(Boulder-CO) What started out as a game of runs certainly didn’t end up with one team running away from the other. In fact, it was just the opposite way around in last night’s dramatic finish as the Nuggets lost, 105-101, to the Hornets.
First off, there has finally been some light shed on why J.R. Smith was benched for the Nuggets game against the Clippers. Allegedly, Smith was extremely late for practice earlier this week and his punishment was not playing against the Clippers on Wednesday night. You can take this at face value and move on or you can believe that something more than just being late to practice was reason enough to bench a player, but either way you could tell J.R. Smith was fired up to play against his old coach and team…
In the first quarter, the Nuggets jumped out to a quick 12-4 lead with nine minutes still to play before the Hornets countered with a 18-2 run of their own. And after further expanding their lead to ten points at the quarter’s end, 32-22, the Hornets allowed Denver to go on a 12-2 run of their own largely in part to J.R. Smith’s hot hand accounting for eight of those points to bring the game to a, 34-34, tie with eight minutes to play in the half. Then, in seesaw fashion, the Hornets would once again run out offensively to a six point lead at the half, 52-46.
Despite the hot and cold nature of the offense, I really liked the way the Nuggets were containing Chris Paul defensively in the first 24 minutes of play. Paul finished the half with just two points as the Nuggets were double-teaming him and making him give up the ball before he could penetrate the paint and open up easy lay-up opportunities. For the Nuggets offensively, who doesn’t like J.R. Smith? The well-rested Prodigy torched his old team for 14 first half points and was really busting tail defensively as well. Carmelo Anthony had eight points in the half, but was efficient on 4-6 shooting.
Once the third quarter was underway I was looking forward less schizophrenic stretches of play, but it didn’t take long for the Hornets to pick right back up where they left off by way of a 10-2 run to open the second half before George Karl called timeout.
Two minutes, and three Dahntay Jones fouls later, J.R. Smith re-entered the game and hit five quick points to bring the Nuggets within seven points as the third quarter expired.
Once the final twelve minutes of regulation were put on the clock, Denver jumped all over the Hornets by way of an 11-2 run that gave Denver back the lead, 80-78, with 8:41 to play. Credit J.R. Smith for opening up the throttle with a quick jumper to start the run and Carmelo Anthony, Smith (again), and Linas Kleiza for hitting three three’s within 50 seconds to force Byron Scott to take a full timeout.
Out of the break both teams stumbled to the floor like two heavyweight fighters punch drunk from a slug fest and teetering on the brink of a knockout. And both teams, perhaps worried that the next run might be the one to win or lose the game, traded buckets in dramatic fashion down the stretch before Chris Paul hit a 30-foot three from dead center of the arch to tie the game, 92-92, with just two minutes to play.
The ensuing Nugget possession was a struggle with Kenyon Martin missing a 17-foot bank shot as the time left on the 24-second shot clock faded and on New Orleans’ next time down the floor Peja Stojakovic hit a big triple from the right corner. Down by three, George Karl called timeout and out of frustration, perhaps stemming from missing the J on the other end of the floor, Kenyon Martin kicked the scorers table on his way to the bench drawing a technical foul from referee Bennett Salvatore.
Now down by four with just over a minute to play, the ball went into Carmelo Anthony who drew a shooting foul attacking the rim and made good on two free-throws. In the following defensive stand, Denver was rotating like a carousel in an attempt to challenge all outside shot attempts off of dribble penetration by Chris Paul and after Paul was forced to take a fading 20-footer. David West tipped in what would have been an air ball to once again give the Hornets a four-point lead with just 50 seconds to play.
The Nuggets went right to work down by four and as Carmelo Anthony let a three-point attempt fly he was collided into by James Posey and sent to the line for a set three of free-throws. After making the first two, Carmelo missed the third perfectly to an offensive rebounding Nene who then flipped the ball behind his head to the cutting Anthony for a thunderous two-handed dunk to tie the game with just 37 remaining to play. With the Pepsi Center was raucous, James Posey hit what could have been the backbreaking three with 19 second remaining and after Chauncey Billups missed an attempt to tie it would have seemed like the Nuggets Thanksgiving was ruined by the former Nugget. But, J.R. Smith wasn’t finished with his late game theatrics. Following a pair of free-throws by Stojakovic that gave the Hornets a five-point lead, J.R. Smith connected on a desperation 30-footer to bring the Nuggets back within a deuce with just four seconds remaining. But, Smith's theatrics were too late. The Nuggets had run out of time and after Smith was forced to foul Chris Paul with just two seconds to play Denver could nothing but watch as CP3 connected on the pair of penalty free-throws to ice the game.
But what a return to action it was by Smith. J.R. finished the game with a game and season-high 32 points, five rebounds, four assists, and two steals; one of which was finished with a soaring slam.
Carmelo broke out of his offensive slump, albeit quietly, with 24 points, six rebounds, two assists, and two steals on an economical 8-13 shooting. No other Nuggets scored in double-figures, but Chris Andersen did return to action a game earlier than expected to grab eight rebounds, six points, a block, and an assist in 23 minutes off the bench.
Defensively, Denver did a great job on Chris Paul in the first half, but a player of his caliber can only be contained for so long as CP3 scored 20 of his team-high 22 points in the second half to fit nicely with his ten assists and four rebounds. Rasual Butler added 19, Peja Stojakovic 17, David West 15, and James Posey 10 to round out the bulk of New Orleans’ scoring.
The loss puts Denver (10-6) in a three-way tie for first in the Northwest Division with the Portland Trailblazers and Utah Jazz each with six losses. Up next for the Nuggets is a trip to Minnesota to take on the Timberwolves tomorrow night.