Friday, ten days ago, an upstart proved that they are serious about taking down a champion. The Denver Nuggets invited the LA Lakers into the Can and requested that they bring their lunch. They promptly took their lunch, ate it in front of them and gave back the bag, filled with wrappings and trash. The final score was 105-79 and it wasn't even that close. It was the kind of statement that puts a conference on notice - we're here, we're serious, and the road to the Finals is going to run through the Rockies. Deal with it.
What was most interesting to me was not just the extent of the victory, but how it was achieved. There are lessons here that every team needs to learn if they want to become serious contenders for titles and honors, and that includes the Denver Broncos. The Nuggets brought together a cohesive strategy and a handful of tactics in a way that bears on every effort in every sport. Even on the NFL...
Let's set the stage. Here are the principles they used to take down the LA Lakers:
- Find the master. Every team has a guy that can kill you, and generally, he's their star, their Big Ben Roethlisberger, their Philip Rivers. If you're playing the Giants, it's Eli Manning. You have to find him and shut him down. In this case, the Lakers were without Pau Gasol, but they still have the man who brought them the Trophy last season - Kobe Bryant. He's been as welcome in Colorado as your funny uncle at a kindergarten pageant, but he's one of the best in the world. The Nuggets countered him with a can-you-believe-it performance for Arron Afflalo who Kobe wore like Spandex throughout the night. Bryant still managed to score a dozen in the first half, but was held without a point in the second half and was never a factor at all after the halftime break. Bryant can also kill you with assists and king-making, but that night he was confounded at every turn.
- Stop the apprentice. All good teams have at least one serious playmaking relationship. If X isn't working, Y will bail you out. With Pau Gasol out, the Lakers counted on the play of rising star Andrew Bynum. Young by any standard, Bynum already has the potential to be a 20-point, 20-rebound player, night after night, to wear out good defenses and change games. Nene Hilario showed the young man the advantages of leverage and speed over weight and height. Interestingly, from a less-aware viewpoint, Nene didn't have a great night, scoring 13 and only bringing in 6 rebounds plus 4 assists. It's a measure of the job he did that he only had 2 personal fouls. This is a classic example of the weaknesses of stats, though, as Nene's constant harassment of Bynum drove the player out of his element and out of his mind. Bynum still achieved 19 points and 15 rebounds, but he never managed to get the right plays at the right times and his efforts went for naught. By the way, if you're playing the NY-G's, it's the running game.
- Defense wins championships. A few short years ago, Carmelo Anthony was starting to look like he could fall into an afterthought of history. Coming in third in the 2004 Draft behind LeBron James and a future stiff, Melo was being referred to as one of the best pure scorers in the game, but a player who was incomplete at best - lacking focus, defense and the ability to change a game by making your entire team better. That's a rare and key skill. Michael Jordan used to be able to go 3-for-20 on a bad night but achieve 10 assists and still ruin the game for the opposing squad. Melo couldn't take his eye off the stat lines long enough be that kind of player. But when he worked with the USA Basketball squad and saw, firsthand, how things were different for Kobe and LeBron, Melo vowed to make the changes in his game to close the gap. At this point, he's matured into the true leader of the team for the first time in his career. His assists are up, his defense has become highly effective and all three steals that he snared against LA broke their back at key moments. It didn't hurt that his scoring has also matured. Anthony now plays inside out, driving to the basket with more authority than ever before and creating space for his teammates. His outside game is as good as ever and the result is a player who looks, acts and plays like a champion. That gold medal that the USA team brought home has had an effect on Carmelo that can't be described, and can't be missed when he plays. Averaging 30 points a game has become an after-effect of his game, rather than its purpose.
- Depth, Depth, Depth. The Nuggets picked up Afflalo in the offseason to replace Dante Jones, a tenacious defender with problems scoring consistently. Many fans booed the decision and asked just how the Nuggets were going to replace Jones' scrappy skills. Those questions aren't being asked any longer. The acquisition of Ty Lawson, who will become a star in his own right, and the return of JR Smith to the lineup has permitted the gold rock team to play two powerful lines in multiple combinations. In any sport, the guys who get headlines are essential, but the guys who fill out the team win for you when things are tough.
- As an additional point, Kenyon Martin has begun to remind me of Dennis Rodman, crazy tats and all, even if he doesn't have Rodman's Op-Art coifs. He's got the same kind of toughness, that won't-give-an-inch meanness that often determines champion squads. He's not as crazy as Rodman and dresses better, if less flamboyantly, but there is an elusive sameness to their approach to the game. K-mart isn't a superstar - he's the kind of player that makes superstars possible. Not to mention trophies....That kind of in-your-face, no-one-likes-us attitude has always had a place in my heart. There's another team in Denver that needs to remember this. The Broncos had players standing on the sidelines who weren't personally affronted by how badly they were playing. That's going to lead to some offseason firings, and it should. If you aren't infuriated by losing badly, you don't belong in the NFL. Some men are going to lose their jobs.
- The Lakers had obtained Ron Artest for many reasons, but one was certainly to take Carmelo out of his game. It was a fond, faint hope on Friday. By also taking Bynum out of the game, the Nugs shut down the Lakers fall-back position. Sure, great teams find ways to win. The Lakers should have been able to find a guy to step up and pull them back into it, but the Nuggets were just too deep, too strong, and too incendiary on this night. Emotion can never be discounted, and on this night it was all on the side of the home team. But, that ability to be emotionally invested in winning had its roots in a long period of trial and error, effort and failure, learning and application of the principles of winning.
