(Boulder-CO) The Denver Nuggets can pop a few bottles of champagne tonight on the flight to Oklahoma City to celebrate ending 2008 with a quality win over the Toronto Raptors, 114-107, and George Karl winning his 900th game. The win also gives Denver its 21st win of the season and keeps the Trailblazers a half game back in the Northwest divisional race.
I have to admit that I really enjoyed the first half. For one I like Jose Calderon's game a ton and the Nuggets were playing fundamentally sound basketball. The pace of the game was peppy as the, 31-29, scoreboard after one quarter of play could have only been better had the Nuggets been up by a deuce entering the second. However, as much as a like the first quarter's pace and shot selection by the Nuggets, it was the second quarter effort by the bench that made the half.
In the second, the Nuggets really got a tremendous boost from their bench. J.R. Smith scored seven of his team-high twelve first half points in the second and the Birdman provided some real toughness on the boards with four offensive and four defensive rebounds, and eight points in the nine minutes he saw the floor. Together, they combined for 15 of Denver's 24 points in the quarter. I thought the Nugget defense was also fantastic during this stretch. So good in fact, that after checking the play-by-play I realized that Toronto only scored six of their 19 points in the quarter in the paint because of Denver displaying dramatically improved pick and roll defense.
The first half even ended on a great note for Nene as he made his first NBA three-pointer with the shot clock running down on the Nuggets final possession. The swish came off an inbounds pass with just three second remaining and gave Denver a, 53-50, advantage heading into halftime.
What made this such a quality win despite the Raptors recent woes was how the Nuggets played in the second half. By the end of tonight's game there were twelve ties and 16 lead changes with the majority of the back and forth transpiring in the first ten minutes of the third quarter. I felt Denver weathered every blow the Raptors had in them in stride and then when the smell of blood was in the water they turned it up a notch. The Nuggets lost the lead for the final time with just 4:28 remaining in the third quarter after Jose Calderon's third of four three-pointers in the game broke a 72 all tie. From that point, Denver closed out the quarter with a 13-2 run, including eleven unanswered points to give the Nuggets an eight point lead, 85-77, entering the fourth.
Once the final twelve minutes were put on the clock the Nuggets never relinquished the lead.
Nene led all Nuggets with a team-high 21 points, seven rebounds, three assists, a steal, and a block. He was his usual efficient self shooting 8-12 from the field after missing Monday's game at Atlanta. Carmelo added 20 points, on 8-20 shooting, and five rebounds rebounding nicely from a dismal 4-17 shooting performance in the loss to the Hawks. Hopefully, Carmelo can find some consistency in the next few games after missing three straight games with a sore shooting elbow.
The Denver bench also deserves a lot of credit for tonight's win. Led by J.R. Smith's 16 points in 32 minutes of burn, Linas Kleiza and Chris Andersen each added ten points with the Birdman recording a team-high ten rebounds for his first double-double of the season. Collectively, the trio of Smith, Andersen, and Kleiza outscored the Raptor reserves 36-17.
Up next for the Nuggets is a match-up with by far the worst team in professional basketball, the 4-29 Oklahoma City Thunder. It should be an opportunity for the Nuggets to open up the 2009 stretch of this season's campaign with a W while starting a new winning streak with a seven-game home stand on the horizon.