(Boulder-CO) The Denver Nuggets let a golden opportunity to beat the Rockets slip right through their fingers. What’s even worse about this, 115-113, loss is how the officiating played a role in it.
The first half was a defensive struggle for both teams. The Rockets' first quarter and first half point totals were season highs while the points they allowed Denver in the first quarter and first half overall were season highs for a Houston opponent. Denver was paced at the half by Kenyon Martin with 18 points on 7-11 from the field, Chauncey Billups handing out eight dimes, and Nene scoring 14 points and grabbing seven rebounds. I felt the Nuggets did a great job attacking the goal early and was a little bit surprised by the restraint of Yao Ming not taking the bait - hook, line, and sinker - and falling into early foul trouble. Ming scored 12 points in the first half, but it was Rafer Alston’s 18 points and five assists that kept Houston from falling behind by more than just three points at the break, 68-65, after the Nuggets shot 65% from the field on all those lay-ups.
The second half was much more defensive minded by both teams. However, in a trend that is becoming all too familiar for Nuggets fans, Denver looked terrible in the third quarter offensively despite the improved Houston defense. In the last five consecutive games, the Nuggets have recorded their fewest amount of points scored quarterly in the third quarter and in two of those contests it can be argued that it may have cost the Nuggets the game. Against the Rockets, the Nugget offense went to sleep as they scored just 19 points to find themselves down by three entering the fourth quarter.
Once the fourth quarter started I feel that the game was over officiated and it really cost the Nuggets down the stretch on one call in particular.
J.R. Smith jumpstarted the Nuggets in the fourth with back-to-back three’s and a short jumper to bring the game tied at 95 apiece. Another trey by Smith with just under seven minutes to play gave the Nuggets a, 103-101, lead of which they would nurse for the next two minutes before having to play catch-up and battle an official in the final minute.
Down by one, with under 20 seconds on the clock, and possession of the ball, the Nuggets went into their offensive set. Linas Kleiza drove the lane and dished. The pass came way before Chuck Hayes was in position to even take a charge, and LK even tried to avoid the crowding Hayes after he moved into Kleiza’s path of momentum. On any other play, this is a no-call because Kleiza had already taken a step out of the way of Hayes. But, Bennett Salvatore bought Chuck’s theatrical performance and called a charge on Kleiza wiping a three-point play off the board for the Nuggets with just seven seconds remaining in regulation.
Dahntay Jones committed the quick foul on Aaron Brooks, a 91% free-throw shooter, and Brooks missed the front end of two free-throws to give the Nuggets one more chance to win or tie the game. Denver advanced the ball with a timeout and during the 20 seconds George Karl had to draw up a strategy he came up with a gem that will surely be copied by coaches around the world. Kenyon Martin inbounded the ball to Chauncey Billups and it was quickly entered to Nene in the post. Kenyon then went to up high to set a screen for Billups, but slipped back door and received a beautiful pass from Nene. Kenyon was on his way to the rack to dunk the ball and tie the game when Brent Barry fouled him as ball rattled in and out. The hoop and the harm wasn’t meant to be, but Kenyon still had a chance to tie the game from the charity stripe. Unfortunately, Martin missed the front end and was then forced to try and miss the second hoping the Nuggets could get a tip. J.R. mistimed what would have been a spectacular dunk-tip after Martin clanged his second attempt off the backboard and rim, and after the ball was wrestled away from Nene by Yao the Nuggets were forced to take the loss.
That call by Salvatore was bull. Not only because of the context it was called (so late in the game and under such circumstances), but because he flat out bought into what was nothing more than a cheesy flop by Hayes. Kleiza clearly didn’t just bowl right into him and he was in the act of passing from a controlled drive to the hoop to boot! LK wasn’t in the air, he was in control, and he was passing. Three things that should all be considered when not making that call in addition to it being in the final seconds of the game when the players, and not acting, should decide the final outcome.
C’est la vie!
The Nuggets can look back on Salvatore’s call or Kenyon not making his free-throws, but the bottom line is they really lost this game in the third quarter when they decided to coast through what is usually the most important stretch of the game. Only shooting three free-throws in the third quarter is a direct reflection of what kind of offense the Nuggets played and it comes as no surprise that Denver was 8-19 from the field, including 0-3 from long distance.
Yao Ming led all scorers with 31 points, but the Nuggets did a great job keeping him off the boards as the 7’6” big man finished with just three rebounds. Former Nugget Von Wafer and street ball legend Rafer Alston each added 18 points with Skip finishing with a team-high eleven assists. Chauncey Billups recorded his seventh double-double of 13 points and twelve assists, but was a dreadful 3-12 shooting. Nene also recorded a double-double, his eleventh on the year, with 23 points and twelve rebounds. J.R. Smith rebounded nicely after two deplorable outings shooting the ball to score a team-high 24 points on 9-14 shooting, including 5-7 from downtown, in a team-high 41 minutes as a starter.
The Nuggets need to forget about this game because the Kings are coming to Denver tomorrow night and they will be looking for revenge after losing, 118-85, the last time these two teams met in Sacramento. Denver now only holds a two-game lead over the Portland Trailblazers who play later tonight. If Portland wins, they will be just a game and half behind the Nuggets for first place in the Northwest Division.