Are Denver Nuggets Biggest Sleeper in NBA Playoff Picture?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 8, 2013

When the third-seeded Los Angeles Clippers traveled to the Rockies to face the fifth-seeded Denver Nuggets, they did so under the watchful eye of all Western Conference playoff hopefuls.

The game pitted the team no top team wants to see in the postseason against the team all lower seeds think they could handle in a seven-game series. Regardless of their records, make no mistake about which team most analysts feel has the better playoff outlook.

With supersub Jamal Crawford sidelined by a sore ankle, the Clippers couldn't find enough offensive answers to match the Nuggets' depth in Denver's 107-92 home rout Thursday night at the Pepsi Center.

Seven different players reached double-figures for Denver, with Ty Lawson's masterful 21 points, 11 assists and no turnovers leading the charge.

Point guard was supposed to be the one position where the Clippers held a clear advantage with perennial All-Star Chris Paul calling the shots in coach Vinny Del Negro's system. By the time the final buzzer sounded, though, it wasn't hard to figure out how the Nuggets won this conference showdown:

Too much Lawson.

— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 8, 2013

Lawson's speed bothered Paul throughout the game. He knew where he wanted to find his shots and executed when he hit those positions (9-of-15 from the field).

When the Clippers managed to keep Lawson from finding his spots, his teammates answered the bell. Danilo Gallinari finished with 20 points, six assists and five rebounds. Corey Brewer, Andre Miller and Wilson Chandler combined for 35 points off the bench.

And Kenneth Faried continued to add to his growing resume:

The Manimal @kennethfaried35 has his 27th double-double of season (11 pts, 10 rebs). #Nuggets in control 102-85.

— Denver Nuggets (@denvernuggets) March 8, 2013

For the dwindling crowd of Denver detractors still standing after the Nuggets' seventh straight, the main cause for concern has been the apparent lack of starpower.

But like Lawson showed Thursday night, the Nuggets may be housing one of the game's growing stars:

Ty Lawson is turning into an awesome player. Denver is very fortunate to have him on that contract.

— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) March 8, 2013

Since the start of February, Lawson has averaged 22.1 points and 8.4 assists per game. He's connected on better than 50 percent of his field-goal attempts.

What makes the Nuggets such a dangerous playoff team, though, is the fact that they don't need Lawson to shine every night. Nine different players average at least eight points per game.

With their depth, their dominant duo of point guards (Lawson and Andre Miller) and ability to adapt their style of play, the Nuggets are finally generating the postseason buzz that a number of pundits predicted they would before the season started:

Nuggets have flown under the NBA radar all season, They are what tennis calls a "dangerous floater."

— Rick Bonnell (@rick_bonnell) March 8, 2013

With the win, the Nuggets moved within one game of the fourth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two games back in the loss column of the third-seeded Clippers.

It also pushed them into a tie with the Miami Heat for the best home record in the league (27-3). A trip to the Mile High City has grown into an even more daunting task this season, with the Nuggets compounding the altitude adjustments opponents face with a relentless, break-neck attack.

The only thing keeping the Nuggets from being the biggest sleeper in the playoff picture is the fact that so many teams, analysts and fans are waking up to the fact of just how dangerous this George Karl team has become.