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Hard-to-Like Denver Duo Fills It Up

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Watching the Nuggets has been a difficult endeavor for me over the last couple of years.

That's mostly because this team has been made up of guys for whom it isn't easy for me to be a fan.  Melo Anthony's decision to set the example of discouraging cooperation with law enforcement agencies in the now-renowned Stop Snitching as well as his slap routine at Madison Square Garden in 2006 combined rather poorly in my eyes with his past lack of commitment to playing defense.  J.R. Smith's myriad of off-court concerns include barroom fighting, causing a passenger's death with his reckless driving and insubordination to coaching staffs.  The word distraction comes to mind.

I know, I know: We know so little about who these guys truly are that it isn't completely fair to pass judgment on them as human beings outside the lines.  It's also probably more than a bit disingenuous that I've held long-standing issues with Anthony and Smith while spending the last year canonizing James Posey, the same guy who missed last year's season opener while serving a suspension for a DUI charge. 

But the character police discussion is one for another time.  There's no soapbox here today; in fact, just the opposite: Regardless of my personal beliefs about Anthony and Smith, spending an evening watching the two of them with the rare clear mind proved an enjoyable reminder of just how tantalizingly talented these two are at the offensive end of the basketball court.

The Nuggets didn't win last night, but the wounds from this summer are likely still fresh enough that you don't want to hear more from me about the greatness of the guy who did hit the three-pointer that put the Hornets ahead to stay (after a rare boneheaded play on defense): James Posey.  So we focus instead on those two fellows on the other side who had typical days at the office offensively.

Watching Anthony last night proved a refresher course in the truth that he has a physique and skill set unmatched by all but the few very best wing players in this league.  Even on a night when he took only 13 shots from the field (low for a guy taking 17.5 per game this season and 18.7 for his career), it was all on display.  At 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, Anthony isn't getting pushed around inside by many small forwards.  But he also has that dangerous first-step quickness that makes him capable of flying past smaller players just as easily as overpowering them.  He showed off that first-step in flying through the New Orleans defense into the lane to draw an immediate trip to the line with the Nuggets down four and needing a quick basket in the final two minutes.  That the guy shoots close to 80 percent from the line for his career doesn't hurt either.

But in addition to the slashing, Melo's mid-range game amplifies the threat he causes.  The guy looks as smooth as can be on step-backs and pull-ups from the top of the circles down to the wings. He isn't a great three-point shooter but can hit from there often enough to keep stretch the floor for himself.  However, it's that ability to start to go to the rim but stop on a dime to shoot that 16-to-20-footer that forces defenses to stay honest and makes him so lethal late in games.  He is confident and capable, especially from anywhere inside the three-point line, and when he doesn't try to do too much, he is a particularly special sort of weapon.  It was all there Thursday.  A big three to start an 11-0 Nuggets run in the fourth quarter, drawing a foul (from Posey of all folks) on a three with the Nuggets down four in the final minute and following his missed free throw and dunking off an absurd behind-the-head pass from Nene to tie the game seconds later all made up significant parts of an efficient performance for Melo: 8-for-13 from the field, 1-for-2 from deep, 7-for-8 from the line, 24 points.

Of course, Anthony wasn't even the most explosive Nugget on the floor on Thursday night.  What has kept J.R. Smith in this league into his fifth season is that he possesses just as much of that explosiveness in between the lines as he does outside them.  That was in full focus at the Pepsi Center last night as he put up 32 points in 33 minutes.  Most of Smith's game smacks of 21st century playground obsession: heaving three-pointers and dunking, but he does both of those things quite well.  He is off to a slow start (28.8 percent) from deep, but he comes off two seasons of 39 and 40 percent shooting from beyond the arc, and he had the stroke back last night.  Pulling up from all sorts of uncouth distances (being in the same zip code as the circle barely seems to matter to him), Smith drained five of nine threes.

The long-range shooting is the least of it with him.  This guy's ability to attack the rim is awe-striking.  There was no Hornet on the floor that could stay with him off the dribble last night.  One ball-fake or one step move; that's all it took.  As has been and continues to be the case on many nights, Smith beat defenders to the rim with blink-of-the-eye quickness and then rose above the rim with a grace and ease that appeared nearly effortless.  That he seemed to be constantly draining threes from miles away or throwing down monster dunks made it no shock that he was 13-of-21 from the field by the end of the night.

What Melo Anthony and J.R. Smith did last night - which is what they do on a lot of nights, albeit not necessarily quite so efficiently - didn't change my personal feelings about them, and whether those feelings are justified in the first place is a thought for another day.  But what is certain is that sometimes, it's a pleasure just to clear one's mind and be amazed what at what these athletes can do with the round orange ball when the cameras are on and the scoreboard is live.

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