(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
(Boulder-CO) If there was any doubt in my mind about how different this year's Nuggets are from seasons past they are all gone now. In recent years, if Denver didn't score over a hundred points there was a very good chance they would lose the game. As for holding a team under 90 points... Please, I wouldn't have held my breath! But this is a different team, with a different point guard, center, and attitude on defense.
Still not sure?
With last night's, 90-84, victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves the Nuggets have won four out of their last five games by allowing 90 points or less while only going over the century mark once. And what adds to my surprise is Denver, a team historically known for trying to run its opposition out of the gym, for the first time since Carmelo Anthony was freshman at the University of Syracuse is no longer in the top ten teams in points per game. Marking the first time since the 2002-03 season that the Nuggets were not one of the NBA's top ten teams in scoring.
Against Minnesota, it was like the Nuggets were in the shower and someone kept flushing the toilet. One quarter they would be diddling in the mild warmth of the water spouting from the fixture before all of sudden things would get boiling hot. And thankfully for the Pepsi Center patrons... someone kept flushing at all the right times!
In the first quarter, the Nuggets were superlative as Denver scored 27 points off of a combined eight assists while holding Minnesota to just 17 points. The extra pass was being made by everyone and the ball movement was keeping the Timberwolves out of optimal defensive position. This led a few touch lobs for dunks and wide open jump shots for Denver's best perimeter shooters. Unfortunately, things would drastically slow down for the Nuggets in the second quarter as Denver collectively shot 4-18 from the field and uncharacteristically made only five of its nine free-throw attempts. But despite the streak of shaky offense, Denver still held a, 44-40, lead at the half after only scoring 17 points in the second.
More cold shooting persisted in the third quarter as the Nuggets lost their lead entering the fourth. The Nuggets only scored three points in the first five minutes of the second half and it was on a Chauncey Billups three-pointer. In fact, Minnesota took the lead, 55-49, on a 15-5 run before Coach George Karl called a full timeout and changed his line-up at the halfway point in the quarter. From that point on it was Denver's newest Nugget, Chauncey Billups, who took control of the game. Chauncey scored 12 of the next 15 points for Denver as the Nuggets entered the fourth quarter down by a deuce.
Denver once again came out of the gates slow in the fourth quarter as the Timberwolves built a nine point lead with just six and a half minutes left to play prompting George Karl to call a much needed timeout. Now I don't know what was said in that huddle, but whatever it was I hope someone recorded it because the Nuggets, staring defeat in the face, regrouped and absolutely demolished the Timberwolves in the final six minutes. Things immediately heated up as J.R. Smith hit a timely three that cued a 6-0 run right out of the timeout. Minnesota tried countering the inevitable Denver push with timeout but it was too late. The Denver floodgates had been opened and after an Al Jefferson hook put the Wolves back up by five the Nuggets went on an offensive barrage. J.R. Smith hit another three to close the gap to just two and started an 11-0 run to give Denver back the lead for good as the Nuggets held the Timberwolves scoreless for over four of the last five minutes of the game. The late offensive run in combination with the stout Denver D left the Timberwolves stunned as they lost their eighth straight contest and sixth after holding a fourth quarter lead.
Chauncey Billups was everything for the Nuggets in what was his best game since returning to Denver. Mr. Big Shot's namesake was cemented as he connected on all four of his eight attempts from downtown in the second half with two coming at critical junctures of the game. The most clutch being a pull-up trey on a fastbreak from the left wing that sparked the Nuggets turnaround late in the third quarter and was followed by another to long distance bomb just under a minute later. Chauncey finished with a game-high 26 points, five rebounds, five assists, a steal, and a block while only turning the ball over once.
Carmelo Anthony also had a solid performance despite not shooting the ball very efficiently. 'Melo scored just 14 points, but grabbed 12 rebounds in his second straight double-double performance while also dishing out four assists and recording a steal. He too was smart with the basketball turning it over just once in 37 minutes of action.
And what can be said about J.R. Smith? I'm still not sure why Dahntay Jones is starting for this club when a talent like J.R. Smith is waiting for action on the bench. It's so painfully obvious that J.R. deserves the starting nod from the way he is busting his backside on D to the way he comes up huge at the most opportune times for the Nuggets on O. J.R. played 24 minutes off George Karl's bench en route to 14 points and two steals without a single turnover and I feel the chemistry and coaching between he and Billups is palpable. When these two are on the floor together Chauncey has a way of putting the ball in J.R.'s hands at the right time and in the right spot for him to flourish.
The 6-4 Nuggets will host the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night at Pepsi Center and have now pulled even with the Utah Jazz and Portland Trailblazers in a three-way tie for first place in the Northwest Division. Plus, I have been loving this current Jazz losing streak that has extended to three straight games!