Nuggets fall apart on offense

Originally Published: May 28, 2009
By John Hollinger |

NeneKevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesDenver's cold stretch in the second half made a seven-point lead become an 11-point deficit.
LOS ANGELES -- Well, it was there for the taking.

Make a list of all the things the Nuggets would have wanted to happen Wednesday night and put a check box next to them, and you'll see Denver had a tremendous opportunity to get the road win it needed to upset L.A. in the Western Conference finals.

•  Quiet night from Kobe Bryant? Check. L.A.'s star guard had only 22 points and committed seven turnovers.

•  Lakers freezing out Pau Gasol? Check. He didn't get his first shot off a post-up until midway into the second quarter and took only eight shots in 45 minutes.

•  Denver playing from out front? Check. The Nuggets led by seven midway through the third quarter and had both Andrew Bynum and Derek Fisher on the bench with four fouls.

Won the game? Sorry. That box remained empty. And the reason it did stemmed from a colossal offensive meltdown in the middle of the second half, one that saw the Nuggets commit four straight turnovers to let L.A. back into the game and then go 6:33 without a single point as the Lakers made a 14-0 run.

"We had a lot of great opportunities," said Chauncey Billups, who had the first two of those four straight turnovers. "It's kind of disappointing."

Here's the irony: It was the Lakers who wore down the Nuggets with their energy in the second half, rather than the other way around. All series long we've wondered about the cumulative impact of the heavy minutes that Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are playing, especially in the wake of a tough seven-game series with Houston. But when the Nuggets opened up a lead, L.A. started trapping, and for the first time this series Denver flinched instead of remaining the aggressor.

From the 7:37 mark of the third until the 7:52 mark of the fourth -- a span of nearly a full quarter -- Denver mustered only five points. That was a span of 19 trips in which they saw a seven-point lead became an 11-point deficit, and the Nuggets never recovered.

"We kind of sat back as a team," said Billups, "instead of running to the ball to get it and try to make a play. They got aggressive and we got passive in that stretch, that was what turned the tide."

"They stepped up the pressure a little bit, they trapped harder. I had two straight turnovers where they stepped up and trapped the ball really hard. And our guys, we kind of ran away from the ball. After we made an adjustment we didn't turn it over any more, but that was a crucial point in the game."

The turnovers also fueled the Lakers' offense, not to mention the crowd. The first of Billups' turnovers led to a monstrous dunk by Shannon Brown over Chris Andersen that nearly blew the roof off Staples Center and lifted the weary Lakers into a frenzy that propelled them to victory (forget the polite golf-claps from last year's Finals; this place was rocking).

"Some of those stops I was amazed at," said Phil Jackson. "We left guys open for shots [but] we were still able to recover to get back. We had blocks at the basket, we had rebounds and I thought they were up for grabs that we came down with."

Let's break it down. In those 19 trips Denver took 18 shots and made two, and threw in five turnovers for good measure. They missed some open looks, to be sure, but also made some incredibly bad decisions. Billups uncharacteristically threw away two passes, while nine of the 18 shots came from the three guys the Lakers enthusiastically encourage to shoot -- Dahntay Jones, Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen. A 10th was basically Martin's too, as the shot clock went off with his trying to make a move at the top of the key.

Another crucial play in that stretch was the fifth foul on Nene early in the fourth quarter, an offensive foul when he was trying to post up against Pau Gasol. The Nuggets were furious about what looked like a pretty tame push, and Nene picked up a technical arguing the call.

But left unanswered was why exactly they were going to Nene in the first place. Already in the midst of a massive offensive drought, they were force-feeding a fourth option who hadn't been able to score against Gasol all series.

If the Nuggets had run something different, they might have been better able to stem the tide of interior L.A. baskets that allowed them to pull away in the fourth.

Wait, it gets worse. The Nuggets' 11 minutes of ineptitude also included a hard foul on Kobe Bryant by Carmelo Anthony that may be reviewed by the league; though he appeared to get Bryant high across the shoulders, it could be ruled the dreaded "above the shoulders" foul, which would result in an automatic one-game suspension for the must-win Game 6 in Denver on Friday.

Regardless of what the league office decides (my guess is they won't issue any penalty), the Nuggets have to lament the fact that they had a great opportunity to steal a game in Staples before their offensive melted down in the second half.

In addition to the turnovers and poor shot selection, there were also some easier looks they couldn't find the range on. Late in the fourth quarter, for instance, the Nuggets missed a great chance to make a final charge when Billups and J.R. Smith (1-of-10 on 3s) missed wide-open triples on consecutive trips.

In addition to the turnovers and poor shot selection, there were also some easier looks they couldn't find the range on. Late in the fourth quarter, for instance, the Nuggets missed a great chance to make a final charge when Billups and J.R. Smith (1-of-10 on 3s) missed wide-open triples on consecutive trips.

"We missed a few easy shots," said Kenyon Martin. "I know I missed a few right around the basket."

"I really think we took shots that we make," said Billups. "That's the way we played all year. Sometimes you're gonna make them, sometimes you're not."

In the second half, the answer was "not," and it's the last time this series the Nuggets can afford to have that answer. Even if they avoid such droughts on Friday and force a Game 7 on Sunday, one has to wonder if their best opportunity to steal the series passed them by on Wednesday night.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.