Nuggets get along for at least one game
Instead of tweeting and bickering, the Denver Nuggets came out hustling and passing in Game 5 of their NBA playoff series, determined not to fold in a first-round elimination game Wednesday night against the Utah Jazz.
When it was over, and the Nuggets had a 116-102 victory, coach Adrian Dantley finally could loosen his tie – albeit just a little bit.
“We’ve got a big challenge,” said Dantley, whose team heads to Salt Lake City still trailing 3-2.
“We know it will be a tough game up there, in a tough arena. But I’m glad we did what we did tonight.”
What the Nuggets did was share the ball, with six players scoring in double figures.
But the most telling stat was not six but 20 – their seemingly magic number in assists.
The Nuggets were 44-7 during the regular season when they got 20 or more assists, and only 9-22 when the total was lower.
When veteran guard Chauncey Billups stole the ball from Deron Williams late in the game, and Chris Andersen passed ahead to J.R. Smith for the dunk, the goal was met.
“The pressure now is on them to win Game 6,” said Billups, who took it upon himself to make the Nuggets a more aggressive team Wednesday. “We have to leave everything on the court and try to steal that game.”
They’ll likely have to do so without starting center Nene, who limped off the court in the second quarter with a sprained left knee.
Dantley can only hope the Nuggets respond Friday night the way they did in the second half Wednesday, and the way Utah has played without two starters.
“It looks like when (Nene) went out, they picked themselves up … and were a lot stronger,” Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. “That’s what happens when you have guys who have the chance to play and they try to make up the difference.”
In Nene’s absence, Andersen stepped up with 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots, while fellow reserve Johan Petro added four points, six rebounds and a block.
The question is: Can they do it again, in Salt Lake City, where the Jazz were 32-9 during the regular season and rolled to wins in Games 3 and 4 by a combined 23 points.
Denver knows it all starts with defense, and that it still needs to step it up against Williams and sidekick Carlos Boozer, who combined for 59 points Wednesday night.
“(They) will get their shots,” said Carmelo Anthony, who led Denver with 26 points and 11 rebounds. “The key is not to let guys like (Kyle) Korver, (C.J.) Miles and (Kyrylo) Fesenko have real good games.”
If Denver can pull off the comeback, it would be only the ninth team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 deficit.
Billups certainly knows it can be done, having directed the Magic trick in 2003 in rallying Detroit past Orlando.
He’ll need help, and Wednesday he got it from the bench.
Ty Lawson played nearly 20 minutes, scoring six points and dishing out three assists.
And Smith, who caused a big uproar with his famous tweet Wednesday night about the Nuggets “playing selfish,” redeemed himself.
He finished with 17 points, making 4 of 5 3-pointers in helping Denver outscore Utah 36-29 in the third quarter and 30-21 in the final stanza.
“He is always a concern,” Sloan said. “He can get his own shot, get to the basket… he is tough for us to guard.”
The same can be said for Williams, who Billups tried to take on single-handedly in the first quarter only to have to sit out much of the second in foul trouble.
“In times like this you learn a lot about your teammates, down 3-1 and facing a good team,” Billups said. “Some would hang their heads and say, ‘Man, they got us.’ We didn’t have one guy that did that. Everyone came in real focused trying to extend the series.”
For some, it was a matter of pride.
“I’ve been in situations like this before, in elimination games, and haven’t succeeded,” said Anthony, who saw the Nuggets go one-and-done from 2004-2008 before pushing the Los Angeles Lakers to the brink in last year’s Western Conference finals. “I didn’t want that feeling again.”
The Jazz have pride too, and arguably the best point guard in the league.
On Wednesday, Williams became the first player in NBA history to record five straight 20-point/10-assist double-doubles to begin a series.
“Stuff was too easy (for the Nuggets),” Williams said. “We have to get back to playing our basketball.”
Like the Nuggets, they aren’t about to throw in the towel.