Thoughts on the Game: Nuggets 107, Nets 103

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The New Jersey Nets came close to a win once more, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. At the end of the night, the loss was a loss, and the Denver Nuggets came out victorious, 107-103, in the Pepsi Center. As a result, the Nets (4-8) finished their 4-game West road trip 1-3, dropping the final three games of the span. Carmelo Anthony led the Nuggets (7-6) with 28 points, and Brook Lopez paced the Nets with 20.

First of all, it has become clear that motivation and resilience are not going to be problems with this year’s Nets team. While Kiki Vandeweghe might have been more or less indifferent to keeping his players in the games last year, Avery Johnson has had no such concerns. He has infused this team with a hunger to win, which is of the utmost importance. The on-court performance will come with time, but the mental mindset of ruthlessly pursuing a win is something that a team can’t acquire — it either has it or it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, that tendency to hang in there means a lot more heartbreak for the fans of the team; last night’s game against the Nuggets was no exception. Denver flirted throughout with putting the game out of reach, but the Nets continually crawled back in with effort plays and timely runs. In this game, it was frustratingly poor execution down the stretch (specifically, a giant blunder by Lopez with 14 seconds to play) that cost the Nets a chance at this game.

With the Nets down 2 points, Lopez found himself with the ball at point-blank range with an open look at the rim. He promptly tried to lay it in, and the ball bricked off the rim into the hands of a Nuggets defender. This comment in the pregame open thread tells the story of what every fan watching this game was thinking:

Brook you have to dunk that bleeping ball. Use your bleeping brain. Have you forgotten how to dunk? Come on!!!

— Joe

It was truly a regrettable blunder for the star center, who put this season’s sudden passivity on center stage by missing the layup. While the layup might have been the easier course of action, going up strong for the hammer and either putting it down or getting fouled was the right choice. That’s the transition that Lopez needs to make to become a truly great center in the league: being assertive and converting those key plays down the stretch. Unsurprisingly, Anthony, the true closer in this game, promptly hit the resulting two free throws to effectively ice the game.

Still, the Nets did not play bad basketball. While they only shot 40 percent from the field for the game, they only turned the ball over seven times and hauled down 45 rebounds. Players who were struggling also stepped up down the stretch.

Travis Outlaw and Jordan Farmar drained key threes toward the end of the fourth quarter to keep the Nets breathing, and Harris, who shot just 3-of-9 in 30 minutes, tapped a rebound away from the Nuggets and took it in transition for an easy layup to bring the Nets within two before Lopez’s brain fart. This is a major component of the newfound never-say-die attitude. Even when the Nets are struggling, the players find a way to help the team stay in the game with the clock winding down.

All that said, it is crucial that the Nets don’t become regularly satisfied with close losses. While this season in no way resembles last year’s disaster, the team is still only 4-8. While winning the championship this year obviously isn’t the goal, the Nets still need to win games now. No, 4-8 isn’t terrible, but exceeding expectations will help significantly in the long run. Combining the effort they put out tonight with avoiding shortcomings like Lopez’s fail will mean the difference in key games upcoming.

Some other thoughts after the break:

  • Kris Humphries is a man among boys right now. While he only played 19 minutes in the game, he managed to put together a solid game with 10 points and 8 rebounds. His per-40-minute rates of 14.1 points and 13.3 rebounds are simply astounding, but that’s not all. Humphries has the second-highest true-shooting percentage among power forwards in the league at 69 percent, and his rebound rate of 19.7 is the fifth-highest for his position. All that amounts to a fantastic PER of 20.61, and it’s evident that his decision to exercise his player option this summer was a blessing in disguise, especially considering Troy Murphy’s unexpected irrelevance.
  • Aside from Anthony and Nene, the Nuggets were not all that productive against the Nets. Chauncey Billups was held to 8 points on 1-of-3 shooting, and Al Harrington logged just 3 points on 1-of-7 shooting. Still, Ty Lawson, J.R. Smith, and Melvin Ely (of all people) were killers off the bench. They combined for 35 points on 15-of-21 shooting from the field. It was their performance that made the difference in the Nuggets’ victory.
  • Derrick Favors had another solid game going against the man people think he might be traded for in the coming months. He had 14 points and 8 rebounds in 25 minutes, and his 6-of-7 free-throw shooting was a shot in the arm for the Nets when they needed points. Favors is starting to look more comfortable on offense. While creating shots for himself on a regular basis is still way far off, he’s starting to stand in the right place more often and to get himself open for the looks that other players can create for him. Right now, getting those garbage points, rebounding, playing defense, and staying out of foul trouble are the things he should be most focused on.
  • Troy Murphy was inactive again tonight, and I’m not sure it was because of his foot injury. With Hump playing so well, Murphy is no longer getting an opportunity to prove his worth. He’ll get his chance again, and he needs to make the most of it to avoid falling to the bench purgatory.
  • Along those lines, Terrence Williams was a nonfactor once again. In just 8 minutes, he had 2 points and shot 0-of-3 from the field. It seems that, barring a colossal breakdown for either Anthony Morrow or Travis Outlaw, Williams has lost a key role in the rotation. His talent is palpable, so if Johnson is going to continue to look in other directions, Billy King should seriously consider testing the waters for any suitors for his services. Same goes for Murphy.