Melo's Late Three Pointer After a Blown Call Puts Nuggets Up 3-0The Dallas Mavericks were just seconds away from cutting Denver's series lead to 2-1 when Carmelo Anthony sank a dagger three pointer that enabled Denver to win 106-105 and will likely propel the Nuggets into the Western Conference Finals. The Mavericks had a foul to give in those waning seconds and forward Antoine Wright tried to give it--twice--but the referees did not call anything and when Wright stopped playing after he was sure that a foul would be called Anthony rightly kept going and hit a clutch shot. The NBA league office has already issued a statement admitting that the referees erred in not calling a foul. Even though the referees messed up, it is puzzling that Wright simply stopped playing in such a crucial situation; as ABC's Hubie Brown noted during the Cavs-Hawks telecast, in the NBA you always keep playing until you hear a whistle. The ending of this game provided a bit of a sour taste but the Mavericks squandered plenty of earlier chances to create a bigger margin of error for themselves.
Anthony shot just 9-24 from the field but he shot 11-14 from the free throw line and finished with 31 points and eight rebounds. Chauncey Billups scored 23 second half points to end up with 32 points on 9-16 field goal shooting. Billups has played very well for the Nuggets--particularly in the playoffs, averaging 21.1 ppg while shooting .571 from three point range--but Denver Coach George Karl recently explained that the idea that Billups "changed the culture" in Denver is a bit of an exaggeration: "I think the basketball people and the NBA people, the coaches in the world, understand it. That is usually led by the coaching staff more so than any one player. We’re the guys that started the culture in August and September. We were doing a pretty good job with it then. I think Dahntay Jones and Anthony Carter and Chris Anderson, they didn’t have Chauncey in their kind of commitment to come here and resurrect their careers. Chauncey helped that but they were already on the move in that direction."
The most obvious difference about the Nuggets this year is their team-wide commitment to playing good defense. Billups certainly has always displayed that type of commitment but he is not even the best perimeter defender on his own team (Dahntay Jones, not Billups, guarded Chris Paul in the first round). Chris Andersen does not play heavy minutes but his shotblocking has had a huge impact, because any player who drives to the hoop versus Denver has to be wary of his presence. It has also been critically important for the Nuggets that Nene and Kenyon Martin have been healthy for most of the year. Acquiring Billups turned out to be the final piece of the puzzle for the Nuggets; mixing metaphors, the Nuggets have really enjoyed a perfect storm this year, with several of their players displaying improved maturity at the same time that many presumed Western Conference contenders (San Antonio, Utah, Houston, New Orleans) have been saddled with injuries to key players. With the Lakers taking a 2-1 lead over Houston in the other Western Conference series and Houston's All-Star center Yao Ming out for the rest of the playoffs due to a broken foot we are heading rapidly toward a Lakers-Nuggets showdown in the Western Conference Finals.
It was interesting to learn during the ESPN telecast that Coach Karl primarily looks at two statistics when evaluating the performance of individual players and his team in general. The first is plus/minus, which can be "noisy" at times but also provides a barometer for judging how effective certain players and player combinations are in terms of team success (as opposed to simply racking up gaudy individual stats at the team's expense). Prior to Saturday's game three, Billups led the Nuggets in playoff plus/minus (+125) but Andersen--playing far fewer minutes--was right behind him (+110) and thus obviously leads the team in plus/minus per minute. J.R. Smith (+109), Anthony (+102) and Nene (+94) are the other top Nuggets in this category.
The second stat that Karl favors is field goal percentage differential, which is the difference between his team's shooting percentage and the opposing team's shooting percentage; this is one of the numbers that I cited in my recent article about the Knicks as proof that New York's defense is terrible and getting worse--it is not surprising that a Knicks fan would not like my conclusion about his beloved team but it is odd that ESPN's resident blogger Henry Abbott (who has revealed himself to be an unabashed fan of the Portland Trail Blazers to the extent that it biases his commentary about the league in general) considers that fan to be some kind of blogger expert even though both my initial article and my refutation of the Knicks' fan's take on the subject not only display a far superior writing style but actually cite some of the same stats that defensive-minded coaches use. Karl made his bones as a defensive-minded coach in Seattle but in recent years with Denver he got away from that approach and tried to win with a high powered scoring attack; he has seen the error of his ways and gotten back to basics this season (Knicks fans should stop dreaming that LeBron James is going to leave a defensive-minded team that is poised to win a championship and start praying that Mike D'Antoni and Donnie Walsh decide to shore up New York's defensive and rebounding weaknesses or my article objectively detailing their team's shortcomings will be the least of their concerns in the next few years).
