Two straight losses and the fingers are being pointed, the doubters are coming out and the Nuggets are now on the outside looking in at the No. 2 spot in the West.
While the entire teams needs to be accountable for the two previous losses, but none more than the second unit. In the the team’s three victories going into this weekend, the reserves scored 116 points (38.7 points a game) and in the previous two losses the bench scored a combined 35 points.
It doesn’t help that the reserves have been hampered by injuries lately, Ty Lawson going down halfway through the Lakers game and the Birdman missing the second half of the Suns contest. And the two were both missed.
Against the Suns, Denver was in complete control going into the second quarter, but at the 10:26 mark once again Coach George Karl decided to rest Chauncey Billups and Melo at the same time. Leaving a very unorthodox group on the floor – Anthony Carter, JR Smith, Arron Afflalo, K-Mart and Birdman and for the next five minutes Denver was outscored 16-0 – ruining all of the momentum the Nuggets had after the first quarter.
It was a repeat of the bench’s performance against the Lakers late in the third quarter. Both times the reserves entered the game with the lead (70-65 and 37-24) and in that time the reserves were outscored 35-7.
It wasn’t just that the second unit couldn’t score, they were outworked. Louis Amundson started things out with a putback for Phoenix and Smith responded by missing a trey early on the shot clock. Channing Frye hit a pair of free throws to cut the Nuggets lead to 37-28, a Anthony Carter turnover led to a three by Goran Dragic. Five more missed jumpers and three minutes later and the Suns had cut the deficit to two.
In fact the only time when the Nuggets attacked the basket, the Suns got away with a goaltending and Frye nailed a three to take their first lead of the game and never looked back.
Denver missed all six of its shots and had four turnovers with either Melo and Billups restling. The Suns didn’t shoot overly well, 4-0f-10 from the field and 4-of-6 from the charity stripe but they also made up for it with four offensive rebounds.
So how do the Nuggets avoid another collapse, at least until Lawson and Andersen get healthy? Well to start with Melo and or Billups need to be on the floor the entire game or until the victory is in hand. And when the starters are rested, players like AC and Smith need to be more intelligent with the ball and be in control of the game. To start, less jumpers and more drives to the basket.
When healthy, the Nuggets bench is arguably the best in the league and it is a critical part for Denver to get past the Lakers. But without the spark from the bench Denver is vulnerable as it showed the last two weeks.