Clouds lift and Nuggets soar in first game following trade
Smith and Lawson lead the charge in 120-107 victory over Memphis
Even when Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups were on the roster, the Nuggets rarely were predicted to do big things.
After Denver traded its two leading scorers to the New York Knicks on Tuesday, expectations dropped to levels that Kenyon Martin found comical.
“I was listening to the TV and they called us the Cleveland Cavaliers (10-46) of the West,” Martin said. “I was like, ‘Really? They think we’re that bad?’ Of course we lost two great players, but it’s not just about those two guys. It’s not doubles tennis. It’s basketball. It takes five guys and a 15-man roster.”
Having traded five players earlier in the day, Denver needed just eight guys to beat the Memphis Grizzlies as they opened the post-Melo era with a wire-to-wire 120-107 victory that featured energy at both ends of the floor, ball movement and balanced scoring.
J.R. Smith, starting at Anthony’s small forward spot, scored 26 points and Ty Lawson added 21 points, seven assists and a career-high six steals as Denver’s starting point guard. The Nuggets forced 21 Memphis turnovers and finished with 28 assists.
By the end of the game, the Nuggets were given a standing ovation from a crowd that appreciated the play-hard approach necessary to win games without a definitive superstar.
“If we keep winning, someone will become a star,” coach George Karl said. “I’ve always been amazed by agents and players that think statistics get them paid. What gets you paid and gets you in a good place is winning. If you win, everybody gets taken care of.”
After six months of speculation about Anthony’s future, the Nuggets (33-25) played as though a cloud had been lifted following a three-team trade that brought Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Timofey Mozgov from New York to Denver. The Nuggets also received one first-round and two second-round draft picks and $3 million from the Knicks, along with center Kosta Koufos from the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Chandler, Felton, Gallinari and Mozgov arrived at the Pepsi Center in the first half Tuesday night and received a rousing ovation when they entered the arena for an in-game interview with Altitude Sports & Entertainment.
“That makes you feel good to be greeted like that by the fans, by the city of Denver,” Felton said. “It’s fun, man. We’re happy to be here. All four of us, we’re definitely happy.” In Felton and Lawson, the Nuggets now have a pair of point guards who led North Carolina to NCAA titles playing for a coach who learned the game while playing for UNC coach Dean Smith in the 1970s.
“The pressure is on George now,” Nuggets vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri said with a smile. “He’s got two North Carolina point guards, both national champions. He better convert them into NBA champions now.”
With a revamped roster, few are expecting the Nuggets to compete for an NBA title this season, but there’s no reason why they can’t contend for the Northwest Division title without Anthony and Billups.
Denver still has seven of its top nine rotation players and added three of New York’s top four scorers. Karl believes it will take 50 wins to catch Oklahoma City for the division title and home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Tuesday’s performance did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm.
“I might be crazy, but I think we can make the playoffs and I also think we can be a threat to win in the playoffs,” Karl said. “I just think our guys are good enough to grow up fast and to learn quick and to get excited about playing the game.
“All the reports that I get is we’ve got guys that are getting better and want to get better even more. The most important thing is we stay focused on playing hard and playing better, getting better and staying together. I think we’ll do that. In 24 games, I think that’s going to happen and I think you’re going to see a lot of exciting basketball with this crew.”
ETC: Nuggets F Chris Andersen enjoyed one of his best games of the season, scoring 15 points on the strength of 9-for-12 free-throw shooting. He also blocked two shots … Karl said he might employ a lineup that features the four new guys from New York and Al Harrington, who spent the previous two seasons with the Knicks … Denver is 24-1 against the Grizzlies at the Pepsi Center since the 1998-99 season.