floor, the ceiling and everywhere else but at Karl. Jackson commented, "If you're going to be a great defensive team, you have to get upset when teams score on you. I don't see the Nuggets talking about it, getting upset, discussing how they're missing assignments. That's the first step to being an effective defensive team." Although the Nuggets looked like they were not paying attention to Karl, they did start doing a better job on the glass and the Nuggets finished the game with a 43-37 rebounding advantage. Plus/minus data can be "noisy" (deceptive) at times but in this game it does reflect the fact that Denver received a big boost from three bench players who posted the top plus/minus numbers in this game: Linas Kleiza (+16), Renaldo Balkman (+12) and Anthony Carter (+12).

*Boston trailed by double digits for the fifth time in six home games after only trailing by double digits three times in 41 home games last season. I've seen the Celtics in person once so far this season--the Pacers stomped them 95-79 in Indiana's home opener--and I noted at that time that the Celtics played "harder and with more focus" each of the several times that I saw them in person last season than they did against Indiana this year. It is early and at 8-2 the Celtics may very well still end up with the best record in the East, but there has undeniably been some slippage in Boston; the question is whether or not the Celtics can regain what they have lost come playoff time.

*With Denver leading 61-51 during the third quarter after being up by as many as 15 points, Jackson said, "The thing you don't realize as a young team is that this is where you win or lose ball games. It's not down the stretch--it's when you have a chance to take it (the lead) from 15 to 20 as opposed to bringing it down to 10." This is precisely what I meant in my recap of the Lakers' 106-99 victory over the Mavericks when I referred to what I called "hidden clutch" performances. "Stats gurus" define the parameters of "clutch" as consisting of things that happen "late and close," which in basketball terms usually refers to a game that is five points or closer with less than two minutes remaining--but defining "clutch" this way is like looking for your lost watch at night under the streetlight because it is dark everywhere else, even though you lost your watch on the other side of the street; just because "late and close" is easy to quantify and measure does not mean that this is the best, most accurate way to define "clutch."

*After the Nuggets went on their late 10-0 run to take control, Van Gundy said simply, "This is un-Celtic like," referring to Boston's numerous mistakes, including turnovers, poor shot selection and bad defense.

Are the Celtics in trouble? Have the Nuggets turned the corner to become a solid defensive team? One game cannot answer such questions. My educated guess is that the Celtics simply are not quite as hungry on a night in, night out basis as they were last year; after winning a title it is harder to be so hungry every second of every game. As for the Nuggets, there is no doubt that this was a big win but I would have to see sustained defensive effort on a regular basis to believe that this was anything other than an aberration in terms of their overall prospects this season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:59 AM

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