I haven’t been this excited about watching NBA hoops since, well, ever. I don’t know what it is about this team I like so much but they are entertaining and they are good. Part of my newfound love stems from the notion that Denver is now a team of decent players playing decent team basketball. Denver is no longer a team trying to make one star (Carmelo Anthony) happy. Yes, Denver is sort of flying under the radar and they really seem to be postseason contenders this year.
As of Tuesday, the Nuggets were sitting in second place in the Western Conference’s Northwestern Division with a record of 15-10, and in a bit of a skid. That conference, just by judging its teams’ records, seems to be the best conference in the NBA. Denver is behind a very tough Oklahoma City team (18-5) and is just ahead of the Utah Jazz (13-9). Portland is in fourth with a record of 14-10 and Minnesota sits at the bottom of the division at 14-14. The division has no bad teams and Denver is really going to have to fight to make it to the post season, but I believe they have the talent to do so.
Head Coach George Karl has to be excited, especially after dealing Melo and all his problems to New York. No, the Nuggets don’t have a superstar but they do have a young team that plays fast, often wearing opponents down.
The speed all starts with the up-tempo play of point guard Ty Lawson. The former Tar Heel is in his third year with Denver and this year has taken more of a leadership role on the court. Apparently, Karl didn’t trust Lawson enough in the past to be his starting point guard, but something changed and he’s getting the job done. When Denver hustles, with Lawson constantly pushing the ball, Denver really is one of the best. In fact, I believe going into last weekend they were leading the league in scoring.
When Lawson needs a breather on the bench, Denver has Andre Miller to fill in, and he plays the up-tempo style as fast – well, almost as fast – as Lawson. The rest of the team, behind Miller and Lawson, is a sort of international tour of talent.
There’s Danilo Gallinari, hailing from Italy, who’s not only a great outside shooter but has no problem taking it to the rack. Gallinari leads the team in scoring with an average 17 points per game. Then there’s the 7-foot-1 Russian center Timofey Mozgov. The guy doesn’t even need to jump to dunk the ball. You can tell Mozgov is still a little green on the court with these guys but he’s showing a ton of promise. And coming off the bench when Nene gets into foul trouble, Mozgov holds his own, especially when he decides to get mean down in the paint.
Spain’s Rudy Fernandez has been a surprise so far this year as well. Playing the guard position, Fernandez has had a couple games coming off the bench with a hot hand for cashing three pointers. When this guy is on fire, his three-point shots don’t even hit the net on their way through the hoop. I hope someday, Fernandez may have the moxie to be the team’s go-to shooter when the buzzer sounds. They gave it to him on Monday night against Houston and he wasn’t able to cash his three. He has the talent to be Denver’s last-second shooter; I’m just not sure he’s mentally there yet.
And, of course, Denver has big man Nene as well. The Brazilian is off to a great start this season; he’s really been the lynchpin to Denver’s winning. When he’s on the court and the Nuggets can get the ball to him down low, their opponents will have trouble all night long. For some reason, though, there are games where they just can’t get the ball to him and he becomes very ineffective. Still, you’ve got to like the way he plays. If only he can stay healthy all the time.
There are others worth mentioning like Arron Afflalo, Corey Brewer and Denver’s newest thug Al Harrington. Denver has a strong starting lineup and a deep bench and I believe it will be that bench that will push the team to success in the playoffs. This short, fast-paced season, thanks to the lockout, is kind of weird with a number of back-to-back-to-back games scheduled throughout the season. You can tell teams are tired and injuries are a major factor in a team’s ability to win. Right now, that’s where Denver is hurting.
Going into Monday’s game against Houston, Afflalo and Mozgov were both out with sprained ankles, Nene was out with a strained heel, Brewer had to leave to attend a family matter, so it was going to be a test to see how the Nuggets would handle the loss of nearly half their team. Then, while battling the Rockets, Gallinari sprained his left ankle and left the game. X-rays taken after the game show a chip fracture in Gallinari’s foot, and now there is no timetable for his return. Denver went on to lose that game 99-90.
With those injuries hobbling the Nuggets, the next few weeks will be tough. If they can somehow eek out a .500 record while everyone recovers Denver will still be in good shape. And when they are healthy, there is no other team in the league that’s more exciting to watch right now.
If this team can get healthy, the sky is the limit. Although I must say I am worried about Oklahoma City. They look pretty damn good too.
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