In four games against the Utah Jazz in this year’s playoffs, Carmelo Anthony is averaging 34.5 points per game while shooting 52.6% from the field and grabbing seven rebounds a night. Yet his Denver Nuggets trail the Jazz 1-3 in the series after another loss last night, and Anthony’s 39-point, 11-rebound performance (though with nine turnovers, mind you) in a losing effort is an interesting indication of the path Carmelo’s career has taken.
There was a point where Anthony himself was emblematic of all the Nuggets’ problems. They had talent — Andre Miller (and later Allen Iverson), Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin, Nene, and of course Anthony himself — but even in the rare instances when each member of Denver’s core was healthy at the same time, there were some serious question marks. Offensively, how could the team depend on a jumpshooter who had fallen in love with 20-footers? And on defense, why couldn’t a team of talented individual defenders establish themselves as an effective defensive unit?
Those types of questions seemed perpetual, and kept the Nuggets grounded. Anthony was a good player but hardly a great one, and his team was apparently ready to follow suit. In a lot of ways, Carmelo had no one to blame but himself. If he were only a more efficient scorer, a more focused defender, and a better leader, maybe the Denver Nuggets would have been a different team.
Then, in spite of worries that Anthony’s development may have stagnated, he’s done all of those things. He’s refined his offensive game and learned to exploit his incredible first step. He’s shown a willingness to defend the league’s elite scoring wings, and actually succeeded in doing so. He’s benefited from Chauncey Billups’ leadership, sure, but is also a huge part of why the Denver locker room is so confident — or laced with hubris, take your pick — at all times.
The only problem is that now, Anthony is so productive offensively that he’s not exactly the problem. His turnovers over the course of this series (he didn’t turn the ball over at all in Game 1, but has averaged six per game in the three subsequent losses) are absolutely painful, but they seem a bit more manageable given Carmelo’s touches and production. After all, Game 3 aside, the problem has not been the Nuggets lack of offense (Denver has averaged 111.95 points per 100 possessions for the series). Rather, it’s the team’s painfully ineffective defense (115.23 points per 100 possessions allowed) that could make Anthony’s volume scoring not long for this playoff world.
Anthony adapted, and he’s twice the individual player that he was earlier in his career. Okay, maybe more like 1.5 times the player he was. Yet the Nuggets again find themselves in more or less the same place; they’re talent-laden, but unable to work things out on the defensive end despite the number of talented individual defenders (Billups, Afflalo, Nene, Martin) on the team.
Should Denver drop Game 5 to Utah, it will be the fifth time in seven years that Carmelo and the Nuggets have lost the first round 1-4, with the only exceptions being last year’s run to the Conference Finals and their failure to win a single playoff game against the Lakers in 2008. Anthony has come so far in terms of his individual game, and on paper, the Nuggets have made serious strides in terms of their talent. Without any hope for a successful team defense, though, Denver is right back where they started in 2003.