Almost as soon as the Denver Nuggets (49-23) caught national attention for their winning streak, they dropped the contest that should have marked their 16th consecutive victory. The young team can benefit from such a strange loss, and it will have to if it’s going to be a legitimate threat in the Western Conference.
If not for the Miami Heat’s (56-14) historic 27 straight wins, Denver’s 15-game run may have been the focus of the waning NBA regular season. The five teams to clinch a playoff spot in the West are all within six games of one another; the top and bottom of the four Eastern Conference teams with their playoff tickets punched are 15 games apart.
The Nuggets’ streak placed them in position to secure home-court advantage in the first round, where their 32-3 record leads the league. Given that nobody in the West’s playoff picture has beaten them in Denver, that’s kind of important.
A Mar. 25 loss to the New Orleans Hornets served as a wake-up call for the Nuggets. While the defending champion Heat recently erased huge deficits that they granted to inferior competition almost as if for dramatic effect, Denver learned that it could not flip the switch in a similar manner.
Denver fell behind by 14 in the first quarter to the 25-46 soon-to-be Pelicans and only outscored them in the third quarter—by three points—thereafter. It lost by 24.
This loss was more than strange, for a Western Conference contender to get handled on the road by a lottery team which was 14-21 in its own arena entering the game. It wasn’t even a case of a Nuggets squad playing a back-to-back while New Orleans was on an extended homestand.
Nuggets center and highlight factory JaVale McGee had another word for it:
Some dude named Brian Roberts came out and had 18 assists against Denver in 41 minutes. His 13 points also gave the 27-year-old rookie from Dayton his first career double-double—in his second career start.
Compounding the loss felt by rising star point guard Ty Lawson’s absence is the fact that Denver hasn’t allowed more than Roberts’ 18 single-game assists to any one guy this season. It’s the most productive distribution outing that any Nuggets opponent has experienced since…Jrue Holiday of the Philadelphia 76ers dropped 15 dimes two games prior.
Lawson missed that game, too.
#Nuggets coach George Karl after N.O. loss: "We win some games, we think we’re a little bit better than we are. We’re human beings."— Denver Nuggets (@denvernuggets) March 26, 2013
Maybe the national spotlight burned them a little bit.
When nobody’s paying attention to a club and the players feel disrespected, it’s easier to play loose and run dudes into the ground to prove something. When success becomes the expectation, there’s a target on their back and the potential of a lingering tendency to have trouble getting up for lower-tiered opponents.
The Nuggets started the season 11-12 before elevating above the .500 mark for good in mid-December.
Miami (17-6 in its first 23 games) is understandably used to the attention and has still fallen into the trap more than once lately.
They climbed themselves out, though. Denver didn’t.
Even without Lawson, the Nuggets should have taken care of business against New Orleans. Denver elder statesman Andre Miller, 37, is more than capable of handling leadership duties in a pinch.
G. Karl con't: "I’m not saying we’re in a bad place. I just think the last 3 games we haven’t been the committed team we need to be."— Denver Nuggets (@denvernuggets) March 26, 2013
Instead, they learned the hard way that a high degree of real estate separating two teams in the standings doesn’t dictate which one walks away victorious.
More from Karl: "This league has a way of humbling anybody who doesn’t have the right karma or the right approach to playing basketball."— Denver Nuggets (@denvernuggets) March 26, 2013
When your opponent shoots 56 percent from deep as the Hornets did, records don’t matter much.
Denver was streaking against opponents who have done their fair share of winning, so consistent tests against hungry squads looking to sneak into the playoffs shouldn’t be a problem.
It’s the final matchup with 23-48 Phoenix that the Nuggets should ensure doesn’t send them stumbling into the postseason.
Other teams have been discussed as legitimate challengers for the Larry O’Brien trophy. Whether it’s the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers or that underachieving Los Angeles Lakers squad, Western Conference playoff prognostications have always revolved around who can best challenge the Oklahoma City Thunder and/or Spurs for the conference crown.
Now that the Nuggets have submitted their name into the conversation, consistency is key in keeping it there.
For more Denver Nuggets analysis, follow Jamal on Twitter: Follow @StatManJ
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!