The Mavericks will be out of the playoffs soon, so now is as good a time as any to address some of the recent criticism of Nowitzki. TNT's studio crew--Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Chris Webber--has been just killing Nowitzki, mainly because of some of Nowitzki's comments during a recent interview. In response to a question about Denver's defense, Nowitzki listed the various positive attributes of several individual Denver defenders. The TNT analysts insist that Nowitzki gave Denver's players far too much credit and that, as a great player, he should simply say that the Nuggets play hard but no one can really stop him. While I do agree with Smith's observation that Kobe Bryant would not be so deferential toward an opponent, I think that overall the TNT guys are missing the forest for the trees here. Nowitzki's comments might be an issue if in fact the Nuggets were shutting him down but he is averaging 32 ppg and 11.7 rpg while shooting .525 from the field in this series. Nowitzki's reaction to their criticism is that he is a humble person who is willing to give credit to his opponents when they play well. One of the interesting dynamics about the American media is that athletes are encouraged to speak with candor but then they are raked over the coals for expressing honest, well thought out sentiments; no wonder so many athletes either choose to speak nothing but cliches and/or do their best to avoid being interviewed at all. I would be interested to hear exactly what question Nowitzki was asked before he delivered his much criticized sound bite, because I suspect that he did not simply start praising certain Nuggets players for no reason; he was probably asked to describe specifically how Denver is guarding him and he chose to answer honestly and analytically instead of boastfully or with empty cliches.
In some circles, Nowitzki is derided as a "soft" player but there is very little objective evidence to support that. Yes, his Mavericks squandered a 2-0 lead in the 2006 Finals versus the Miami Heat, but guarding 2006 Finals MVP Dwyane Wade was not his assignment. Nowitzki averaged 22.8 ppg and 10.8 rpg in that series; he shot just .390 from the field but teams tend to focus on stopping superstars in the playoffs: to cite just two recent examples, 2008 Finals MVP Paul Pierce shot .432 from the field in the Finals and 2005 Finals MVP Tim Duncan averaged 20.6 ppg while shooting .419 from the field. Nowitzki's "sin" is that his team lost but he could not singlehandedly change that outcome. In 2007, Nowitzki won the regular season MVP after leading the Mavericks to a 67-15 record but he ended up receiving that award in a very anticlimactic ceremony that took place after his Mavericks were upset in the first round by the Golden State Warriors. Nowitzki did not distinguish himself in that series but the real problem for the Mavericks is that they psyched themselves out before the series even began, changing their starting lineup and electing to play a slow down game that actually worked in Golden State's favor: they were able to harass Nowitzki and get stops, after which they still played at their normal fast pace. The Mavericks would have been much better served to also play at a fast pace, providing Nowitzki the opportunity to get open shots in transition instead of having to deal with swarming defenders in the half court set. Nowitzki's selection as the MVP received a lot of criticism in the wake of the Golden State series but I maintained at that time that those negative comments were unwarranted; although I would have chosen Kobe Bryant as the MVP that year, if the criteria being used was to select the best player on the best regular season team then Nowitzki earned the award--and one subpar playoff series did not alter the fact that he has put together a great career playoff resume. Nowitzki's career playoff scoring average of 25.1 ppg ranks 14th in NBA history, ahead of such notables as Rick Barry, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan--not to mention Charles Barkley (24th, 23.0 ppg) and Chris Webber (62nd, 18.7 ppg); Nowitzki's career playoff rebounding average of 11.0 rpg ranks 23rd in NBA history, better than Karl Malone, David Robinson, Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Willis Reed, Bird--and Webber (53rd, 8.7 rpg). For the record, Barkley ranks ninth all-time with a 12.9 rpg average but Nowitzki is one of just five players in NBA history (Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal are the others) to post career playoff averages of better than 25 ppg and 11 rpg.
Nowitzki has not just put up empty numbers, either; he has had many clutch playoff performances:
- Nowitzki had four straight playoff games with at least 30 points and 15 rebounds, spanning a game five loss to Duncan's Spurs in 2001 and Dallas' three game first round sweep of Kevin Garnett's Minnesota Timberwolves in 2002; the last player to accompish that was Abdul-Jabbar in 1977 with the Lakers and 1970 with the Bucks.
- Nowitzki's 42 defensive rebounds in the 2002 Minnesota series were the second most in a three game playoff span since 1973-74, when the NBA began separately tracking offensive and defensive rebounds (Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo set the record in 1976 with 43 defensive rebounds).
- Nowitzki had 25 points and 20 rebounds in a 141-137 game three victory over the Sacramento Kings on May 10, 2003, becoming just the fourth player under the age of 25 to have a 20-20 playoff game since 1991 (Shaquille O'Neal did this twice, Shawn Kemp and Jermaine O'Neal did it once each).
- In 2003, Nowitzki had at least 30 points and 10 rebounds in back to back game sevens, joining Olajuwon, Kevin McHale, Bird, Elvin Hayes, Wilt Chamberlain and Pettit as the only players to accomplish that feat. Webber should well remember the second of Nowitzki's 30-10 games, a 30 point, 19 rebound outing against Webber's Kings (Webber did not play due to injury).
- In 2006, Nowitzki had 50 points and 12 rebounds in a playoff win versus Phoenix, becoming just the fifth player since 1970 to put up 50-10 in a playoff game.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:00 AM