Monday, December 22, 2008

Denver D Blazes Blazers

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
(Boulder-CO) When the Denver Nuggets needed to step up the most they found a way to do so. On the heel of news that Carmelo Anthony is being placed on the injured list for a sore right elbow earlier in the day Denver didn't use losing their primary scoring option as an excuse to lose to the Trailblazers; rather just a reason for everyone to step up their game to preserve first place in the division and beat Portland in front of the Mile High home crowd, 97-89.
J.R. Smith was bumped into the starting line-up for the first time this season due to Carmelo's injury status and he didn't take long to get things started for the Nuggets. After springing free the opening tap won by Greg Oden, J.R. hit a twelve foot jumper from the left side before putting the spin cycle on Nicolas Batum for a beautiful lay in from the right. I absolutely love the way J.R. Smith's electricity sparks the Nuggets and at this point there is no such thing as too much J.R.. He simply gives the Nuggets another go-to scoring option because he can create for himself off the dribble or catch and shoot, and his defense is no longer the liability it used to be. Other Nuggets who jumped out to a good start were Chauncey Billups with eight first quarter points in addition to J.R.'s six as the Nuggets led after one, 29-27.
In the second quarter, the second unit joined up with J.R. and they didn't disappoint. Chris Andersen swatted five first half shot attempts and altered numerous others in what I felt was his best half of the year so far. The Birdman is another player that I do not view as a down grade when he enters the game. Sure, Kenyon Martin and Nene may be better offensive players, but I truly do feel that Andersen's defense is on par or even better than either of his starting counterparts. And he, like J.R., is constantly in motion. Whether it's on the glass after free-throws or help and recover defense, the Bird is always flocking to the action and rarely ever lets a shot attempt or rebound go without an attempt to make a play.

But, on that note, Nene played a great first half. Big Brazil scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds through two quarters, did an excellent job of limiting Greg Oden to just one rebound in the first half, and put the Portland big man in foul trouble early with his quickness.
The Nuggets also did a tremendous job of keeping the Trailblazers out of the paint in the first half as they outscored Portland 26-16 in points in key. Granted, Portland is probably one of the most perimeter based offenses in the league with jump shooters like LeMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy, but the Denver interior D was superlative nevertheless. They held the Blazers to just 38% shooting in the first half and only created eight free-throw attempts for Portland as they led, 53-47, going into the break.
In the third quarter, Denver relinquished their lead at the 7:22 mark after Steve Blake hit his fourth three of the game. Blake has obviously put in some serious work on his outside shooting since leaving the Nuggets after the 2006-07 season and has blossomed into a true starting point guard for the Blazers. Kudos to Steve, but he is still not the caliber player Chauncey Billups is and after Denver lost its lead Mr. Big Shot took over. Billups set up J.R. Smith for a lay-up to regain the lead and followed up the heady dime to Smith with a three of his own to put the Nuggets back in command, 64-62, with under six to play in the third.
The scrappy Blazers just wouldn't go away as they took the lead on two more separate occasions and it wasn't until Linas Kleiza's three with under a second to play in the third that the Nuggets took the lead for good, 78-75, entering the fourth quarter.
Once the final twelve minutes were put on the game clock, the Denver D dominated the fourth quarter by allowing only 14 Portland points. Not to say that the Nuggets were firing on all cylinders offensively, but LK scoring ten of his 17 points in the quarter, which included Denver's first five, were enough for Denver to win the quarter, 19-14, and the game.
Offensively, the Nuggets balanced the absence of Carmelo Anthony with five different players reaching double figures led by Chauncey Billups and Nene each with 19 points. Nene added eleven rebounds for his second consecutive double-double and seventh on the year while Chauncey returned to economical form with ten assists and not a single turnover. Nene also did a great job attacking Greg Oden and as a result fouled out the second-year rookie for only the second time this season. J.R. Smith chalked up 15 points and seven rebounds in his first start of the year.
It was also nice to Linas Kleiza AKA "The Forgotten Nugget" and Chris "Birdman" Andersen have a great games. LK finished with 17 points and four rebounds in 28 minutes of burn off the bench. Andersen, in addition to the five first half blocks, tied a season-high scoring effort with eleven points and three rebounds while finishing the game with six rejections. Kenyon Martin also joined the block party with three swats as the Nuggets turned away ten Portland shot attempts in total.
But the underlying story in this game was the Denver defense. Denver swarmed Brandon Roy all night allowing him to notch just eight points total. Portland was led offensively by LeMarcus Aldridge's 20 points on mostly 17 foot jumpers; or as I like to call them, "necessary evils".
An interesting note brought up by Nuggets play-by-play man, Chris Marlowe is how the Nuggets are still undefeated (14-0 and tops in the NBA) when entering the fourth quarter with the lead. And with the win, the Nuggets are now once again in sole possession of first place in the Northwest Division, but rest not, Nuggets Nation. Our boys traveled up to Portland last night to face the same Trailblazers tonight. Talk about déjà vu, my only hope is the defensive effort on Brandon Roy wasn't an anomaly and the Nuggets can defeat the Blazers again only this time on their home floor.
Go Nuggets!

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