Melo at a loss to explain cold spell
The Nuggets star suddenly went dim in the second half of the Game 3 loss
DENVER -- I can hear the lament of Nuggets fans: They're thinking that their team would be up 3-0 if only it could throw an inbounds pass.
But that misses the point. Although it's true that Trevor Ariza's steal was an unfortunate repeat of what happened at the end of Game 1, the Nuggets were already in dire straits -- down two points with 36 seconds left -- by the time that play happened.
The more important question is, how did they get in that predicament in the first place? How did that happen after the Nuggets had all the energy and momentum against a Los Angeles Lakers team that was more than willing to admit its weariness afterward? How did they end up scoring only 97 points and losing by six?
Delve into that, and the answer is obvious: The man who was the best player on the court during the first half was invisible in the second.
Carmelo Anthony was dominant in the first two quarters, scoring 18 points on just nine shots -- eight if you don't count a 61-foot desperation heave to end the first quarter. At the other end, he was defending with as much vigor as we've seen from him en route to three steals, including several productive turns on Kobe Bryant.
That fact was the sole reason Denver led 52-48 at the break, as the other Nuggets missed a succession of open jumpers that could have extended the lead. Anthony's teammates were 13-of-33 from the field and 0-for-5 on 3s during the first two quarters.
But then halftime came, and faster than you can say Keyser Söze poof, he was gone. Anthony went scoreless in the third quarter with two turnovers, including an offensive foul for clearing out on Luke Walton that gave him four personals and sent him to the pine for several minutes.
His teammates made up for his disappearing act, outscoring L.A. 16-15 to preserve a three-point lead during the 7 minutes, 20 seconds he sat out. But Anthony's re-entry was hardly a momentous occasion. He took only two more shots and missed both, contributed two more turnovers and fouled out on that fateful inbounds play to prevent a Trevor Ariza breakaway.
Anthony's final line for the second half: 0-for-4, three turnovers, four fouls, three points. Except for one sweet pass to set up a Kenyon Martin dunk, he was invisible, even though none of the participants thought either team did much to effect such a change.
"I'm not sure" were the first three words out of Lakers coach Phil Jackson's mouth when asked how his team shut down Anthony. He then said, "I think our identification was better on what he was going to, picks he was going to be coming off, where he wanted the ball. Some of those things were much better tonight."
Anthony seemed equally perplexed.
"I missed a couple shots that I was making earlier in the game and in the first two games of this series," Anthony said. "Same shots, I was just missing. They continued doing the same thing they've been doing, shifting the defense over. I don't think they really did anything different tonight."
"They were more aware of him," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "More two people in front of him, more body contact with him. We've had Melo as being our horse for about seven straight games now, and tonight he had it going in the first quarter, but he never really regrouped it.
"We just didn't ever get an offensive leader, and so we were always trying to pull teeth."
That leader, of course, had been Anthony, and his failure to get on track left the burden on Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith. Those two produced spectacularly during the time Anthony was on the bench with fouls, spurring the lead to as much as eight points at the end of the third quarter. But with Kobe guarding Billups for much of the fourth quarter and Smith still seeming to feel the effects of his Game 1 calf strain, it was too much to ask of them down the stretch.
Denver shot only 5-for-22 in the fourth quarter en route to scoring just 17 points in the final 9:26 -- an epic drought for a club that broke the century mark 11 times in its first 12 playoff games.
And before you go there, know that the ankle he tweaked in Game 2 wasn't the problem. "My ankle's fine," Anthony said. His actions backed up his words -- he had a big bag of ice on his left knee but nothing on his ankle as he sat dejectedly at his locker, staring straight ahead into nothingness for about 20 minutes after the defeat.
So what happened?
Maybe the Lakers did more and just didn't let on to what their clever adjustments were. Maybe the Nuggets just lost focus because Game 3 had the ideal ingredients of the classic "trap game" -- riding high off a big win, playing in an arena where they hadn't lost in more than two months and perhaps expecting too much that things would just take care of themselves. "Just a little too impatient trying to go for the dagger," was how Billups described it.
Or maybe it was just a case of the law of averages catching up. Anthony had scored 30 or more points in five straight playoff games and 91 in the first 10 quarters against L.A. in this series. Surely he was going to cool off at some point.
Whatever the cause, Melo's sudden drought is the biggest reason the Lakers left Pepsi Center with a 2-1 lead instead of the Nuggets. For all the laments about Denver's inability to complete one of the simplest plays in basketball, the key fact going forward is this: When Anthony was the best player on the floor, the Nuggets seemed unbeatable, even with everybody firing up bricks around him.
Only when that stopped being the case did the Nuggets look very, very mortal. They'll have to hope Saturday night was a temporary blip and not a permanent shift in the tectonics of this series.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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