With the 2013 edition of the NBA playoffs just a matter of days away, the Denver Nuggets have assured themselves of home-court advantage in the first round, thanks to a 112-111 win on Monday night against the Milwaukee Bucks.
With the Nuggets set to play their first-round matchup against either the Golden State Warriors (the much more likely of the two possible outcomes) or the Memphis Grizzlies (this would require the Nuggets to lose their final contest, while the Los Angeles Clippers would have to win their final two regular-season games), they will surely be considered heavy favorites to advance to at least the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.
With Ty Lawson back in the lineup and in fine form (he tallied 26 points, seven assists and five boards in 38 minutes) after playing just three games since being injured, Denver is primed to make a push for the NBA Finals.
Despite losing Danilo Gallinari for the season with a torn ACL, the Nuggets boast an incredible arsenal of of talent at both ends of the floor.
We all know that Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala and Wilson Chandler will be relied upon to provide much of Denver's offense. The question is, who are the role players that could really help propel the Nuggets to the next round of playoff competition?
Interestingly enough, rookie guard Evan Fournier has only played less than 18 minutes once in the last eight games.
That one time? Denver's 108-105 overtime loss to the Dallas Mavericks. It's also the only game the Nuggets have lost in their last eight.
Now, I'm not trying to suggest that the Nuggets can't win without the French young gun, that would be absurd. But, since receiving increased minutes, the 6'6" youngster has made the most of his opportunities.
In Denver's last eight tilts, Fournier has averaged nearly 21 minutes per game, putting up an average of 12.6 points, 2.8 assists and 2.3 rebounds over that span.
He's also averaged over a steal per game (11 in his last eight matches), while turning the ball over just 10 times (his assist to turnover ratio is better than 2:1).
Meanwhile, the seemingly unfazed rookie has also drilled nearly 40 percent of his shots from beyond-the-arc and hit a cool 17-of-18 free throws (good for a percentage of over 94 percent).
With Gallinari out, Fournier's ability to continue to play at this level will be crucial for Denver.
Not to mention, having someone who can hit free throws will be key to close out all-important playoff games, especially considering the team is among the worst in the league from the charity stripe.
Corey Brewer may be the biggest one of the Nuggets' most important pieces.
See, when planning for the Nuggets, opposing teams almost have to pick their poison.
It's nearly impossible to stop the entire first unit, as well as Andre Miller, JaVale McGee and Corey Brewer. At some point, someone is going to be open.
When Ty Lawson uses his speed to dash into the lane and the defense collapses down on him, Brewer is often the man left open on the perimeter. After all, when teams have to help on defense and leave either him or Wilson Chandler open for a jumper, they're almost always going to give the shot to Brewer.
That's suited Brewer just fine, as he's hit double figures in six of his last eight games off the bench and has been an important piece for Denver this season.
Despite shooting just 1-of-11 in his last two contests, Brewer is a crucial part of Denver's great depth.
If he is able to knock down his open shots in the postseason, there is no telling how far this Nuggets team can go.
The ultimate wild card, or X-Factor, for this team as they wrap up their regular season and prepare for the grind of the 2013 NBA playoffs, is power forward Kenneth Faried.
According to the Denver Nuggets' official twitter account, Faried will miss the final two regular-season games with a sprained ankle, but he hasn't been ruled out of any playoff action just yet:
If Faried were to miss some action, it would hurt the team in a big way on the glass at both ends of the floor. As the team's leading rebounder, Faried is a beast on the glass despite being undersized.
He also ranks among the league's top 10 offensive rebounders, posting over three per game.
If he's not fit to play, Denver could have a real problem both on the glass and in the energy department.
Hopefully Faried's ankle is feeling better for the team's playoff opener.
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