The Denver Nuggets took a tumble into the All-Star break, losing three straight games before a relaxing long weekend.
The break was especially relaxing for the Nuggets, who, despite a 33-21 record at the time, did not earn a single individual All-Star bid. The full roster of the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference had the weekend off.
That was the bright side to the Nuggets' midseason slight. The negative take on their lack of an All-Star was it being another reminder that they are a team without a superstar.
The Nuggets seem to be reminded of this in a daily basis. What they are doing is bordering on unprecedented, as they were the only team in the top five of either conference without a player suiting up on All-Star Sunday night.
It will continue to be the biggest talking point surrounding the team, until it gets the playoff monkey off its back. The Nuggets have been ousted in the first round of the postseason each of the past three years.
A season ago, they were defeated in seven games by the Los Angeles Lakers. In Game 7, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum posted massive double-doubles. Kobe Bryant averaged 29.1 points per game for the series, and the Nuggets just didn't have the top-level talent to matchup with that.
The same issue occurred the previous year in a five-game series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Kevin Durant averaged 32.4 points per game, while Russell Westbrook added 23.8 a night.
Even in 2009-10, the Nuggets fell to the Utah Jazz, who featured Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. Williams posted 25.8 points and 11.2 assists per game in the series, while Boozer tallied 22.5 points and 13.3 rebounds.
The Nuggets didn't have the firepower, and haven't for the past three seasons. They have added some pieces, but is it enough to get them over the hump?
The issue they are facing right now is a battle for the No. 4 seed. In the five-hole, where they currently are, they would not have home-court advantage in the first round. Home court may not mean a whole lot to a bunch of NBA teams, but to the Nuggets, it is immense.
Denver is 23-3 at the Pepsi Center this season, but 11-18 on the road. The Memphis Grizzlies are right now the most likely first-round opponent for the Nuggets, and forcing them to play a possible Game 7 in Denver is massively advantageous for the home team. Otherwise, it is tough to say they have a great chance of getting to the Western Conference semifinals.
According to 82games.com's Clutch Stats, Nene and Al Harrington were the most clutch players on the Nuggets last season. Being that neither plays for Denver anymore, the next highest player was Danilo Gallinari at No. 68.
However, he shot just 23.5 percent in such situations. Newcomer Andre Iguodala was just as bad, shooting 23.5 percent as well, for the Philadelphia 76ers. Ty Lawson had less opportunities, but shot a team-high 40 percent.
This goes along in accordance with things like the Nuggets being 8-10 this season when games are decided by five or fewer points. However, they are 3-1 in overtime games, so take that how you will.
My takeaway from it is mostly the obvious. This team still cannot get stops when it needs to in close games. They allow 101.3 points per game, good for 25th in the NBA. However, a lot of that simply has to do with the pace they play. The only team getting getting off more shots a night is the Milwaukee Bucks. In fact, the Nuggets have allowed opponents a pretty average 44.4 percent shooting clip on the year.
More likely, their lack of overwhelming success in these close games is that old standby: they don't have a star who can take over when needed. When it all boils down to a possession or two in the postseason, the top three or four teams in each conference will be the teams with a player who can score when everyone knows where the ball is going.
That is what can still make teams like the Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics dangerous, even at low seeds. James Harden is starting to show he can be that player, and Paul Pierce has been showing it for 15 years.
In their first game after the All-Star break, the Nuggets outlasted the Boston Celtics for a 97-90 win. However, the closing minutes were more about Boston's inabilities than the Nuggets sealing the deal. Denver went 4-of-8 from the free-throw line in the final 2:20. They bricked the other three shots they took as well, all from 21 feet or longer.
The Nuggets rank 25th in the NBA in three-point shooting, at 34.4 percent. So why is a poor long-range team jacking up back-to-back threes, while trying to close out an eight-point lead with under two minutes to go?
This is a big spot for leadership, something it is still pretty unclear if the Nuggets have. The players who took those threes, Danilo Gallinari and Ty Lawson, are average shooters, but are also supposed to be the leaders of this offense. Part of being a leader is knowing what a situation calls for, and running smart and efficient plays in crunch-time.
Kenneth Faried went nuts in the Rising Stars Challenge, scoring 40 points, but he's not that guy in reality. Faried takes just 8.9 shots per game.
Gallinari and Lawson are unproven. Gallinari is a very good NBA scorer, but he turtled in the playoffs last season, shooting 36 percent. Right now, too much of Denver's late-game offense relies on their young point guard's penetration abilities.
If we look back at the Nuggets' final loss last season, to the Lakers in Game 7, do you remember how Los Angeles closed out?
They were 6-of-6 from the line, and Bryant nailed a three. All of that took place in the final two minutes.
Once the Nuggets can close out a big game like that, I'll believe they can win an NBA title.
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