As Danilo Gallinari was carried off the court on Thursday night after suffering a knee injury, two distinct sounds could be heard: the collective groan of Denver Nuggets fans everywhere and a bell tolling loudly for the surging Nuggets' title hopes.
The team's official Twitter account confirmed the worst on Friday afternoon:
Gallinari was averaging 16.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game on the season, and had been a key contributor to the Nuggets' torrid play. Sitting just six games over .500 on Jan. 18, Denver has romped to a 28-6 record since, including a 15-game winning streak.
The Nuggets have ascended the mountain of the Western Conference standings and established themselves as legitimate contenders, but now they are hobbled.
It's a big loss for the Nuggets to be sure, but they can remain contenders if—and only if—Ty Lawson comes back at 100 percent in time for the playoffs.
Life Without The Ferrari
Initial exam suggests likely torn ACL for Denver's Danilo Gallinari, source tells Y! "Ligament was loose," source says. MRI Friday.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) April 5, 2013
Of course, no one wants a loose ligament and the team obviously had no knowledge there was anything amiss, but it does suggest what might have precipitated Gallinari's non-contact injury.
Gallo missed four games in February, two with a sinus infection and two more with a left-thigh bruise, so those were unrelated to the knee. Denver went 2-2 in those contests.
The loose ligament may explain the recent dip in Gallinari's production.
In January, he averaged 19.3 points per game on 46.9-percent shooting, while in March, he shot just 37.6 percent as his scoring dipped by almost five points a night. That included clunkers like March 11 against the Phoenix Suns, when Gallinari shot 1-of-8 for five points in 30 minutes.
Losing Gallo for the season is a serious blow, but the Nuggets still boast a lineup with excellent depth.
An eternal optimist might claim that Denver could become more efficient on offense after the injury, as Gallinari has never been a great shooter (41.9 percent for his career). The Nuggets also dominate at home in the Mile High City's thin air, where they have lost only three times this season, so all is not lost.
Denver currently sits in third place in the West, four games back of first. The Memphis Grizzlies are right on its heels, just half a game behind.
Since the L.A. Clippers are poised to win the Pacific Division, they will be guaranteed a top-four seed even though Memphis and Denver have better records. But the Clippers are just two games behind the Nuggets, so Denver could lose home-court advantage if it hits the skids before the playoffs.
The Nuggets' offense will need to buoy them in order to stay ahead of the defensive dynamos from Memphis. If Denver can remain in third place, it would likely host either the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors in the first round. The Nuggets are 6-1 against those opponents.
They are quick enough to run with those teams and stout enough on the interior to outmuscle them. It would be imperative to contain James Harden or Stephen Curry, but Andre Iguodala's length and JaVale McGee's shot-blocking presence are potent weapons.
If Memphis beats them at the wire, the Nuggets would likely face the L.A. Clippers. Even though Denver is 2-1 against them this season, this would be the worst-case scenario.
Not only do the Clippers play much better defense than Houston or Golden State, but they boast Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, a three-headed nightmare known as "Lob City."
The Clips are one of the few teams in the league with more depth than Denver, as Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe and Matt Barnes have been excellent off the bench. L.A. also has sage veterans to help guide the locker room like Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups.
The mission in the wake of Gallo's injury? Limp into the playoffs in third place and hope for the best after Round 1.
Ty Lawson's Recovery
Gallinari's injury makes the timetable for Ty Lawson's return all the more crucial.
According to Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post on April 3, Lawson is expected to miss at least two weeks with a tear in his right heel, making his earliest comeback date the last game of the regular season on April 17.
Lawson is unlikely to be in rhythm coming off the injury, but Game 1 of the first round will have to be his testing grounds.
The Nuggets are currently without their two leading scorers in Lawson and Gallinari, but they still have seven other players who average more than eight points a night; four of them post at least 11.8 points.
As a result, Denver has the fourth-most-efficient offense in the league (measured by points per 100 possessions, via ESPN). It will need guys like Iguodala and the Manimal, Kenneth Faried, to carry it into the playoffs, at which time Lawson should be healed up.
Lawson had been red-hot lately, averaging 23.3 points and 8.4 assists per game in February. Since Feb. 1, he has shot just over 50 percent from the field.
Though veteran Andre Miller is a capable replacement at the point, Lawson is the straw that stirs the drink in Denver.
If he can hit the ground running for the beginning of the playoffs, the Nuggets would remain legitimate dark-horse candidates to take the Western Conference title. Without him at full effectiveness, Denver is dead in the water.
Can the Nuggets contend for the conference title without Gallinari?
In the playoffs, the best teams play their best basketball.
If the Nuggets are without their top-two scorers, they are likely headed for a first-round knockout at worst or a second-round cameo at best.