The whole LA/Denver game reminded me of the 2001 SB between the Greatest Show on Turf and the upstart New England Patriots. The Rams had destroyed New England in their regular-season matchup. Bill Belichick and his comrade, Ernie Adams, had worn out their eyes ripping apart film for a single weakness, and they found it in an unusual place - Marshall Faulk. By taking out a different piece of the attack than just the primary - whether Kobe (you attack Bynum) or Kurt Warner in this case - the Pats were able to disrupt an offense and steal a Super Bowl Championship that few believed they could win by applying that same principle. Those same Patriots were expert at execution, too and they wouldn't have won without it. What bothers me the most is that I can't even pick out who the Broncos were supposedly keying on. The lack of effort was that pronounced.
The last score off the Lakers for Denver was from 5'11 point guard Ty Lawson slashing through three Lakers and throwing down a resounding dunk on the 7'+ DJ Mbenga. It put the exclamation point on the evening and clinched the Nuggets' level of domination. But that domination had a price that also plays into this - for years, the Lakers have owned the Nuggets. The Nugs have had to change, grow, experiment, develop, and constantly train in order to reach a level that will permit them to contend for the Championship. It's been a hard road, and they aren't there quite yet, but later this year, they could be.
Carmelo is a very different player this season and he's a perfect example of what I'm talking about. He's gone from a 19-year old who carried too much baby fat and a huge smile into the NFL and grew into a hard-bodied, seasoned player with an attitude and massive shoulders. The smile is much more reserved and the baby fat is long gone - Carmelo now travels with a personal trainer everywhere he goes and his physique has undergone a transformation rarely seen since the comics turned a scientist big and green. His attitude has evolved from a young man who expected things to be easy to a mature competitor who expects to have to prove himself, night in and night out. Since Melo accused the team of giving up in the 2008 playoff series against LA, he's changed everything in his life. His attitude, diet, workouts, approach to the game, and his ways of leading his team have all come far.
To me, that fits in perfectly to what the Broncos and their fans are experiencing. This isn't an easy time. Victory will come back, and it will, amid constant striving, repeated failures, and ceaseless effort and introspection. It isn't easy; it isn't won by getting teams on an off-day or off-night. You win it by playing better than the other guy. Right now, we're not doing it.
We need guys reading that above list and applying it. They need to find the QB, stop the guy he gets the ball to, and play defense. It's not obscure. They need to find their leaders - to play tougher and start playing smarter as well as more disciplined ball. Perhaps, almost certainly, some of the player material for that is going to come in the offseason, because some of this is, to be honest, personnel. I'm not going to point fingers at anyone today because I don't see it as being helpful. Too many guys are making too many different mistakes. I think that McDaniels and company did everything that they could in one offseason, and I think that it's going to require some player upgrades. Right now, this is still a team that has to play perfectly if they want to win. They don't have the depth yet to afford them mistakes, and some of those same personnel that were playing smart are making a lot of mistakes. It's still a long way from here to where we will need to be to contend. That's a tough one, but it's how I see it. When I listened to Brandon Marshall talking about guys on the sideline who weren't upset by the game, it shocked me.
Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to be hitting the film and looking at exactly who is standing out. I doubt that it will be hard to figure out, to be honest. There are plenty of reasons that we've been losing, and I think that it's worth taking a little time and talking about who they are. At the same time, I expect to find, simply, a pattern. Guys out of position. Guys getting ridden out of plays. Sloppy play. I already know that I've seen an incredible breakdown in tackling, that most basic of all arts. My own experience is that correlations matter, but that they also are made up of a lot of specific plays and because of that, I'd expect to see a lot of guys making errors and missing tackles. We aren't getting turnovers. We're playing like a different group. And the worst part is, it's a lot of guys.
I do understand that this squad hasn't played together long, but I also believe that the leadership that was present at the beginning of the year isn't reaching some people. It's all the cliches, over again, because they aren't really aren't cliches at all, but simply facts. If you don't do the fundamentals and bring your best game, this league will chew you up and spit you out. You can't loosen your focus. Discipline, on the field, is obviously not sufficient, and it's too many guys contributing errors for this team to withstand.
I've never thought that I had the answers when this kind of thing hits a squad. There isn't anything here that the same group of guys hasn't done right, six times already. I expected to suffer some problems this season, and I'm not shocked or horrified to see this one up close. I don't like it any more than anyone else, but right now I'll see what the film has to say. I'm downloading the play-by-plays and warming up the Rewind. The only way out is through.
If we stop shooting ourselves in the foot, this is a pretty good, although not-yet-great Broncos club. But, that outcome, the ability to reach inside and win, is the sum of a lot of little, smarter decisions. They have to look in a lot of mirrors and start talking to each other right. If they do, We could start winning again. To be honest, there is still only one game on the schedule that I doubt that we can be in if we get back to playing smart, and that's Indy.
Even there, it's still a ways away, and this is the NFL. These same guys can start playing like everyone hates them again, and if they do, maybe we'll pull out some wins. Some other teams can stumble. But could Indy?
He chuckles fiendishly as he rattles his keyboard....
Surely you jest. They've been well coached, well staffed, and for long enough to put things together. That's still in the future, for Denver. We haven't earned it yet.
Here's hoping that we will.