The irony of Nene’s potentially season-ending knee injury is unmistakable: Carmelo Anthony asked for help from his teammates, and fate responded by taking one away. It’s pretty horrible news for a Denver team just now starting to pull things together offensively (and for a talented player like Nene who has been around this block once or twice), especially considering the team’s rotation alternatives. The Nuggets will be forced to rely on Chris Andersen and Johan Petro to hold down the middle on defense and provide some scoring, neither of which seems a particularly likely result.
Then again, stranger things have happened in this series. After the Jazz lost Mehmet Okur for the season (and much more) due to a ruptured Achilles tendon, they appeared to be paper-thin in the middle. The unpolished Kyrylo Fesenko was deemed Okur’s replacement in the starting lineup, and it was assumed that Utah’s season was well on its way toward an unfortunate conclusion. The Jazz had already survived an injury to Andrei Kirilenko to keep things competitive early in the series, and the loss of the one proven center on the roster looked to be too big of a setback for Utah to overcome.
That obviously hasn’t been the case. The Jazz didn’t miss a beat with Okur sidelined, and Fesenko turned out to be far more competent than anyone imagined. He’s not contributing a ton in the box score, but Fes is giving Utah quality minutes in a jam, which is well more than most expected of him.
The same result is technically a possibility for the Nuggets, and hell, maybe Petro will have a game to remember on Friday. It’s just not very likely. Denver still hasn’t figured out how to stop Utah’s offense, and replacing a capable defender — at least in theory — like Nene with a block-chaser like Chris Andersen and a Johan Petro like Johan Petro doesn’t bode well for the Nuggets’ ability to stop anyone.
It’s not that Fesenko is in any way a superior player to Andersen or even Petro, for that matter. Denver just doesn’t have any time or possessions to spare. Every second of basketball the Nuggets play in this series will be laced with the threat of elimination. A few more missteps and that’s all for Denver, which puts the Nuggets’ bigs in a particularly tough situation.
Last night’s win does offer some hope for the Nuggets, if only because productive scoring nights from Chauncey Billups (21 points), Kenyon Martin (18), J.R. Smith (17), and Arron Afflalo (12) proved that if nothing else, Denver can still outscore Utah on some nights. Chris Andersen even played a fine game (10 points, seven rebounds) in Nene’s absence. But the series precedent tells us that those are exceptions to the standard. Those are notable performances because of each of those players has struggled (relatively) in this series, and it took all of them clicking offensively to secure a must-win affair.
To expect the same over the final game(s) of the series is to ignore the significance of the first four contests, which showcased the brilliance of Deron Williams and Utah’s ability to execute above all else. Combine those series-long trends with Nene’s unfortunate injury, and and Game 5 seems to be a brief respite from Denver’s turmoil rather than the beginning of their salvation.