Heading into the 2012-13 season, many NBA watchers (including us) figured the Denver Nuggets would turn in one of the league's top offenses, but we also figured they might do so without being a very good outside shooting team. After all, the Nuggets finished last season with the sixth-worst 3-point shooting percentage in the league, and their best marksman, Arron Afflalo, was shipped to the Orlando Magic as part of the four-team mega-deal that imported Andre Iguodala, landed Dwight Howard with the Los Angeles Lakers and, allegedly, put Andrew Bynum on the Philadelphia 76ers. Even if Iguodala shot as well as he did in Philly last year and Danilo Gallinari rediscovered his stroke after a down season, the makeup of the roster suggested that Denver might struggle from downtown.
But there's struggle, and then there's struggle.
The Nuggets lost to the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night, a 101-93 defeat made remarkable by Denver's utter inability to do any damage at all outside the paint. The problem was most notable from beyond the arc — George Karl's team took 22 3-pointers on Thursday, four more than their per-game season average, and they didn't make any of them, which is, like, way worse than their season average. As a matter of fact, that's worse than, well, any team ever.
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The Nuggets' 22 long-range tries without a make establishes an NBA record for 3-point futility, breaking the prior "most attempts without a conversion" record of 0 for 20 set by ... the 2012-13 Blazers, just nine days earlier, in a win over the Toronto Raptors. (You may remember that game more for Raptors forward Amir Johnson — who REALLY likes being a Raptor, by the way — throwing his mouthpiece at a referee's back.)
"The best thing about tonight was [the Nuggets] beat our record of 0-for-20," Portland swingman Nicolas Batum (22 points, six rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal in the win) joked after the game. "We're almost as happy about that as the win itself."
The Nuggets' failures weren't just from behind the 3-point line, though. As their shot chart shows, they absolutely couldn't get anything to fall from outside the paint:
Yikes. That's a lot of red.
Seventy-four of Denver's 93 points came in the paint; 17 came at the foul line. They went 2 for 38 from further than nine feet out, according to Hoopdata's shot location statistics, and 1 for 32 outside the lane. The Nuggets didn't get their first jumper to fall until the game's final minute, when point guard Ty Lawson hit from the top of the key with 38 seconds left, which, as NBA.com's John Schuhmann put it, was Portland's equivalent of a pitcher working on a no-hitter giving one up with two outs in the ninth inning.
Frankly, given how abysmal its shooting was, it's something of a miracle that Denver nearly won this game by cutting up Portland's perimeter defense with dribble penetration to get into the paint for up-close looks, and by beating the Blazers down the court in transition:
"The rhythm of the game was not in our favor, and our guys seemed to be worn out a little bit," Karl said after the game, according to Anne M. Peterson of The Associated Press. ''If you make two threes, it's a different basketball game — a totally different game. It's not time to panic or anything. We just didn't have enough shooters out there."
It's possible that the Nuggets' awry jumpers were the result of tired legs and a brutal, road-heavy early season schedule catching up with them; as we've noted before, 19 of Denver's first 27 games have come away from the Pepsi Center, they've had a couple of tough back-to-backs this season, and even though this week's schedule did include a couple of off days, it also saw the Nuggets play at home last Friday, fly to Sacramento for a Sunday game, fly back to Denver for Tuesday's matchup with the Spurs and fly out to Portland for Thursday. There were travel days built in, but still, that's a fair amount of zig-zagging in the space of a week.
That said, Nuggets guard Corey Brewer isn't really buying it.
"You can say guys are getting tired, but it's not an excuse," Brewer told Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post after the game. "When you're missing like we missed, it's just tough. They shot it well from three, and that's what beat us."
Brewer's right on there — the Blazers were no great shakes themselves offensively on Thursday, hitting just 36 percent of their field goals, but they did shoot a sterling 14 for 36 (38.9 percent) from 3-point land, led by Batum (5 for 9 from deep), Wesley Matthews (4 for 9, 20 points) and reserve Luke Babbitt (4 for 7, 14 points off the bench).
On Karl's other point: The only Nuggets who didn't play Thursday night were rookie Quincy Miller and the injured Wilson Chandler and Julyan Stone. If Denver "just didn't have enough shooters" on the floor Thursday night, it's because — as many suspected — Denver just doesn't have enough shooters. That's especially glaring as we watch Iguodala regress to his career 33 percent long-range mark after flirting with 40 percent last season, Lawson's offense worryingly fall off a cliff (his field-goal and 3-point percentages have dropped in each of his four NBA seasons, and he's now making just 32.5 percent from long distance and 42 percent overall) and Gallinari looking nowhere near the sharpshooter he appeared to be early in his career; he's under 40 percent from the field and just above 30 percent from deep.
When your most reliable floor-spacers are Corey Brewer and Jordan Hamilton, you've got a shooting problem; when everybody runs cold all at once, you can look historically bad from the floor, as Denver did on Thursday. Whether the lack of reliable marksmanship proves to be a fatal postseason flaw for the 14-13 Nuggets, who are now the third-least accurate team from 3-point range (thank goodness for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Washington Wizards), remains to be seen, but at least Karl and company know that it can't get any worse than it was Thursday night ... can it?
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