NBA Playoff Recap -
Wednesday, May 13
The 2009 NBA Western Conference finals officially welcomed its first participant Wednesday night, as the Denver Nuggets reached the third round of the playoffs for the first time since 1985. While the L.A. Lakers and Houston Rockets continue their best-of-seven battle, George Karl's club earned at least a few days of rest before the most significant series in franchise history.
These are heady days for Denver basketball fans. The Nuggets, so long a doormat in the league, and dysfunctional even when winning games (as the previous few seasons showed), have finally matured into a ripened roster, a cohesive unit that gets production from the interior and the perimeter; from the starting five and the bench; from one-on-one moves and crisply executed halfcourt plays. The quality of these new-look Nuggets was on display at a joyous Pepsi Center, where the home team closed out the Dallas Mavericks, 124-110, in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. Denver took the series, 4-1, because the hottest team west of the Mississippi just wouldn't be denied at the offensive end of the floor.
Let's be honest about one thing: The defense that carried Denver to a 2-0 series lead wasn't in evidence in this latest duel with Dallas and its superstar, Dirk Nowitzki, who exited the 2009 playoffs with a proud 32-point, 10-rebound effort. Denver had locked down the Mavs in the second halves of earlier games, but in Game 5, Rick Carlisle's crew tallied 55 points after halftime, on the way to a 51-percent night from the field. With Jason Kidd going 5-of-9 from 3-point range, and forward Brandon Bass posting 17 points off the bench, Dallas scored plenty of baskets, enough--on many nights--to win an NBA game of appreciable import.
Instead, the West's No. 6 seed had to endure a 14-point beating that--while slightly deceptive (the Nuggets were realistically about 7 points better than Dallas)--nevertheless illustrated the gulf that developed between these teams. Very simply, while the Mavs hit 51 percent of their shots, Denver nailed 58.5 percent of its field goal attempts. With team MVP Chauncey Billups going 10-for-16 (28 points) and handing out 12 assists, it's little wonder that the Nuggets' offense hummed so efficiently. Billups controlled this contest from start to finish, nailing long jumpers and then smoking Dallas's defense when the Mavs extended on the perimeter in an attempt to take away his shooting hand. When Billups drove into the lane, the Mavs' big men collapsed, which in turn left Nene (17 points on 8-of-10 shooting) and Kenyon Martin (15 points on 5-of-11 shooting) open for an array of easy dunks and layups. Billups might own the nickname "Mister Big Shot," but on this night in a town that was literally a Mile High at game's end, it was the dozen dimes that truly enabled Denver's peerless point guard to carry the Nuggets into the West finals.
If one play helped solidify Denver's hold on this game--and with it, the series--it came midway through the fourth quarter with the Nuggets holding a precarious 103-97 lead. Dallas's defense had just deflected a pass out of bounds, forcing the Nuggets to inbound the ball from the left sideline with just 2 seconds left on the shot clock. It appeared that the Mavs would have a very good chance of getting a defensive stop, and--accordingly--a chance to narrow Denver's already-shrinking lead to one possession with a made 3-point field goal.
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Carmelo Anthony had other ideas.
"Melo" took the inbounds pass from J.R. Smith (18 points off the bench for Denver) and immediately turned to the basket outside the 3-point arc. Anthony's shot tickled the twine to extend the Nuggets' lead to nine points. Immediately after the trey fell through the hoop, Dallas reserve Antoine Wright was whistled for a technical foul by referee Joey Crawford, for a blatant two-handed shove of a Denver player. Billups hit the free throw, and suddenly, that six-point deficit ballooned to a 107-97 Nugget lead with 6:34 left in regulation. Dallas would get within seven (107-100) a few moments later, but the Mavs couldn't do anything more than that. A final flurry from Anthony (who finished with 30 points) and Billups sent Mark Cuban to the offseason, while ending the Mavs owner's nasty feud with Martin, whose Dallas-based mother had to endure numerous taunts from a hostile crowd at the American Airlines Center over the past weekend. This Denver victory is obviously most significant because it propels the Nuggets to an elite place in the NBA hierarchy; but on a more personal and private level, this 14-point pasting--and 4-1 series win--is big for the Nuggets because they won't have to make another plane flight to Dallas until the 2009-'10 season begins.
It's worth mentioning that the 1985 Nuggets--the last team to advance to the conference final round--share many similarities with the 2009 club. Doug Moe--a Dean Smith disciple from North Carolina--coached the '85 squad, which was offense-rich and defense-poor, extremely skilled but not physical enough to handle Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the rest of the Lakers in that year's West finals. Yes, the 2009 Lakers haven't yet put away Houston in a rousing second-round series, but if it is indeed Lakers-Nuggets for the wild, wild West, it will feel like déjà vu all over again, as George Karl--also a Dean Smith man--will take his own offense-first, defense-later ballclub against a more powerful bunch of thoroughbreds from Southern California. In '85, Pat Riley was the big-name coach on the L.A. bench; 24 years later (if the Lake Show does prevail against Houston in the next few days), Phil Jackson will be the superstar sideline boss intent on derailing a Denver dream... a dream of a spot in the NBA Finals.
Enough about the next few weeks, however, for now it's enough of a fantasy for the Nuggets--and their fans--to be alive this late in a basketball season, with championship aspirations being legitimate, and not the delusional visions of a vanquished team left to lament what could have been under better circumstances. A better day has dawned in Denver and win or lose in the next round, this dumping of Dallas has made the 2009 NBA season an unqualified success for a franchise that has shed its failure-filled past.
By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer
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