Remember just a week or so ago when the Denver Nuggets had lost seven in a row and looked like a team destined to fall far out of the playoff picture in the West?
Now the Nuggets have turned it around with four straight wins, and while they are not in a playoff spot yet they are back in the picture.
The latest of those wins came over a sleepy, uninspired Thunder team on Thursday night, 101-88. It wasn’t that Denver was particularly brilliant, their offensive rating on the night was a tic below their season average — although Randy Foye was hot on his way to 24 points and Denver knocked down 14-of-31 three point attempts.
It’s just that Denver was solid and that was much better than whatever the Thunder were doing out there. (Insert your own “marijuana is legal in Colorado” joke here… or just find the copies of Kevin Durant’s deleted tweets from after the game Thursday night.)
Durant had 30 points on 18 shots, but without Russell Westbrook that is not going to get it done. That’s not meant as a dig at Durant, it’s just a night when the Thunder bench shot 28.6 percent, led by Jeremy Lamb going 1-of-12, Durant is going to have to have a monster scoring night to keep the Thunder in it. And he didn’t. Durant was good but just 1-of-7 from three.
By comparison the Nuggets looked as composed, like the team that has tripped up so many visitors to altitude over the years. Denver had a 9 point lead at the half then opened the third quarter on a 10-2 run, and that was pretty much your ballgame.
Ty Lawson was in great form, using his quickness to get 16 points for himself and create open looks for others. Randy Foye was 6-of-9 from three, which really opened up the entire Nuggets offense, and je finished the night with a team-high 24 points. Evan Fournier had 19 points and the kind of game that demands more minutes soon.
This isn’t a game you read anything into — the Thunder miss Westbrook terribly but we knew that already, and Denver is a team that gets hot and is pretty much right now. They just need to stay hot if they want to make the playoffs. The Nuggets will take the win just the same.
Draymond Green tells Kyrie Irving: ‘I know your moves’ (video)
At the season’s midway point, Rudy Gobert is probably the leader frontrunner in the Defensive Player of the Year race. Kawhi Leonard will have a say, and there is a lot of basketball yet to play, but Gobert anchors the NBA’s best defense and he is a force in the paint.
Just ask the Phoenix Suns.
Down three with 13 seconds left Monday night, the Suns wanted a three to tie, but when that was not easily open Eric Bledsoe decided to drive for two (then the Suns would foul and extend the game), he was cut off so Bledsoe dished to rookie Marquese Chriss, who went in for the layup — and found the long arms of Gobert. Blocked shot and game over.
Utah is for real, folks.
Three Things We Learned, Cavaliers/Warriors edition: What can we take away from Monday to NBA Finals?
The NBA goes big on Martin Luther King Jr. day — as they should — but if you missed the action because you were busy counting to 100,000 for no reason, we’ve got you covered with the key takeaways from the biggest game on the schedule.
And we’re doubling our usual three things we learned to six for a day.
Six things from Warriors’ thrashing of Cavaliers that could play out in NBA Finals. Nothing that happens in the regular season guarantees anything come the NBA playoffs, let alone the Finals. Last season’s 73-win Warriors were just the latest in a long line of teams to prove that. Which means we need to be careful reading much into Golden State’s thrashing of Cleveland on Martin Luther King Jr. day. The Finals are a little less than six months away — both of these teams will be different by then (the Cavaliers hope to have a healthy J.R. Smith and Kevin Love by then, for example). Remember, in January one year ago the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and how did the following Finals turn out?
However, when these teams meet some strategies are tested, little things in the game that we could see — or teams will need to at least account for — come the Finals meeting we all expect. Here are six things from Monday’s game that could well play out in June in the NBA Finals.
1) In the four straight wins the Cavaliers had in this series prior to Monday, they were very aggressive in defending Stephen Curry — they trapped him off picks, were physical, tried to pressure him into decisions to give up the ball, then when Curry tried to make the playground passes that worked against other teams the Cavaliers help defenders made steals and were off in transition the other way. All of that made Curry passive — remember the guy floating on the perimeter taking just 11 shots on Christmas Day?
On Monday night Curry took that pressure in stride, attacked Kyrie Irving from the opening tip (remember Curry’s first possession he blew right by him), used his handles to create space, used his gravity to draw defenders to him, then he whipped smart passes around the floor. In the first half, Curry had 10 assists and zero turnovers. For the game Curry had 20 shots. If he can match that, or even come close, in the Finals, the Cavs are going to struggle to slow this offense down. Like every mortal team has.
2) In January 2016 the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and that was a critical step in the Cavaliers deciding they needed to let David Blatt go, hire Tyronn Lue, and make changes that put them on Golden State’s level. With Monday’s loss, one thing that was evident was the depth of playmaking options the Warriors have and how that can be difficult to guard. Cleveland has two playmakers right now, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Cavs’ GM David Griffin has talked about wanting to add playmakers, LeBron has called for a backup point guard, but it’s clear whatever position they could use to add another playmaker or two heading into the trade deadline.
3) Can Kevin Durant guard LeBron? Chris Haynes of ESPN with an interesting stat:
Christmas Day, LeBron James scored 10 points on 4-4 when Kevin Durant defended him. MLK Day, LeBron scored zero on 0-5 with Durant on him.
The Cavaliers were on the last night of a six-game, 12-day road trip — they were not at their best. LeBron clearly wasn’t. However, if KD can even do a reasonable job on LeBron — or can switch on to him without getting torched — the Warriors will be a lot more comfortable and have more options on defense.
4) How did Warriors handle Kyle Korver? They went right at him and made him play defense, which has never been a strong suit (to put it kindly). The Warriors have enough playmakers that whoever Korver was guarding just went at him, and it worked — particularly during the stretch that saw the Warriors first push their lead north of 20. Korver didn’t have a great shooting night, by June he likely is far more comfortable, but if the Warriors can expose him on the other end it will be hard to keep Korver on the court for extended periods.
5) When JaVale McGee checked in for the Warriors, Tyronn Lue countered with Channing Frye. JaVale is not a strong defender, doesn’t step out away from the basket if he can help it, and the Cavs saw an advantage. JaVale’s offense covered that in this game scoring inside, but it’s something to watch.
6)DeAndre Liggins is a good defender, but he’s more focused on-ball than off, and in the fourth quarter Klay Thompson torched him a few times making Liggins chase him off screens away from the ball. You can be sure Steve Kerr noticed and filed that away.