Overshadowed by the Miami Heat’s landmark 20-game tear is the Denver Nuggets’ Western Conference-leading 10-game win streak. Denver has quietly made a habit of piecing together victories, but will the perennial postseason participant provide playoff punch?
That the young squad rattles off W’s is no longer a surprise. Their similarities to the defending champion Heat don’t stop there: The Heat (30-3) and Nuggets (29-3) hold the NBA’s two best home winning percentages. Both are also extremely dangerous in the open court.
The most striking statistical difference between Denver and Miami resides—aside from an absence of 20-PPG scorers in the Nuggets' lineup, while the Heat have two guys scoring 21-plus—in their respective road records.
Miami is 19-11 on the road; Denver is 15-19.
As good as their 2013 has been, consistency has always been the key for these Nuggets. They gained some valuable post-Carmelo Anthony playoff experience by taking the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games last spring. Denver’s going to need more of the good—and less of the bad—from that series to make a serious run at an NBA Finals appearance.
Danilo Gallinari has improved his shot selection greatly since that series. He shot 36.2 percent in the playoffs on 13.4 shots per game, including 28.6 percent in Games 5, 6 and 7 on 11.7 shots per game. He didn’t attempt a free-throw in Game 6 or 7.
Gallinari is now shooting 42.5 percent on 12.5 shots per game, accompanying a team-leading 4.7 free-throw attempts. He led the Nuggets in scoring for most of 2012-13, but Ty Lawson has caught fire and surpassed him for the team’s scoring title.
Since the All-Star break, Lawson has shot a sizzling 51.4 percent from the field despite jacking up 4.3 treys a night. He’s averaging 22.7 points, 7.2 assists, 1.1 steals and 2.1 turnovers since All-Star weekend.
Denver is 25-7 since Jan. 5, in large part because their smallest starter is showing out. That .781 winning percentage is better than everyone else’s season mark, including the group that took home the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June: Miami’s (49-14) is .778.
The Nuggets can knock off anybody at home, which is why landing a top-four seed is so essential to their playoff hopes. They’re one game back from the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers and 1.5 games behind the third-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
George Karl has his guys playing so well that a top-three seed is actually within reach, but the Nuggets have made the playoffs every year since Carmelo was drafted in 2003. A first-round exit is no longer satisfactory.
Can Lawson keep up his play throughout a postseason run to lead Denver where they want to go? He played well in April and May, averaging 19 points on 51.4 percent shooting as he knifed through the Lakers defense in seven games. Los Angeles is a unit that has become notorious for its inability to contain opposing point guards, so Lawson will again have to prove himself against a more respected perimeter defender than Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake.
His ability to take over the game offensively will help determine how close the Nuggets get to the Finals. Lawson will need reliable help putting points up, but Denver doesn’t seem to care much about who leads the team in scoring.
The biggest question, as always, with the up-tempo bunch is: How will their speed continue to render opponents breathless when the reduced pace of the postseason inevitably takes effect?
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