The NBA can be a funny place.
Teams that are expected to be dominant aren’t (Philly and New Orleans so far), others that looked to be basement dwellers are holding their heads high (New York and Atlanta), and finally a few others have turned on the jets and taken the league by surprise.
In the latter category, you’d have to include the suddenly lethal New Jersey Nets, and also the Denver Nuggets.
I don’t think it was a big surprise to anyone that the trade they made to move Allen Iverson was going to work out in their favour more than Detroit in the short term. However for the team to win 11 of 14 under his reign as starting point guard, and enter tonight’s match sporting the second best record in the West?
I think even George Karl would admit to being surprised by this turn of events.
The Nuggets have managed to keep up their up-tempo scoring ways (they are currently tied for 6th in the league in scoring) and yet have used the addition of Billups to help shore up their non-existent defense from last season. Suddenly the team is giving up only an average of 97.9 points a game. Sure it’s middle of the road in terms of the amount of points the average NBA squad allows by opponents but get this; it’s a full two points better than our Toronto Raptors, who are currently allowing a shade under 100 points (99.7!)
The Nuggs are near the top of both the ESPN Power Rankings (number five), and our own NBA blogosphere’s weekly polls (number seven.) The Raptors as you can see…not so high.
So can the Dinos pull out a big win tonight before heading off to Utah? Let’s take a look at our 3 Keys.
1) Production from the Front-Court.
I’ve lumped this one together because there are a few pieces that bear discussion here. First and foremost, Jermaine O’Neal. O’Neal yesterday reported that he’s still day-to-day on the ankle which sounds like he’s a no-go tonight. And that’s not good news for us Raptors’ fans. Denver, like LA, sports a number of athletic bigs in their front-court and I guarantee they’re going to make it as tough as possible for Bosh to get going. Kenyon Martin in fact is exactly the nasty defender Bosh hates playing and while K-Mart is not the K-Mart of Nets days, he’s still going to make Bosh work for everything and hope that when he gets beat, Nene will be looming on the weak side.
This then means that Bosh is going to need Andrea Bargnani to give him lots of help, not just on the offensive end, but defensively and on the glass. It’s too early to say whether Bargs or Bosh will get the assignment on Nene but both will need to move the 7-footer as far away from the hoop as possible to prevent easy put-backs. The Lakers killed Toronto in this fashion on Sunday night and while LA had more length and athleticism, the Raptors still need to zone in tonight against the likes of Nene, Martin, Andersen and Kleiza. The good news is that Denver doesn’t have a great offensive or defensive rebounding rate statistically, so if Toronto’s "bigs" can seize the advantage this evening, that’s one big check mark on the "need to do to win" list.
2) Transition Defence.
With Billups in tow, Denver has been much more effective running their offense in the half-court however make no mistake about it; as their team’s scoring average indicates, this squad can still get out and run. The other major issue Toronto had Sunday against LA was getting stops in transition, and the Lakers ran the ball down the Raptors’ collective throats at every opportunity. I’d rather not see a repeat of that again tonight so hopefully Sam Mitchell stressed the importance yesterday of getting back. As Jack Armstrong alluded, "if you’re not a rebounder, you better get back on D." The Nuggets have the sixth fastest pace in the league while the Lakers are third so there’s not exactly a huge drop-off here. Toronto is going to need to be aware of this and look to stop the ball as soon as it’s evident that Denver has secured a rebound off a miss. Attached to this of course is our first key as if Denver starts getting on the glass a lot more often than Toronto, this is going to lead to quick outlets for the Nuggets’ athletic slashers like JR Smith and Dahntay Jones...and that could mean a lonnnnng night for the Raps.
3) Bench Play.
I can’t stress this enough.
-When Joey Graham comes in and actively looks to get to the rim, good things happen.
-When Roko looks to get into the paint and create, good things happen.
-When Jason Kapono tears around screens early looking for his shot, good things happen.
-When Hump crashes the boards and moves bodies around, good things happen.
Are we noticing a trend here yet?
The Raptors, for all of Bosh’s glory, need the bench to be a productive group, especially in games like tonight’s. Denver isn’t Lakers’ deep off the pine, but they do possess a slew of specialists who can affect the game via long-range shooting (Kleiza), athleticism (Smith), rebounding (Andersen) or even raw effort (Balkman.) Toronto is going to need their own bench to match these specialists stride for stride, and provide a nice boost to the starters. This could be an even bigger advantage as Denver may be playing with a "less than 100 per cent" Carmello Anthony. Anthony is battling a right elbow contusion and while he felt better yesterday (he missed practice), it’s during game-action that it flares up. Here’s hoping that whoever guards Melo tonight is well aware of this and forces the former Orangeman to put the ball on the floor.
The Nuggets lost only five games in November and have the look of a top 5 team in the West. Besides a loss to the pre "we need more shooting guards" trade Warriors, these losses came at the hands of the Lakers twice, Cavs once, and Hornets, pretty much the crème de la crème of the league.
It’s going to be a tough match for the Raptors, especially without JO, however if Toronto can do a good job regarding the keys above, this is definitely a winnable game.
And if things don’t come up roses for the Dinos, at least Sam Mitchell eliminated George Karl in Round 1 of Dallas Basketball.com’s Coaches Slam Dunk Contest…