Mark Knudson’s Three Strikes Blog: Young Nuggets don’t mind playing with fire; Rockies starters need to adjust; Nuggets gritty effort overcomes Malone’s miscue


STRIKE THREE: They say the most exciting two words in sports are “Game Seven.” If you’re a Denver Nuggets fan, be careful what you’re wishing for.

Denver will host a second consecutive NBA Game Seven on Sunday when the Portland Trailblazers return to Pepsi Center after having bested Denver in Portland on Thursday night in a game the Nuggets shoulda coulda woulda won to close out the series. To be honest, Denver shoulda dispatched these Blazers in four or maybe five games and already be preparing for the Western Conference Finals against (presumably) Golden State. For some reason, they just haven’t been able to handle prosperity.   

Apparently, these youthful Nuggets – the youngest team in the NBA – aren’t afraid of playing with matches. They did the same thing in round one against San Antonio and were fortunate to prevail in a really ugly Game Seven at Pepsi Center. Will the fact that they’ve messed around and allowed another inferior team to hang around long enough to potentially end their season come back to burn them this time?

Don’t be shocked if it does. Don’t be shocked in Damian Lilliard, whom Denver managed effectively until the second half of Game Six suddenly gets red hot and torches the home team on Sunday. It could very well happen.

What’s NOT going to happen is Portland coming out and shooting 22% from the floor in the first half like the Spurs did. Even with San Antonio stinking up the place for three quarters, the Nuggets – who themselves couldn’t throw the ball into the ocean while standing in a boat for most of that Game Seven – barely hung on in the final seconds for the win. If Denver plays anything close to that bad this time around, the Blazers will shoot them out of the gym and send them to the golf course for the summer.

Make no mistake, the pressure is 100% squarely on the shoulders of the young Nuggets once again because they’ve put it there. Will they…can they… respond better than they did against San Antonio? If not, there will be a lot of “woulda shoulda coulda” talk around town.

STRIKE TWO: If I’d have tried to tell you in February – or March – or even April, that on May 8th, Bryan Shaw would have an ERA of 1.23 while Kyle Freeland was checking in just under six, you’d have thought I was taste testing some of Denver’s finest mushrooms.

Safe to say that not much has gone according to script for the Colorado Rockies during the first two months of the season. Still struggling below .500 overall AND at Coors Field, these Rockies are beginning to resemble the old Rockies, where the pitchers were asked to hold the other team under eight runs a game and let the big bats do the heavy lifting. You wanna slug? Those old Rockies would slug.

But not the new Rockies. They’ve been built around pitching, especially the young talented starting pitching. It carried them to back to back post season appearances the past two years, and was expected to do so again this season. While the offense was trying to gain some traction, the pitchers would carry the load.

Whoops. You dropped something.

Nearing the six weeks point of the new season, the offense seems to be finding a groove, while the Rockies starting pitchers have given up more runs collectively than ANY other staff in Major League Baseball. The records – and in particular the earned run averages – are unsightly:

Freeland: 5.90                                                                                                                          

German Marquez: 3.46                                                                                                                  

Jon Gray: 4.22                                                                                                                        

Antonio Senzatela: 5.67                                                                                                             

Tyler Anderson (sent to Triple A): 11.76                                                                                            

Jeff Hoffman (one start, getting the call up again from Triple A): 7.20

Not the stuff championships…or even play-off appearances are made of.

So what gives? What’s suddenly gone so wrong with these talented young arms?

According to Manager Bud Black, it’s all about location. Too many balls are being left up and over the plate. The home run ball is killing them right now.

He’s right of course. He watches and re-watches these games, these at bats with the eye of a long time top flight big league pitcher. He knows his stuff…and theirs.

But there’s something else to consider here. The fact that baseball and the National League in particular, may simply have caught up to these guys. Figured them out. They watch video in San Francisco and Phoenix, too. They see what Freeland and Company are throwing – how fast it travels, how it moves, where it’s likely to be located. Pitchers develop tendencies. Hitters notice those.

Former Cy Young winner Pete Vuckovich was a teammate of mine in Milwaukee. He told me once that every single off season, he would come up with something new to show hitters. A new pitch, a new arm angle, a new speed. Something. A tweak here, a twist there. Keep ‘em guessing.

Vuck didn’t have overpowering stuff like Gray or Marquez. He was a craftsman, more like Freeland. But he was a fierce competitor and was always making adjustments that would give him a chance to win that day.

The Rockies starters may want to adopt a similar approach. What they are doing isn’t working.

STRIKE ONE: The NBA Western Conference semi-final series between the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trailblazers should already be over. The Nuggets should have swept the series in four straight games.

Think about it. After winning Game One, Denver put forth a stinker of a shooting game in Game Two (35% from the floor, 21% from three point range), and despite and dominating edge in rebounding – including an astonishing 23 – 7 edge in offensive rebounds – saw a frantic fourth quarter effort fall short. Simply shoot close to your season average of 44% from the floor, and Denver wins that one going away and goes up 2-0.

Then in Game Three, the epic four-overtime thriller that Portland finally won to go up 2-1 in the series, Denver once again shot poorly when it counted. Despite another great effort on the boards, they lost by three points.

After winning Game Four, the Nuggets should be coming home to rest up for the Golden State Warriors (who will soon make short work of the Houston Rockets) and their first conference finals appearance since 2009. Instead, they still have work to do.

While Game Two could be chalked up to being just one of those terrible shooting nights, Game Three remains the real head scratcher.

When the game went into overtime, Nuggets coach Michael Malone – who should be the slam dunk NBA Coach of the Year – seemed to forget he had a bench full of players who played large and successful roles during the regular season. In fact, you could make the case that without the efforts of Malik Beasley, Monte Morris, Mason Plumlee and others, Denver would never have won 54 games and earned the second seed in the West. Remember, during an injury plagued first half of the season, it was the collection of reserve players that really kept the Nuggets afloat.

But Malone totally spaced that out when the OT rolled around…and around…and around…and around. Instead, he kept his starters, including star center Nikola Jokic, on the floor the entire time. He used defensive specialist Torrey Craig in occasion, but Jokic ended up playing an NBA Play-off record 65 minutes. It showed. The Joker made more than one critical “fatigue” mistakes down the stretch.

On the other hand, Portland coach Terry Stotts was shrewd enough to insert Rodney Hood, who had only played 22 minutes in regulation, into the game in the fourth OT. Hood scored seven critical points, including the game winning three pointer.

We’ll never know for sure, but if Malone had elected to use his reserves in OT just as he did during the regular season, perhaps a less tired Jokic makes a couple of the shots and passes he missed near the end of the game. Perhaps the better team – and the Nuggets ARE the better team here – would have won.

With both teams still feeling the effects and running on fumes, the Nuggets gutted out a Game Four win less than 48 hours later and got their coach off the hook. Malone made better use of reserves down the stretch this time, inserting Plumlee for defensive purposes and resting Jokic periodically late in the game. For most fans, coming home tied at 2-2 is an okay result. All is forgiven…even if it shouldn’t be.

The old saying is, “Ya dance with who brought ya,” The Nuggets bench had a big hand in bringing Denver to the post season. Malone ought not to forget that again.

Wanna argue? Hit me up on Twitter @MarkKnudson41

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