It's still a bit presumptuous to suggest that the Denver Nuggets deserve consideration among the NBA's top title contenders, even after running past the Oklahoma City Thunder, 114-104, Tuesday night to extend their winning streak to an NBA-franchise-record 13 games.
But you can bet the Nuggets' competition in the Western Conference won't take them lightly—nor should it.
Denver now owns a combined record of 18-6 against fellow playoff teams out West this season, including an impressive 9-4 cumulative mark against the San Antonio Spurs, Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers. The Nuggets have already claimed the season series from the latter three and will have a golden opportunity to gain an edge against the Spurs when they trip to San Antonio next Wednesday.
That road date no longer seems so daunting now that the Nuggets have proven their ongoing excellence isn't limited to the thin air of the Mile High City. Winning in OKC is impressive enough on its own; the Thunder had lost just four times at home all season before Denver arrived Tuesday night.
But to do so after toppling the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls in overtime the night before—albeit with plenty of help from the referees—is to spit in the face of the "scheduling gods." Perhaps the Nuggets' own experience with throttling weary wanderers on their home floor did plenty to prepare them for trials like these. Or, perhaps their collective skin was toughened by playing 22 of their first 32 games of the season on the road.
In any case, the Nuggets have righted their once-road-rough ship, winning six straight away from the Pepsi Center amid their current spurt. They're as dangerous a dark horse you'll find in the Association.
What the Nuggets lack in central superstardom, they more than make up for in depth, athleticism and intensity. Denver's roster runs 10-deep in players averaging at least 10 minutes per game, six-deep in double-digit scorers and three-deeper in guys chipping in at least eight points a night.
That roster parity, when coupled with young legs—the Nuggets are the fourth-youngest team in the NBA—allows them to play at the sort of frenetic, breakneck pace that head coach George Karl covets. If not for the Houston Rockets, Denver's 97.72 possessions per game would lead the league. If not for the Miami Heat and Thunder, the Nuggets' 107.6 points per 100 possessions would render their offense the most efficient around.
Normally, you'd expect a team as prolific in transition as the Nuggets to feed primarily off its opponents' miscues. Yet, Denver's opponent turnover ratio (16 percent—good enough for 11th in the league), while respectable, is hardly elite.
So how does Denver do it? By moving the ball up the court at lightning-quick speed at every opportunity, even off opponents' makes and misses. The Nuggets count on the pure velocity of Ty Lawson, the pinpoint alley-oop passing of Andre Miller, and the loping and leaping of the likes of Kenneth Faried, Corey Brewer, Andre Iguodala, Wilson Chandler (who left Tuesday's game with a slight shoulder separation, per the Denver Nuggets' Twitter account), Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee to punish their foes for not getting back on D quickly enough. Even though doing so in time to slow Denver down seems nearly impossible more often than not.
And, whether on the break or in half-court sets, the Nuggets are all about attacking the basket. Denver is far and away the league leader in shots taken and made in the restricted area.
Not surprisingly, then, the Nuggets also blow everyone else out of the water when it comes to scoring points in the paint; a whopping 54.7 percent of their points have come in the three-second area. The 5.9 percent gap between Denver and the second-place Detroit Pistons is equivalent to that which separates Detroit from the 14th-ranked Houston Rockets.
Denver's relentless pursuit of the paint was evident on Tuesday, when the Nuggets pounded the Thunder inside for 72 of their 114 points.
Not that any of this necessarily portends playoff success. The Nuggets' overall inability to stretch opposing defenses (34.2 percent from three, 25th in the NBA) will make it difficult for their slashers and cutters to find driving lanes once the pace of play slows and defenses decide to clog the paint during the postseason.
The same goes for Denver's incredible depth. The Nugget reserves won't have quite so many opportunities to feast on their opposing counterparts when rotations tighten and starters play more substantial minutes.
And, when the game's on the line, to whom will Denver turn to get a bucket?
On the other hand, the Nuggets have shown over the course of this hot streak that they just might have devised answers to some of the more pressing questions surrounding their spring viability.
For one, Ty Lawson has looked more like a bona fide team leader than ever before. He's averaged 19.7 points and 6.1 assists and shot 50.3 percent from the floor and 37.7 percent from three since Denver last lost. On the season, Lawson has hit exactly 50 percent of his shots (26-of-52) in situations when neither team is ahead or behind by more than five points during the last five minutes of a game.
More importantly, Denver is finally playing a caliber of team defense that will give it a chance to make some serious noise in the postseason. Over their last 13 games, the Nuggets have allowed just 98.6 points per 100 possessions and forced turnovers on 17 percent of their opponents' possessions—marks that would rank third and second, respectively, over the course of an entire season. The former has helped the Nuggets to climb to 11th in defensive efficiency overall, which stands as a substantial improvement over last year's 19th-best finish.
That, too, was on display in OKC, where the Nuggets won the battle of the boards—which they almost always do, thanks to their fourth-best rebounding percentage—limiting the Thunder to 43.5 percent shooting and hounding Kevin Durant into six turnovers.
To be sure, there are plenty of other holes to be poked in Denver's fringe-championship candidacy. Six of the Nuggets' wins during their 13-gamer have been against competition that was sub-.500 at the time, and seven have come at home, where they're a league-leading 30-3. Stylistically, the Nuggets will be hard-pressed to run other teams to exhaustion when the pace slows; miscues vanish and the importance of every possession is magnified.
But they've also beaten the Clippers, Grizzlies and Thunder (twice) since their last slip-up against the Washington Wizards on Feb. 22. If the Nuggets continue to pile up Ws, they may well steal away some semblance of home-court advantage in the playoffs. They'll play eight of their final 12 games at the Pepsi Center and will surely be a tough out if they get to host four games in the Mile High City during a series of seven thereafter.
If nothing else, the Nuggets clearly don't fear their competitors. They've played the NBA's elite as well as anyone, including a pair of narrow defeats to the Miami Heat during the opening weeks of the season.
The Larry O'Brien Trophy may not be on Denver's radar just yet. But a playoff series win here, a shock to a contender's system there, and who knows? Perhaps Tuesday's come-from-behind triumph in OKC will look less like a streaky aberration and more like a harbinger of bigger, better things to come.
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