Like the loss in Utah, the Pacers could have won this game. Given the back-to-back controversial calls that favored the Nuggets on the game’s final two possessions, it isn’t unreasonable to think the Pacers should have won this game.
But I’m not really hearing all that.
Indiana, again, did not play all that well in a building in which it is tough to win unless you play well. From the outset, Denver’s biggest key to the game was fulfilled as the Nuggets forced the Pacers to play at their pace. Indiana was willing and went against character by spreading the offense and launching shots from deep. They were making ‘em, too, hitting 6 of their first 12 from long distance in the game’s first 18 minutes.
They were up 45-41, but this team doesn’t normally shoot like this (no team does), so Denver had to feel good about its chances given how easily they were scoring in the paint — a place that is usually a verboten scoring zone when playing this Indiana team.
The final six minutes of the half saw the score start to go Denver’s way. The pace of the game and Denver’s insistence on bombarding the lane started to shape everything that was happening on the court.
The Pacers stopped hitting shots (going 3-for-10 in the final six minutes of the half), and the Nuggets kept diving to the hoop. They got to the line, first cutting into Indiana’s lead and then taking one of their own as their athletic wing players scored free points at the charity stripe.
Of all the teams in the NBA, the Nuggets score far and away the most points per game in the paint. It is a staggering disparity between them (56.2 points in the paint per game) and the number-two Clippers (46.7). Meanwhile, no team in the NBA allows fewer points in the paint than the Pacers (which allow a mere 35.7 points in the paint per game).
Something had to give. Spoiler alert: It was Indiana’s defense.
It tells us a lot that the Nuggets were able to score 30 points in the paint in the first half. Not only is that more than half of what they normally produce, but it is nearly the entire game-long total that the Pacers usually let up.
Looking at these numbers, there is little else to conclude than this: one team was maintaining its normal identity in this game and one team was completely unable to exert its game plan on the opponent.
The third quarter was more of the same.
The first numbers need no context: Indiana shot just 8-for-21 (38.1%) while Denver made 12-for-22 (54.5%).
The more interesting aspect is not makes or misses; it is the quality of shots the two teams got. Denver took 11 shots in the paint, including 8 in the restricted area. They made 5 of these 8 at the rim, and 1 of these misses came only due to a spectacular block by Paul George on what seemed to be a sure dunk for Danilo Gallinari on the break.
From the beginning of the quarter, the Nuggets were off to the races and their running created easy baskets. They grabbed Indiana misses and went the other way, and after two big blocks by Kosta Koufos ignited more fast breaks, they jumped out to a six-point lead and had the arena rocking.
This was Nuggets basketball at its finest. Even when they couldn’t run in the quarter, they probed the paint and only settled for jumpers after first trying to score inside.
The Pacers, to their credit, did not simply resign themselves to shooting from the outside. They continually tried to pound the ball inside, posting up George Hill on Ty Lawson, for example, as well as getting looks for both Roy Hibbert and David West in their usual comfort zones. (Presuming, ya know, Hibbert still has one.)
The problem wasn’t so much the intent, but the execution. The offense simply was unable to create the types of high-quality shots we saw on the other end.
Of the Pacers’ 21 shots in the period, 9 did come in the paint. But they made just 2. (Although several of the misses did come on a single play in which Lance Stephenson missed a driving layup and Roy Hibbert missed multiple put-back attempts. In all, Hibbert was 0-for-4 in the quarter.)
The team went inside but they didn’t get layups, just contested mid-range shots. The best looks of the quarter came from the inside-out game as the interior ball-handlers make the wise decision not to shoot and instead found an open player outside. Such looks are tough to rely on, however, and the misses started to pile up.
Nothing changed as the game entered the fourth: Indiana missed 7 of its first 11 shots, and Denver made 4 of its first 6, while adding 6 free throws during the stretch. Some offensive boards and free throws by Indiana kept the game from getting even further out of hand, but it was no fluke that the Nuggets took a game-high 14-point lead after Lawson raced down the court to score easily at the rim in transition with 6:45 to play. It was the fourth Nugget field goal of the final period, and all four were scored while the attacking player seemed to have a heatseeking lock on the rim. The were going to the hoop all the way, and the Pacers were unable to stop them.
What came next was a surprise.
The Pacers defense completely took over the game seconds later. The much-heralded defense put on the clamps and kept the Nuggets from scoring for the nearly five straight minutes in the game’s closing minutes. It was a complete reversal of dominance. It was like the third act of a Mighty Ducks sequel had just begun.
