Last weekend, on the heels of a six-game winning streak, the Nuggets were riding high. Their record of 14-5 was second-best in the NBA’s Western Conference. So it seemed like a good time to ask coach George Karl if his team was really as good as it looked.
“I reminded the players of the six-game winning streak, which was great, because five of them were on the road, it’s fantastic, but there was only one winning team in there,” Karl pointed out. “And 16 of our next 18 are against winning teams. So we will know a lot more come March 1st than we know right now.”
Since then, Karl’s team is 0-2, having lost close games to pretty good teams — the L.A. Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies (the Clippers were 10-6 when they met the Nuggets; the Grizzlies 10-10). In both cases, the Nuggets had a chance to win at the end. In both cases, they couldn’t find anyone to make a big shot when they needed it.
This, of course, is the flip side to the Nuggets’ depth. As many of their opponents have pointed out, their second team is nearly as good as their first. Sometimes, it’s better. But spreading the scoring around the way they do, it’s not at all clear who they want to take the last shot in a close game.
Already, Karl has been asked the question often enough that he finds it annoying. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it any less legitimate: Do the Nuggets need a closer?
“I think it’s a process that you just have to develop,” Karl said when I asked him about it after the loss to the Clippers, in which the leading scorer was Chauncey Billups, also known as Mr. Big Shot, whom the Nuggets traded away a year ago.
“I think we’re going to rely a great deal upon how we play, and how we play is we make stops, try to run, play before (the defense) sets up. Then, as the game goes on, figure out the matchup that you like. In Philadelphia, it was Andre (Miller). In Washington, the pick and roll game gave Al (Harrington) a lot of good looks. Hopefully, Nene and Ty (Lawson) will jump into some of that responsibility along the way.
“I’m not as fearful of that as people are making out to be because I think you win games with other things as much as you do going to a closer or a go-to guy. But if they want to put that on our heads right now, most close games this year, we’ve won. Tonight we didn’t.”
Tuesday night, after the overtime loss in Memphis, Karl was even less tolerant of the question, pointing out all the things the Nuggets could have done earlier in the game to prevent it from coming down to those final shots.
But this begs the question. Lots of NBA games, particularly between good teams, do come down to the end. As the Nuggets learned when they had Carmelo Anthony, a star scorer can slow down your offense by constantly playing one-on-one. He can render it predictable and easy to defend. But as Melo demonstrated at the end of regulation against the Nuggets in New York two weeks ago, that go-to guy can also step up and make a big shot when you have to have it.
“You just don’t pinpoint somebody,” said Billups, who might be the Nuggets’ closer now if he hadn’t been traded to New York with Melo. “Somebody’s got to do it time and time again and earn that right. It’s tough not to have that. Playing late and playing good teams, it’s always going to come down to end-of-game situations. So somebody may emerge as that, but you’ve just got to kind of let it play out.”
The Nuggets have numerous candidates:
Danilo Gallinari is their leading scorer at 17.4 points per game, but he’s only 23 and prone to inconsistency. He’s shooting just under 30 percent from long distance this year and just under 45 percent overall.
Ty Lawson is their second-leading scorer at 15.5 per, but he’s only 24 and also the starting point guard, where he sometimes finds himself caught between being a scorer and being a playmaker.
Al Harrington is a veteran scorer off the bench who has had an excellent start to the season, but he’s more accustomed to being a complementary player than a leading man.
Ditto for Rudy Fernandez, the Spanish sharpshooter and playmaker the Nuggets obtained from Dallas before the season began.
Arron Afflalo got a big new contract to be the Nuggets’ starting shooting guard, but he’s shooting less than 43 percent from the floor.
Nene, their highest-paid player, is a versatile inside scorer, but getting the ball inside in crunch time can be a challenge, as the Nuggets demonstrated against the Clippers.
Andre Miller is a reliable veteran and capable scorer, but he’s generally a pass-first playmaker.
Statistically, their best three-point shooter so far has been Corey Brewer, an athletic swingman known more for his defense, but it’s a small sample size: 12 for 26.
At the end against the Clippers, Nene was tricked into committing an alleged offensive foul and Fernandez and Harrington missed shots. Against the Grizzlies, Miller missed at the end of regulation with a chance to win and Fernandez missed at the end of overtime with a chance to tie.
As much as Karl dislikes the question, chances are he’s going to keep hearing it until the Nuggets win a few games against good teams by making big shots down the stretch. Coming off two close losses, they’re looking at consecutive games against the Clippers, Lakers and Blazers to close out the week.
Having a deep bench is a valuable luxury in the NBA, particularly this season, with games packed closer together because of the lockout. But however you get there, lots of games come down to the final minutes.
Early in games, the Nuggets share the ball beautifully in a fast-paced offense that produces open looks for many different players. Late in games, when defenses and offenses alike tend to tighten up, the Nuggets have struggled lately to replicate that free-flowing style.
Sooner or later, they will have to find somebody willing to take and able to make the big shot if they intend to be serious contenders.