Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Is Now the Time for the Nuggets’ Gold Rush?

By Ross Lancaster

Going into this year's NBA playoffs, there seems to be less intrigue than there usually is at this time of year. For the 2012-13 season, where the only real inclusion and seeding question for weeks, and possibly months, is if and where the high-profile, disappointing Lakers would get into the playoffs.

Think of all the questions we usually ask leading into the playoffs? The favorite? It's obviously the team with the best player in a generation that recently won 27 games in a row and is somehow entering the postseason on another tear, despite its best players often sitting out the past couple weeks. Who's supposed to meet them in the finals? The same team the champs beat in the finals last year.

We could take this example even further into the NBA playoff bracket. After New York's recent 13-game winning streak and 15 of 16 run, along with Indiana's offensive struggles and injury woes, the Knicks are a strong favorite to meet the Heat for the Eastern Conference title. In the West, San Antonio is primed for a rematch with Oklahoma City after the Thunder ended the Spurs' unbelievable season a year ago.

But what about the team that has been nearly as unstoppable as the Heat since the All-Star Break, features a dynamic offense and has been untouchable at home? Denver not only has every opportunity to break up the Interstate 35 series in the West, but to take the conference crown.

Since the All-Star Break, the Nuggets have gone 23-4. The vaunted Heat have lost just two fewer games in that period. The Nuggets' previous 15-game winning streak was almost completely forgotten because it roughly coincided with Miami's historic run. But even more impressive than that is Denver's current 23-game home winning streak.

Now, it's not uncommon for Denver teams to rack up gaudy home records, simply due to the constraints on athletes at high altitudes. But to go over half your home schedule without a loss, while being in the tougher conference, is even more amazing than the 2009 Cleveland team that went 39-2 at home. It also means that Denver effectively starts every playoff series with 2.5 to 3 wins.

Throughout the George Karl era in Denver, the Nuggets have been known as a free-wheeling, all-offense, defense-optional club. In the playoffs, when situations get tougher, defenses buckle down and possessions inevitably get shorter, Karl's Denver teams have bitten the dust. Only once in eight (nine if you include the season when Karl sat out the playoffs while undergoing cancer treatment) playoff appearances with the Nuggets has Karl gotten out of the first round.

However, this year stands to be different as the Nuggets are backing up great offense with above-average defense. Denver ranks 11th in the league in defense, giving up 105.2 points per 100 possessions. An enormous reason for that is the offseason acquisition of Andre Iguodala.

It's easy to forget that Iguodala came to Denver as part of the Orlando/Los Angeles-Philadelphia mega-deal that saw Dwight Howard go to the Lakers and Andrew Bynum "join" the Sixers. But somehow, in giving up the least of any team in the deal, Denver might have "won" that trade, at least for 2012-13. The man also known as "Iggy" hasn't delivered the offensive impact that he perhaps could on a team with less pure talent and offensive skill (although his recent scoring outbursts in the past two weeks would beg to differ), but his defensive weight has been substantive. When Iguodala is on the court, the Nuggets are a full 5.1 points per 100 possessions better than when he's off the court.

This season has also seen the emergence of Ty Lawson as a tremendous option in the clutch. The former North Carolina star has emerged as the Nuggets' go-to guy on a team that doesn't have a traditional superstar, and would therefore usually be viewed as a very unlikely title contender. The storyline of "can the Nuggets overcome their 'superstar' problem?" will undoubtedly be one to watch should Denver prove itself as a title challenger.

The Nuggets do have injury issues to overcome, namely the loss of second-leading scorer Danilo Gallinari to an ACL injury. However, Wilson Chandler has the skill set and talent necessary to take Gallinari's minutes. Thus far, after Gallinari's injury, Chandler has been averaging 20 ppg, over 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three-point range, and 80 percent from the line. Kenneth Faried, or "The Manimal," was hurt on Sunday against Portland, and will come back for the playoffs. It remains to be seen how much the injury will affect the energetic power forward.

To surpass their expectations given to their likely playoff seed in the West of No. 3, the Nuggets will have to get past San Antonio. While the ageless Tim Duncan has been beyond amazing in his 16th season, Tony Parker is still hobbled and Manu Ginobili has battled injuries all season long and can't be expected to be himself when he effectively returns for the playoffs. In a potential series, San Antonio may need bigger outputs from players like Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard. And now, since the Spurs signed Tracy McGrady to a playoff's eve contract, they may have trouble getting out of the first round.

Of course, assuming a playoff matchup with the Spurs assumes that the Nuggets will keep the No. 3 seed and that Denver will advance. As of press time, it appears as if the first round will be against either the Warriors or the Rockets, both of which would be must-see basketball, if nothing else than for the up-tempo fireworks.

The 2013 NBA playoffs appear to be a by-the-book affair, with the conference finals as nearly premeditated matchups, based on the balance of the season. However, the on-fire Nuggets may have a lot to say about that inevitably.

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