With San Antonio starting the game without it’s presumed starting five the Nuggets decided to change things up as well. George Karl, finally, started J.R. Smith without giving even the announcers a word of the decision before game time. And in another surprise, Renaldo Balkman started for Kenyon Martin who sat ill.
The first quarter of play was a little bit helter skelter for the Nuggets. Without their stars, I think the Nuggets may have taken the reserves a bit too lightly as evident by an early six-point lead, 18-12, for the Spurs just six minutes into the game. George Karl quickly had seen enough and called a timeout to rally the troops. He inserted Anthony Carter for Chauncey Billups and Chris Andersen for Renaldo Balkman and the rest of the Nuggets instantly responded to the personnel changes. Denver went on a 19-7 run over the duration of the first quarter on the back of Carmelo Anthony’s 14 points in the first twelve minutes. And had it not been for the Birdman rising to the challenge defensively on back-to-back rejections after two terrible decisions by Linas Kleiza and a failed alley-oop pass by Anthony Carter the Nuggets’ lead might have been slimmer than, 31-25, entering the second quarter.
The energy Bird brought on the defensive end carried over to the offensive end as he scored six of the Nuggets’ first eight points in the second quarter with the other deuce coming by way of a circus-reverse by Linas Kleiza. The Nuggets had opened up a 14-point lead, 39-25, with ten minutes to play in the half, but yet still Popovich rested his big three. Denver maintained a double-digit lead throughout the rest of the second quarter, but there was a scary moment when Chauncey Billups came up a touch lame after converting a nice double-clutch lay-in with under three minutes to play. Chauncey would remain in the game with a slightly tweaked ankle and the Nuggets would remain in the lead entering intermission, 56-44.
Carmelo Anthony was the only player in the first half to reach double-digit points with a game-high 20 points and game-high tying six rebounds. Carmelo’s impact was unassuming in the first half mainly due to taking a backseat to Chris Andersen’s performance off the bench. The Birdman was absolutely fabulous in nine minutes of burn finishing the half with nine points, four big blocked shots, and three rebounds. Anthony Carter also deserves mention because when he and the Birdman came in the game early in the first quarter there was a noticeable perk in the Denver’s intensity defensively and continuity offensively. AC handed out a game-high five assists and scored six points in the first half. Overall, the Nugget bench outscored the Spur bench 20-12, but it pains me to say that Linas Kleiza didn’t have his best half of the season. LK did score five points and grabbed five rebounds, but his attitude, body language, and shot selection were all horrid. On one occasion, he turnover the ball over at half court and proceeded to pout when he could have been busting his tail back on D to prevent an easy score. Linas also threw up a questionable behind-the-head, lay-up attempt and air mailed in a three before getting hit with a technical foul after wrestling the ball away from Carmelo Anthony and lost it going back up. Maybe he was fouled on the put back maybe he wasn’t, but to get hit with a technical foul with under ten seconds remaining and your team ahead by 13 points is just not warranted.
The first three minutes of the second half made me want to puke. Four Denver turnovers in the first three minutes let the Spurs back into the game, 60-51, which cut the Nuggets’ lead to under ten for the first time since early in the second quarter. Perhaps once again the Nuggets came out and took the Spur reserves too lightly, but one star in this game wasn’t taking the night off. Carmelo scored six of the Nuggets’ first eight points of the second half, but bad news was handed down when it was reported Chauncey Billups was done for the night with the bum ankle. X-rays were negative for any breaks, but with Mr. Big Shot sidelined the Nuggets were going to have to tighten up collectively to pick up his slack.
There was still no sign of Tim Duncan or Tony Parker to start the fourth, but an unforced turnover by Anthony Carter and yet another missed jump shot to start the quarter off offensively brought the Spurs within six, 78-72, with eleven minutes to play. The Nuggets were playing right into the San Antonio trap of committing unforced turnovers and true to form the Spurs made Denver pay. Another AC turnover in transition led to Fabricio Oberto scoring a bunny to whittle Denver’s lead to four with 9:37 remaining and the atmosphere became nerve-raking in the Pepsi Center. Jacque Vaughn’s jumper from the right baseline cut Denver’s lead to two with under nine minutes to play and the Nuggets were flat-lining. Denver scored only three points, all on free-throws, in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter before Linas Kleiza hit a critical three from the right corner to extend the Nuggets’ lead back to six before LK hit a pair of free-throws to push it to eight. The Nuggets may have saved this game with back-to-back defensively stops capped off by J.R. Smith draining a long three from the right wing to give Denver an eleven-point lead, 89-78, with just over seven minutes to play, but credit the San Antonio Spurs’ reserves starters for making this a game after being down by as many as 17 in the third quarter. Linas Kleiza hit his third three of the game to give Denver its second eleven-point lead of the fourth quarter and it was evident Gregg Popovich had made a mistake resting Tony Parker and Tim Duncan as the spurs eventually lost the game, 104-96. If Parker and Duncan play with Billups going down and Kenyon a scratch due to strep throat San Antonio probably wins this game which is why with four days of rest before their next game I still don't understand at least inserting either or both San Antonio All-Stars and trying to steal this win on the road...
However, I will acknowledge that the Nuggets played very undisciplined in the final five minutes of this game. Not getting the ball beyond half court within eight seconds is inexcusable, not pulling the ball out when the game is in hand and running down the clock is just plain stupid, and forcing bad passes - on the fast break nonetheless - when the game is in hand is moronic. Denver was lucky their poor decisions didn’t cost them this win.
Carmelo Anthony scored a game-high 35 points and bagged nine rebounds. Nene added a double-double of 17 points and eleven rebounds, but it was the bench that picked up the slack left by Kenyon Martin sitting ill and Chauncey not playing in the second half due to a slight ankle sprain. Led by Linas Kleiza’s 13 points, the Denver bench was huge with Carter , the Bird, and Dahntay Jones combining for 36 points.
Put the rest of the league on notice: Don’t sleep on Denver!