By Cub Buenning

For the past few playoff seasons, a public orchestrated refrain centered around NOT wanting to see teams like San Antonio and Detroit play into June.  The style of play has long been deemed “boring” and those Finals were known as some of the least viewed in television history.  People want to see fast-paced athletic ball, right?  Why then, is everyone so suddenly disgusted with teams that play an up-tempo style but have a general disdain for the defensive end of the court?  Over the past two weeks, talking heads and fans alike, have become not only experts on the matter, but suddenly appalled with how teams like Denver play defense.  The Nuggets won 50 games, score 110 points per game, they regularly push the pace, have the league’s 3rd and 4th leading scorers, but they are universally hated on because of their failures to play defense?  Curious.

Saturday saw the Los Angeles Lakers come to the Mile High City for Game 3 of the two teams’ first-round series.  The Lakers held serve winning the first two games at Staples Center, but the Nuggets bring in one of the league’s best home records.

HALT!

These previous two paragraphs were penned in the bowels of the Pepsi Center before the start of Game 3.  What we all saw and endured turned into another relatively easy Laker victory, winning 102-84 before a sell-out crowd of over 19,000.

If I ignore the final few minutes of the game when thing did get out of hand, I am going to make an assessment that might shock some.

This was the best game that the Denver Nuggets have played in this series.

It was just one of their worst shooting nights of the season.  They played with an (1) increased defensive intensity, (2) their offense was crisp, (3) they didn’t force shots from the perimeter, and (4) they attacked the rim at almost every instance—all areas that they needed to improve on to make this series competitive.  Let me extrapolate.

(1)  On several occasions I saw JR Smith and Carmelo Anthony down in stances, busting their ass to stay in front of a certain MVP candidate (my eyes were instantly rubbed/glasses cleaned off.)  They held the Lakers to just 40% from the field in the game’s first 12 minutes and controlled the glass from start to finish (53-39 rebounding advantage.)  Despite a few lapses where the Lakers were able to get lay-ups, I just didn’t have that normal, “do these guys even care” feeling that has become common place while viewing a Denver Nugget game.

(2) For the novice observer of this particular team, one might think this team has two guys that dribble around until they deem a shot worthy.  This assessment is normally pretty accurate, but on Saturday afternoon, the Nuggets made rotation passes, swung the ball, took quick, but quality open shots—all traits that were never visible during the series first two games.

(3) Getting open shots is what offensive basketball is all about.  Whether it is 3 seconds into the shot-clock or as it is dwindling down, an open look is all you want.  This was not an issue for Denver in Game 3.  They got all of the open looks from the perimeter they wanted and when those were not there, they were “smart” and drove the ball (more on that later.)  The shots just didn’t go in.  Allen Iverson and Melo’s combined 10-38 has already been well documented (most of which were actually taken within two feet of the rim, as apposed to forced 18-footers) but the team never broke 40% from the field for any one quarter and it surely wasn’t the Lakers pressure defense that forced bad shots.

(4) The one area of Laker defense that was staunch was their interior toughness (did I just say that about LA?)  Numerous Nugget drives came up empty as their anemic outside shooting allowed the Lakers to sag and collapse the paint.  Complaints were made, technicals were handed down, and the Nuggets just couldn’t get shots to fall or more importantly, get to the line.  This was the one area that I felt the home side got “road-jobbed.”  Besides being the far more aggressive team, the Nuggets only made it to the line 19 times on the night, apposed to the 34 trips enjoyed by the visitors.  During the season, the Nuggets averaged 30 trips per game and almost 7 more per game than their opponents.  In the first two games alone, the Nuggets went to the stripe 36 and 37 times respectively, 17 more than LA.  What happened then on Saturday?  As the game wore on, the constant Nugget bitchin’ was not going to garner any calls from the men in stripes (only coaches can ride officials then eventually get calls) but that frustration was built up over the course of an entire game of neglect.

In conclusion, the Nuggets probably should have won this game, and their inability to do so, have, for all intents and purposes, put this series to bed.

NOTES:

-Enough with this “white-out, black-out” type stuff.   Those in attendance were handed out white t-shirts and blue headbands to all at the game, but damn, knows your fanbase!  I have been to about a dozen Laker/Nugget games in the past decade and there are always tons of Laker fans.  It’s pretty hard to have a white-out when half of the crowd is in gold.  It was also a little weird to see the entire arena staff (I actually heard an usher yelling at another who was refusing) sporting those headbands.

-As Kobe was introduced to his normal mixture of cheers and jeers, I thought to myself, “OK, no stupid chants, we’re classy here in the Mile High City.”  This statement was internally edited when a KB8x3 third-quarter trip to line was met with a weak “NO, means, NO” chant.  I guess ignorance observes no state boundaries.

-To an above point, going back through my notes, I jotted down “driving hard to the hole, BUT can’t finish,” about 7-8 times.

-During the second quarter, another missed Denver attempt at the hoop was culminated by a little violence, as Eduardo Najera swung his elbows a bit knocking Sasha Vujacic (who I suddenly adore as a player) to the ground.  The somewhat surprising thing about the entire exchange was after some brief early teammate concern, the Lakers left Sasha alone, sprawled out on the court writhing in pain for at least 10 seconds.  This kind of surprised me because the team seems pretty tight and friendly “behind the scenes.”

-I will leave out some of the standard “I chatted up this guy” type notes, but it was nice again to meet up with Coby Karl, who was back in street clothes after suiting up for Game 2.  The Lakers hold an option on the rookie for next season, so this just might be the most important summer of his life.  In the arena’s back hallway after the game, he openly mentioned to me, “I just feel bad for my dad.”

“It has been really great, thank you!  I would love to spend the rest of the day with all of you, BUT……. I choose not to.”  This was how Pau Gasol said thank you and goodbye to the massive throng of cameras and recorders following the game.  I found it super funny, for some reason.  Pau helped me with my Juan Carlos Navarro piece from issue #116, is a solid dude, and a player I have always admired.  That, and at many times of the year (my appearance is ever changing due to my distain for scissors and razors) he and I are mirror images of each other.  Unfortunately, my hair was cropped pretty recently and I shaved for some reason that morning.

-The post-game pressers were chocked filled with beauties so I shall leave you with a few of my favorites.

IVERSON
“I’ve been in a lot of playoff series and I don’t think I’ve ever been this frustrated.”

“Right now they are just a level above us, but I don’t know about them being a ‘great’ team.”

“I had so many good looks in that first half.”

NAJERA
“We just didn’t hit enough shots. We played pretty well defensively, just missed some early shots.”

MELO
“Us giving up as a whole was uncalled for.”

“Yeah, I said it.  We quit.  From the coaches to the players, we quit.”

MARTIN
“The coaches quit on us in the second half.”

KOBE (who was all business afterwards)
About winning games in different ways, “We’re an extremely versatile team.  Everyone on this team can make plays.  We’re just going to make adjustments and come back ready for Game 4.”

Personally, I wouldn’t adjust a thing.