OKLAHOMA CITY – The Denver Nuggets went home winless Wednesday night after two playoff games against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Nuggets' lone victory against the Thunder in five total meetings this season was on Jan. 19, when Carmelo Anthony(notes) scored a game-high 35 points, his only appearance in the season series.
After the Nuggets were forced to trade Anthony to the New York Knicks, a strong perception grew that they could be more successful without Anthony as Denver went 18-7 without its star. But by the looks of Denver’s pair of postseason losses, the key things needed for victory are what Anthony could’ve provided – something missing from the current roster.
" 'Melo is a terrific scorer," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, a former Nuggets assistant. "He scores like Kevin [Durant]. He can score on the wing, up at the top, the post, the 3-point line, coast to coast. …
" 'Melo beats a lot of guys. I coached him three years. He has the ability to make plays for everybody."
Said one NBA head coach: "On the road and in the playoffs more than ever, you need a guy that can draw double teams and go to the free-throw line."
The Nuggets missed that guy on Wednesday night as the Thunder blitzed them early and never looked back in a 106-89 victory. Denver was in desperate need of scoring as it fell behind 31-15 at the end of the first quarter. Guard Ty Lawson(notes) had a team-high 20 points and three more scored at least 15 as the Nuggets trailed by as many as 26 and shot 39.1 percent from the field.
"We got a team that is so wide open now," forward Al Harrington(notes) said. "When 'Melo was here, you knew where the ball was going to go to and he took most of the shots. He was going to get our team going. But now that he’s gone, we really don’t know who it’s going to be any given night. Coach [George Karl] just coaches off of feel and who’s hot."
Prior to Game 2, Karl said he’d rather have a team-first mentality than jump on a star’s back at crunch time.
"Finding that at the end of the game is an art," Karl said. "The reason [people] like go-to players is it's easier. It's easier to say, 'Give it to him, space the court, read the defense and the guy with the ball will take a shot.' "
Nene is viewed as the Nuggets’ top scoring option now, a first for him in his nine-year NBA career. Danilo Gallinari(notes) has the potential to be that go-to guy, but he's still trying to fit in and doesn’t yet have the mentality needed to fill that star role.
"I don’t worry about being that guy," said Nene, who had 16 points in Game 2. "I try to [look for] the best option."
The last star-by-committee team to win big was the 2004 Detroit Pistons, but even they had clutch scorers who came through when needed in Chauncey Billups(notes) and Rasheed Wallace(notes). That might be what the Nuggets are building toward.
Denver's brass of Josh Kroenke and Masai Ujiri deserves credit for making the best of a horrible situation after Anthony turned down a three-year, $64 million deal and asked for a trade. It isn't easy dealing the face of your franchise when everyone knows he wants out for one particular team. The Nuggets still squeezed, via a three-team trade, Gallinari, Wilson Chandler(notes), Raymond Felton(notes), Timofey Mozgov(notes) and Kosta Koufos. In Anthony, the Nuggets lost a four-time All-Star who was the franchise’s third all-time leading scorer and known for making big shots.
After the deal, the hope was the Nuggets would merely make the playoffs. But with the Knicks’ old supporting cast in tow, Denver played much grander than expected. Karl actually did a Coach of the Year-type job with a team full off co-stars and role players. He told anyone who'd listen that he expected to win this first-round series.
While Karl believes his team was shell-shocked by the no-call goaltending in the Game 1 defeat, the bigger issue for Denver was the inability to score in the fourth quarter, when it mustered only 21 points. On Wednesday, the Nuggets' scoring deficiency showed up early, leading to a rout.
Committee basketball got the Nuggets into the playoffs and somehow heightened expectations. Not having a star they can depend on offensively, like 'Melo, will make it a short visit.