Denver Nuggets’ Danilo Gallinari (8), of Itlay, drives past New York Knicks’ Bill Walker during the second half of an NBA basketball game
Denver Nuggets' Danilo Gallinari (8), of Itlay, drives past New York Knicks' Bill Walker during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012, in New York. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

The last-second shot.

NBA history is littered with the famous buckets. Derek Fisher's shot with 0.4 seconds left to beat San Antonio in 2004 ... Michael Jordan over Bryon Russell in 1998 ... Magic Johnson over Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in 1987... Robert Horry over, well, a lot of teams.

The shots are remembered and revered, and are a constant reminder that in the NBA, the biggest players make plays in the biggest moments.

"The standard in the NBA is you can do a lot of different stuff throughout the course of the game," said McHale, who played alongside late-game master Larry Bird in Boston and is now coach of the Houston Rockets. "But in the guts of the game, you're going to see the ball going to Kevin Durant, you're going to see the ball going to Paul Pierce, you're going to see the ball going to Derrick Rose."

Nuggets guard Ty Lawson, driving to the basket against the Pacers’ Darren Collison in the first half Saturday, finished the game with 27 points.
Nuggets guard Ty Lawson, driving to the basket against the Pacers' Darren Collison in the first half Saturday, finished the game with 27 points. (Darron Cummings, The Associated Press)

Or Kobe Bryant, arguably the NBA's premier closer, if you have the misfortune of playing the Lakers down to the wire.

And yet, not every team in the league has The Guy, the player who takes close games and puts them in the win column.

The Nuggets are one of those teams, and have been since trading Carmelo Anthony a year ago this month. No one in the organization disputes the fact there is always a need for that type of player, least of all their coach, George Karl.

"You want your 'A' guy," he said.

But in much the same way the Broncos challenged the NFL's status quo on how football games are won, the Nuggets are openly challenging the notion that crunchtime in NBA games is reserved for clear-outs and isolation plays for coolheaded late-game performers.


Advertisement

"I'm not as fearful of that as people are making it out to be," said Karl, whose injury-depleted team struggled this past week to even get a game close in crunchtime. "You win games with other things as much as you do with going to a closer."

Entering Saturday, the Nuggets were 4-5 this season in games decided by five points or fewer, 2-0 against teams under .500 in those situations and 2-5 against teams with winning records. They do not have a buzzer-beating, game-winning shot. And while that isn't unusual, some of the ways they have failed to finish games are increasingly leaving red flags.

And that has brought more fuel to the debate as to whether the best way to go — a game-closing stud — is also the only way to go in the NBA.

"It's tough not to have that," Clippers guard Chauncey Billups said. "When you're playing late and playing good teams, it's always going to come down to end-of-the-game situations."

Need for game-changing plays

In his NBA career, Andre Miller has one game-winning shot, a layup. With the Nuggets in 2006, in a game against Portland, he stole the ball from Jarrett Jack and raced to the opposite end of the Pepsi Center court to score with 4.3 seconds left. The Nuggets won by one point. It's not the conventional jump shot game-winner, but it is representative of the kind of play the Nuggets want to make this season to win games.

"It's a process that you've just got to develop," Karl said. "I think we're going to rely a great deal on how we play — make stops, play before the play sets up. And a lot of our plays that got us the lead were before the defense was set and then as the game goes on figure out the matchup that you like."

In five games this season, the Nuggets have had six "true" buzzer-beating shots that would have tied or won games. They're 0-for-6. However, they still won two of those games — in overtime against Philadelphia on Jan. 18 and in double overtime against New York on Jan. 21.

"If you don't (have a closer) you have to do it in different ways," said McHale, whose team also lacks such a player. "For us, we're trying to manufacture shots — pick-and-roll, break down guys, defense make a mistake."

In the Nuggets' win at Washington, the Wizards' defense inexplicably left Al Harrington wide open under the rim for an uncontested dunk with 7.2 seconds left, when a stop could have gotten them the ball with a chance to tie or win. At Philadelphia, the Nuggets used two defensive stops in overtime to win. Both involved Nene stepping up to cut off a drive and force the offense into a more difficult shot or a turnover. When Karl talks about other aspects to winning a game late, this is what he means.

However, without a true closer, it puts added pressure on Karl to draw up the perfect play in a late-game situation, and it puts added pressure on players to execute with precision. Running plays involves more moving pieces, which introduces a larger margin of error.

All that's required for the Lakers (Bryant), Oklahoma City (Durant), Chicago (Rose) or Dallas (Dirk Nowitzki) is to pass the ball to the star and get out of the way.

Three Nuggets stand out

Statistically, Harrington, Nene and Miller are the Nuggets' most successful scorers in close games this season, games within five points with less than five minutes to play. Harrington is 14-of-25 (56 percent) and has hit those shots from all over the court, including 8-of-10 in the lane.

Nene is 11-of-20 from the field in crunchtime, and Miller 9-of-18. All of Nene's makes are in the restricted area, while Miller's damage has been mostly via the jump shot: eight of his nine makes are midrange or deeper.

Whether the play was specifically run for them or not, Harrington and Miller have combined for five of the six Nuggets' buzzer-beating tries. Rudy Fernandez has the other.

Developing a go-to player takes time, Billups said.

"These kind of things, you just don't pinpoint somebody," Billups said. "Somebody's got to do it time and time again and earn that right. ... So, somebody may emerge, but you just kind of have to let it play out."

