A lot to talk about from this game, so let's get going...
I've been constantly complaining about effort lately. Too often, the Wolves have looked like a team that just doesn't care...a team that isn't buying whatever its coach is selling. But tonight, I can't justify criticizing them for a lack of effort, because our guys played a (mostly) gutsy game. For once, they displayed some heart.
There are a few things you need to do to beat the Denver Nuggets. First, shoot the ball well...Denver loves to push the ball in transition off of missed shots, so shoot a high percentage from the field, and the Nugg's fast break opportunities will be very limited.
Then, you've gotta get back on defense. Again, Denver will make you pay on the fast break if your transition defense is sluggish.
And finally, you must control the tempo of the game, and force Denver to play your style of basketball...few teams can keep up with the Nuggets in a run-and-gun battle (certainly not the Wolves, at least).
With the exception of the much of the first quarter and part of the second, the Wolves were generally successful with all of those tasks. They shot 53% from the floor for the game, and just as important, they shot 10-22 from beyond the arc--mainly thanks to hot long-range shooting from Antoine and Rashad.
And I could definitely sense some frustration from Denver because of the Wolves' hot shooting...it limited opportunities in transition for Iverson and Carmello, and if you can stop those two from getting easy baskets on the break, you've got a great chance to beat the Nuggets.
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As for the Wolves' transition defense, it was a tale of two halves. In the first half, I saw Bassy and Marko being sluggish in transition, and getting burned by Denver's long outlet passes (of corse, Telfair and Jaric aren't the only ones culpable for that...Rashad certainly hasn't been blameless for the Wolves' poor transition defense, and I also remember a couple instances of Gomsey letting Denver players slip behind him).
In the second half, though, things tightened up for the Wolves when defending the Nuggets' fast break. You didn't see Iverson and Carmello getting quick, easy baskets, because our squad was actually getting back on defense. And that's huge. Transitional defense woes have plagued this team throughout the entire season, so it was promising to see them slow down Denver's fast-paced offense in the second half.
And on that same note, the Wolves did a good job of dictating the tempo of the game, especially in the second half. Really, that's a culmination of the previous two factors I discussed...by shooting a high percentage from the field and tightening up the transition defense, they could control the pacing of the game. They forced Denver to play a mainly halfcourt game on offense in the third and fourth quarters, and that's a big reason why the Wolves were able to stay competitive for most of the game.
OK--with the way I've been talking about this game, it sounds like the Wolves came out on top. Of course, that didn't happen.
With the Wolves leading by one, Antoine Walker did his best Spencer Tollackson impression, missing a pair of key free throws with 45 seconds remaining in the game. Those turned out to be huge misses.
Because of those misses, I can't feel too sorry that the Wolves lost. You can argue about the fairness of the officiating, but c'mon...this is the NBA. And at this level, there is absolutely no excuse for missing two critical free throws. No excuse...you have to convert free throw attempts down the stretch, and if you can't, I won't feel too sorry that you ended up losing the game.
So as I mentioned, the Wolves still held a one-point advantage after Antoine's choke job at the charity stripe, but that quickly disappeared as Iverson nailed a cold-blooded fade away jumper to give Denver the lead.
Toine missed a shot on the next possession, and the ball was tipped out-of-bounds with the refs giving possession to Denver. Big Al took exception to that call, and rightfully so...I watched the replay several times on Tivo, and can say without a single doubt that a member of the Nuggets tipped the ball out of bounds.
It was a major judgment error on Al's part to argue with the officials to the point where he picked up a technical...when he was tee'd up, the outcome of the game was still very much in doubt. But part of me can't blame him for letting out that frustration.
For the most part, I don't buy into this "the Wolves get no respect from refs" conspiracy theory. There are two main reasons for the high amount of fouls the Wolves pick up: Poor effort, and playing defense with the hands rather than the feet. But on many, many occasions, Jefferson has been outright disrespected by officials...he's having a great year, but he's not getting the calls that a borderline All-Star caliber big man deserves to get. And that's gotta be incredibly frustrating.
On a side note, he looked eerily similar to Mr. Eko from "Lost" when he was staring down the refs.
One more thing: The Wolves were called for twice as many fouls as Denver was (28 to 14). While our squad was certainly more aggressive on defense than the Nuggets were, they weren't THAT much more aggressive... thinking back about the game, I see no way that such a huge foul discrepancy can possibly be justified.
But what can you say? For the majority of the game, the Wolves played winning basketball...however, you've gotta play a complete 48 minutes, and they simply didn't do that. The officials definitely tilted things in favor of the Nuggets (I doubt even a Denver fan could argue that point), but the Wolves still had their chances to finally snap their 15-game road losing streak, and failed to capitalize.
Antoine choking on a pair of free throws, and then missing an open shot with 10 seconds remaining. Giving Iverson a virtually uncontested three with a minute to go. The refs may have sucked, but the Wolves didn't do themselves any favors in the final minute, either.