New Jersey Nets 115, Denver Nuggets 99, & I Couldn’t Be Happier

New Jersey Nets' Travis Outlaw (21) goes up for a shot in the second quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets, Monday, Jan. 31, 2011, in Newark, N.J. Outlaw scored 18 points in the first half. Denver Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony (15) and Ty Lawson (3) look on in the background. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
This is the Outlaw the Nets paid for. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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It’ll be hard to top this one.

The Nuggets made it interesting a few times in the second half, and Carmelo Anthony certainly lit up the Prudential Center. But at the end of the day, the Nets walked away with a well-deserved, hard-fought, dominating victory over a team that was expected to beat up on them.

Remember the team we talked about against Indiana? The exciting, dynamic offensive team with the potential to explode at any given moment? That ended up being… Indiana?

Last night, it was New Jersey. Better late than never.

The signs were there. I pointed some of them out in the pregame open thread. The Nets were .500 (now above) at home, Denver was 8-13 (now 14) on the road. Denver’s biggest defensive weaknesses mirrored New Jersey’s biggest offensive strengths. New Jersey had the defensive pieces necessary to neutralize Denver’s biggest offensive weaknesses. ‘Melo was likely to isolate on numerous plays, which looks pretty and reinforces your individual greatness but usually ends poorly for the team in the long run. A little of it was luck, but most of it was expected execution. All of it led to an upset victory.

Even as the Nuggets cut an 18-point lead to just five early in the fourth quarter, the Nets quickly neutralized every single attempt to get it closer. It was Newtonian: every Nuggets action was met with an equal and opposite Nets reaction. Chauncey Billups hits a 3, Ben Uzoh hits one right back. Nene gets a dunk, Harris slices through the interior & returns with a layup. J.R. Smith hits a stepback jumper, Favors draws a Smith foul and knocks down both free throws.

Carmelo Anthony made his Newark debut – albeit for the opposing team – and if fans came to see a show, they certainly got one. ‘Melo lit up the arena for 37 points on a beautiful 12-22 shooting night. Running on all cylinders, most of Melo’s shots were midrange jumpers in isolation, although he did post up when smaller defenders like Anthony Morrow were on him & was also found for a couple of spot-up threes. But at the end of the day, basketball isn’t a one-on-one game, it’s five-on-five, and the Nuggets just didn’t know how to handle New Jersey when the Nets had the ball.

Besides, who needs ‘Melo when you have Morrlaw?

I know you remember him. Tranthony Morrlaw, the two-headed creature that’s half good, half bad, and you can never quite guess which half. Well, that guy’s finally figured it out. Both halves of Morrlaw played excellent basketball, combining for 39 points on 14-20 shooting, 7-11 from the field, 7 rebounds, and zero turnovers. Individually, Outlaw finished with 21 points, and Morrow didn’t miss a shot – 6-6 from the field, including four threes. Huge game from Morrlaw. He completely neutralized ‘Melo.

Morrlaw was one star(s) tonight, but there were at least two others. Firstly, Brook Lopez cannot go unnoticed. His touch was as sweet as ever from within ten feet – hitting hook shots, layups, dunks, and even connecting on a few of those midrange spot-up jumpers he loves so much. He finished the night with 27 points, out-dueling Nene and – get this – even out-rebounding him!

Okay, Nene only had three rebounds and Lopez had four. But still!

The other star was oft-maligned point guard, Devin Harris. Fresh off setting his career high with sixteen assists on Saturday, Devin makes sure that record doesn’t last too long and bested it with eighteen last night. Two of those assists were back-to-back alley-oops in transition to Humphries (a play that looked positively Baron-to-Blake-Griffinesque) and Lopez. They were the single most exciting back-to-back possessions the Nets have had all year, and Devin Harris was the catalyst. Given how he’s been distributing these past few games, I’m backing off my original comments that the Nets and Harris are destined to split.

Let’s look back at the keys of this game:

1) Attack with pick & rolls, cuts, & spot-ups. Of the 99 plays by the Nets, a whopping 43 were either pick & roll ballhandlers, roll men, or spot-up shooters (23 plays were of the spot-up variety, more than any other play type). The ballhandlers weren’t great, but the roll men & spot-up shooters combined for 17-31 shooting, including 6-10 from three and an and-1. The Nets also got eight easy points off cuts. That’s 49 efficient points right there.

One place that surprised me was in transition: despite Denver having the best transition defense in the NBA, the Nets shot a blistering 7-9 in transition, including one three and an and-1.

2) Defend strong in the post, avoid fouls, and close out on spot-up shooters. The Nets were effective in the post, but didn’t do so well on spot-up shooters – allowing 8-12 shooting (mostly Carmelo, J.R. Smith, and Billups), with three 3’s.

3) Force the Nuggets into isolation. This was the difference-maker. The Nuggets unsurprisingly used 24 possessions in isolation last night (14 by Carmelo Anthony), shot 5-17 with zero threes, and turned the ball over four times for a miserable 0.63 points per possession.

When 25% of your offensive sets are of the “let’s be predictable and let this guy show off for a while” variety, it’s no surprise that you end up losing.

One more thing this game taught us: it pays to draw fouls. In the final quarter, the Nets put the Nuggets in the bonus with 6:35 remaining. At this point, the Nuggets had cut the lead to five (98-93). The Nets scored the next six points on free throws to make the game 104-93, and the lead never went under ten points again.

At the end of the night, the Nets were just the better team. No question. As a Nets observer, you don’t get to say that often, especially against an above-.500 star-led Western Conference team.

More thoughts after the jump.

Carmelo Anthony to the Pacers?
My favorite picture of the night. I'm a random humor guy. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The Nets enjoyed a burst of energy from their bench last night. In a combined 95:16 (I’m not counting Quinton Ross, who played one minute of garbage time), the bench combined for a huge 50 points, 20 rebounds, seven assists, and seven steals. The Nets will take that kind of production off the bench any day.

That being said, Stephen Graham is now a starter much like Joe Smith was a starter at the beginning of this year. Morrow is deservedly playing the lion’s share of minutes at shooting guard. I think Avery wants to use him off the bench a la Ben Gordon. It seems to be working, so no complaints from this guy.

This is key. I’ve said before that offensive rebounds and turnovers are extremely important polar opposites: one loses a possession, the other preserves a possession. In a game that requires a team to turn possessions into shots (and shots into makes), keeping possession is crucial. The Nets passed with flying colors last night. New Jersey had 12 offensive rebounds and 10 turnovers (+2) to the Nuggets’ 3 offensive rebounds and 16 turnovers (-13). The Nets were a +15 by this metric and by no coincidence ended up shooting 14 more shots. In a game where the effective FG% of the teams is largely the same (just a 2% difference in favor of New Jersey), possession makes all the difference.

Derrick Favors, the Carmelo Anthony trade chip, had a largely forgettable (if not efficient) game, with six points, six rebounds, and five fouls in 20 minutes. One important play in the fourth: Favors got a beautiful feed off the pick & roll in the lane, set his feet, and went up for just a shot at the rim against J.R. Smith. Avery yelled at him afterwards that he’s got to be dunking that every time. As we’ve said many times before, this is a growing process. In time, those shots will become dunks. That being said, he should have put that one down.

Kris Humphries had a near double-double in 27 minutes with 15 points and nine rebounds. Also important: Kim Kardashian & Carmelo’s wife Lala bet on the game: loser buys the winner breakfast. After the game, Kim tweeted to Kris: “think of a good breakfast spot!”

To close: The Nets are now 5-3 since Mikhail Prokhorov closed the door on the Carmelo Anthony deal. Fin.