Arron Afflalo and Miller are the only Nuggets with a game-winner in their career. Afflalo's was a year ago against the Mavericks — the first of his career. Most assume the eventual caretaker of the role will be forward Danilo Gallinari, currently sidelined by an ankle injury. He said he's willing to assume the responsibility of taking the last shot but also is fine with the system as it is.

"We have a lot of guys on this team who can take that shot," he said. "The coach will decide in the situation who is going to take the shot. I'm ready to take it and it would be great for me to take it, but I would not be mad if somebody else took it."

Christopher Dempsey: 303-954-1279 or cdempsey@denverpost.com


Who's a closer?

Denver Post Nuggets beat reporter Christopher Dempsey breaks down attributes that make the Lakers' Kobe Bryant the greatest closer in the NBA today — and which Nuggets have similar traits.

RELIABLE JUMPER

Bryant: No closer can be without this most basic shot. Most times, it's the only shot available given the time, score and defense.

Nuggets: Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington own the best strokes on the team.

AWARENESS

Bryant: Never confused about the clock, timeout situation or the look the defense is giving him.

Nugget: Andre Miller. As cerebral as they come in the NBA.

KILLER INSTINCT

Bryant: Salivates at the chance to silence crowds and send opponents home mad/sad/frustrated.

Nugget: Al Harrington. Hasn't met a road crowd he didn't like to shut up — especially if that audience is in New York.

FEARLESS

Bryant: No situation, no game, no opponent, no amount of pressure rattles him.

Nugget: Ty Lawson. Plays every minute of every game with a fearless attitude. A big spotlight won't stop that.

CONFIDENCE

Bryant: Kobe knows no matter what, he's the best, most-equipped guy on his team to carry the load in crunchtime and shoot the Lakers to victory.

Nugget: Arron Afflalo. Quietly seethes when he's not included in crunchtime. He's hit the big shot before and knows he can do it again.

VERSATILITY

Bryant: No matter what defenses try to take away, he always finds a way to get the shot off and usually buries it.

Nugget: Danilo Gallinari. Whether it's a 3-pointer, a drive to the hoop or an off-balance attempt in the paint, Gallo can make it count.

SHORT MEMORY

Bryant: Most players miss more last-second shots than they make. The best closers, like Bryant, don't let it faze them.

Nugget: Rudy Fernandez. This man is not afraid to keep shooting if he misses. He always believes the next shot is going down.

Nuggets with game-winning shots

Arron Afflalo and Andre Miller are the only Nuggets players who have made game-winning shots. Afflalo's was more conventional. Miller's was emblematic of how George Karl sees his team winning games this season. A look back at each.

Feb. 10, 2011

Chauncey Billups gets a screen above the 3-point line from Nene and dribbles right, guarded by the Mavs' Jason Kidd. A drive into the lane is cut off by Tyson Chandler, so Billups dribbles back to the top of the key. Afflalo, in the corner the entire time, drifts up the 3-point line and receives a pass from Billups. He head-fakes Shawn Marion, takes one dribble and puts up a jumper just inside the 3-point line that swishes through the net as time expires. Nuggets win 121-120.

Feb. 2, 2006

Andre Miller is in need of redemption. He misses four crucial free throws, but he gets his chance when Portland's Jarrett Jack is a little careless with the dribble. Down by one with seconds ticking down, Miller lunges at Jack, first trying to foul, then probing to see if he can knock the ball loose. He steals it from Jack and races downcourt for the game-winning layup with 4.3 seconds left. The Nuggets win 105-104.


When lights burn brightest

Al Harrington is the most prolific Nugget when the pressure is on. A look at seven key Nuggets' shooting percentages in the last five minutes of games within five points, and where those shots are coming from:

F Danilo Gallinari: 3-of-15 from the field, with all three of those makes coming in the restricted area.

G Ty Lawson: 6-of-21 from the field. Five of the six makes have come in the restricted circle, the other in the paint.

G Arron Afflalo: 2-of-8 from the field. He's 1-for-1 in restricted area and 1-for-3 in midrange.

F Al Harrington: 14-of-25 from the field overall. He's 8-of-10 in the restricted area, 2-of-2 midrange and 3-of-3 from the corner.

G-F Rudy Fernandez: 1-of-6 from the field; 0-of-5 from 3-point range.

C Nene: 11-of-20 from the field. All of his makes have come in the restricted area, where he's 11-of-17.

G Andre Miller: 9-of-18 from the field. The majority of his makes are jump shots — five midrange and three above the 3-point line. The other two are in the restricted area.


Who is taking the clutch shot?

The Nuggets are 4-5 in games decided by five points or fewer this season. Noting that the play actually might have been run for a different player, here are the games and players who took the last-second shot and the outcome:

Dec. 31: Al Harrington, desperation 30-foot 3-pointer vs. Lakers misses as time expires; Nuggets lose.

Jan. 18: Andre Miller misses isolation baseline jumper as time expires; Nuggets win in overtime over 76ers.

Jan. 21: Al Harrington misses 26-foot 3-pointer as time expires; Nuggets win in two OTs over Knicks.

Jan. 31: Andre Miller misses free throw line-extended jumper as time expires; Rudy Fernandez misses a 3-pointer as time runs out in overtime; Nuggets lose in OT to Memphis.

Feb. 3: Al Harrington misses a step-back 3-pointer and Nuggets foul with 0.2 on the clock; Nuggets lose to Lakers.