As the stops piled up, Stephenson did the rest. With his team down 14 and just over six minutes to play, he scored or assisted on 13 of the Pacers’ next 15 points as they cut the lead to just two.
First Lance drove to the hoop. Layup. He broke down the defense again, but this time dumped it off to Hibbert for the dunk after drawing a second defender. Then, Stephenson stuck a big three to cut it to eight.
Indiana had life.
And Lance wasn’t done.
He pushed the ball in transition and whipped out a signature hesitation move to get to the line and hit two freebies. His next foray into the open court was even better — both aesthetically and value-wise.
The Pacers forced yet another miss and he received the outlet. But he wasn’t content to walk it up, instead pushing the ball up court before the defense was set. He dribbled from the left wing to the middle, drawing Andre Iguodala to deal with the scoring threat that Stephenson provided. As Iggy left Paul George, Lance wasted no time and found a wide-open George for a three.
Better yet: Iguodala was so slow to rotate back that he had to leap extra far to even pretend to contest the look. The result was Iggy fouling George after the release.
Indiana only got to this point because the defense was able to hold Denver scoreless for nearly five minutes. But make no mistake, they also only got to this point because Lance Stephenson kept that ball in his hands and made four plays himself — and that doesn’t even include the spot-up three he drilled.
The comeback doesn’t happen without both of these elements happening in unison. It was some special stuff.
Then came the ending. Which is what everyone will be talking about.
Really, the rest of the game is stuff you can find on Sportscenter, but I’ll play along and recount what I saw.
Following the four-point-play gaffe, Iguodala continued to embarrass himself. He did a good job to get out into transition and draw fouls on two separate occasions. But he missed four straight free throws and nearly cost his team the game. That is five points that he can be blamed for individually if you include the foul shot Paul George made.
The teams then traded a few big buckets, and the game was tied. Denver ball.
They went to Gallo, who was a monster in the second half with 19 points after the break. But his drive/step back attempt wasn’t step-backy enough to elude the Mr. Fantastic reach of a Paul George contest.
George blocked the 6’10” Italian’s fadeaway. Easily.
One possession. Score or go to overtime.
I would have run a George Hill/David West pick-and-roll, but the team opted to give the ball to Paul George in isolation with Iguodala defending him. As George made his move, the two players collided and it looked like a whistle was warranted, especially as George lost the ball.
That was controversy number one. (Credit Iggy for at least one thing, however: He grabbed the loose ball and called a timeout with less than a second left but before the buzzer sounded.)
Nuggets’ ball on their own end. They need a miracle.
They get it.
On a nicely executed lob play for Iggy, Paul George and Andre both elevate for the ball like few humans on this planet can. There was contact. Iguodala can’t get a good tip on the ball.
Paul George is called for a foul and Iggy heads to the line. No embarrassment this time.
Pacers fans, players and coaches will tell you that these final two plays mean more than the 24 straight minutes that Denver dominated Indiana from the mid-second quarter to the last half of the final period. The refs blew it, man, they’ll tell you.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Those calls were suspect. There isn’t any doubt about it.
But the Pacers tried to come into a building where winning is a very hard proposition and they left their game plan in the locker room almost from the opening tip. They were happy to spread the game and shoot threes and try to score with Denver. It even worked for the first 18 minutes.
But then the shots stopped going in and the Nuggets did what the Nuggets do: played hard-nosed defense, scrambled and affixed their single-minded Terminator-like focus on the rim.
Indiana couldn’t recover until the waning minutes and by then it was, ultimately, too late. Too late to still win while overcoming some minor officiating adversity anyway.
Talk about the calls, but the Pacers were simply unable to stop the Nuggets from exploiting the interior. A team whose whole identity is based on tough defense got shredded inside for 24 straight minutes. Nothing shows this better than the film, but one look at the shot chart tells you which team was pounding the interior and which team was settling for more jumpers. And the percentages don’t lie.
The team deserves a huge amount of credit for turning the screws so tightly late. Holding any team scoreless for nearly five minutes is incredibly impressive. Lance, too, played some stupendous basketball down the stretch. None of the end-game nonsense even has a chance to happen if not for him taking over late.
Such things, however, are tough to rely on. So too are expecting the other team’s best player (probably) to miss four free throws late.
So its wonderful that they were right there in the end, but the most concerning aspect of this game is not the state of NBA officiating. It is that the supposed best defensive team in the NBA, which should have been trying to salvage a road trip, did not come out and make the Nuggets adapt to them; instead, they adapted to the Nuggets.
Indiana tried to play Denver basketball from the opening tip, and they simply don’t play it as well as Denver does. That’s what really happened.
Tags: Road Troubles