By John Hollinger
ATLANTA – This is the difference between the Nuggets and most of the other contenders: Depth. Teams like Orlando and the Lakers can shrug off the loss of a starter or two and still claw their way to victories, as they’ve done in the absence of Rashard Lewis and Pau Gasol, respectively.
Denver? They can hang with anybody at full strength. But the past two nights we’ve seen the result of their sitting out the summer spending spree by fellow contenders Boston, Cleveland, San Antonio and Orlando. With J.R. Smith suspended for the first seven games and Kenyon Martin out since early in Friday’s loss in Miami, too many cracks showed up in the Denver facade in a 125-100 loss to the Hawks.
Exhibit A is what’s happened in the absence of two starters: Consecutive blowout defeats where the Nuggies fell behind by more than 20 points in the third quarter. Yes, these were road games against tough opponents, but that’s the point. The Nuggets can’t deal with that caliber of opposition in such a compromised state.
“We didn’t have enough energy tonight to overcome the negative influence of having two of your best players sitting next to me,” said Nuggets coach George Karl.
With Kenyon Martin’s mid-range threat replaced by non-shooter Renaldo Balkman and Smith replaced by another weak perimeter threat in Joey Graham, the Nuggets made only two triples on the night. Worse yet, their drivers constantly faced crowds of Hawks at the rim, as Atlanta saw no need to respect any perimeter shooter besides Chauncey Billups. Atlanta returned nine Denver shots to sender, including six blocks by Josh Smith.
“The two games that we played really special [without J.R. Smith] we found the 3-ball,” said Karl. “Tonight we didn’t. They brought a crowd to our penetration, and probably to a degree we didn’t respect the shot-blockers. There’s more of a comfort zone and a confidence with J.R. knowing he’s standing in one of those corners, and he adds an ability to play-make for us too.”
Fortunately for Denver, Smith comes back on Tuesday against Chicago. Martin, who is day-to-day with a left fibula contusion, may return by then as well. But in an 82-game season this scenario undoubtedly will crop up again, and when it does, as tonight illustrated, the Nuggets don’t have as many resources to cope with it as their more free-spending brethren.