At one point, the Nuggets were considered another average team in the West. They had dropped four out of five games and were staring at a 34-22 record.
Then Denver flipped a switch and went on a 23-3 run to snatch the No. 3 seed.
Just two-and-a-half seasons removed from losing Carmelo Anthony, head coach George Karl compiled one of the most exciting teams in the league with firepower and unselfishness. As Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated points out, Karl is a legitimate candidate for NBA Coach of the Year.
The Nuggets battled several injuries down the stretch. They don't have a superstar. They were never the center of attention.
Yet Denver's chemistry couldn't be tampered with and the Nuggets are now one of the biggest threats in the West.
Denver will begin its postseason journey at the Pepsi Center on Saturday, April 20 for Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors.
Through one of the most balanced, explosive and fast-paced offenses in the NBA, the Denver Nuggets set multiple franchise records to earn the No. 3 seed. Those include: 57 wins, a 15-game winning streak, 38 home victories and a 23-home game winning streak.
Even though the Nuggets might not have had a superstar that stands out, their style of play did. They played nine, sometimes even 10 deep, and ran opponents out of the gym.
Nine of Denver's players averaged at least eight points per game, and although Evan Fournier wasn't one of them, he's posted 12.33 points in the last nine games when his minutes increased.
Furthermore, Denver was stellar with 20.1 fast-break points per game (first), 58 points in the paint (first) and 26.2 free-throw attempts (third). This came from attacking the basket in transition by forcing 9.3 steals (second) and rejecting 6.5 shots (third).
While the Nuggets play to these strengths they were also successful in the half court. They always look for gaps in the defense through their ball movement, screens and passing lanes. Denver dished out a third-best 24.4 assists per game.
Perhaps most impressively, Denver didn't have a losing record against the Western Conference playoff teams, with a combined 20-7 record.
Despite the Nuggets having to overcome some injury woes, Denver is in good shape heading into the postseason.
No. 3 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 6 Golden State Warriors
Game 1 - Sat. April 20, Golden State at Denver, 5:30 p.m., ESPN
Game 2 - Tue. April 23, Golden State at Denver, 10:30 p.m., TNT
Game 3 - Fri. April 26, Denver at Golden State, 10:30 p.m., ESPN 2
Game 4 - Sun. April 28, Denver at Golden State, 9:30 p.m., TNT
Game 5* - Tue. April 30, Golden State at Denver, TBD, TBD
Game 6* - Thu. May 2, Denver at Golden State, TBD, TBD
Game 7* - Sat. May 4, Golden State at Denver, TBD, TNT
(All times are ET)
(* if necessary)
Does Danilo Gallinari's injury ultimately keep Denver out of the NBA Finals?
The Nuggets avoided injuries for the better part of the 2012-13 season (with the exception of Wilson Chandler) but Denver took some hits as the regular season came to an end.
Most notably, Danilo Gallinari, who posted 16.2 points and 5.2 assists per game, suffered an ACL injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season (per Arnie Stapleton of the Huffington Post).
Since Gallinari went down on April 4 the Nuggets are 6-1 and appear to overcome any challenge thrown at them. Ty Lawson missed nearly three weeks with a plantar fascia tear in his right heel (via USA Today) and Kenneth Faried went down with a sprained ankle against Dallas on April 12 (per Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated).
Wilson Chandler has stepped up in the starting lineup and Evan Fournier has played magnificently since his minutes have increased in the last three weeks.
While Lawson is back and Faried is expected to return for the postseason, Gallinari has been an essential piece to this deep rotation. The Nuggets have had success so far without him, but can they sustain it?
Ty Lawson vs. Stephen Curry
This will be a battle of the two best point guards in the West to not make the NBA All-Star Game this season.
As George Karl mentioned after the second game between the Nuggets and Warriors (via Associated Press on ESPN.com), these two point guards have developed a rivalry.
Lawson (16.7 ppg, 6.9 apg, 2.7 rpg) and Curry (23.0 ppg, 6.9 apg, 4.1 rpg) are the leaders on each team in points and assists. Both can create their own shot off the dribble, drain it from long distance and make their teammates better.
Because of this, the defense will be equally as important. Curry was held to a season-low six points against Lawson and the Nuggets on November 23. Lawson was held to 23.1 and 38.9 percent shooting in his two games at Golden State.
This duel will play a significant factor on each team's performance.
These are the best rebounding teams in the West, as they each pull down 44.9 boards per game. They are also similar in where they get their production.
Both squads are led by their power forwards, Kenneth Faried (9.2 rpg) and David Lee (11.2 rpg), but Faried has the slight 3.3-to-2.8 offensive-rebounding advantage. Faried is coming off the ankle injury and will be put to the test against a double-double threat.
Kosta Koufos (7.0 rpg) and Andrew Bogut (7.6 rpg) is the matchup at center, but Bogut has yet to play the Nuggets this season because of his left ankle injury that forced him to miss several games earlier in the year (via Brett Pollakoff of NBCSports.com). Bogut also injured the same ankle against Oklahoma City on April 11 and didn't return until Golden State's regular-season finale Wednesday.
While both teams also do an excellent job on the glass with just their guards and big men off the bench, these are the two most intriguing situations. Each team has a player trying to come back from injury, and whichever team is able to have the rebounding edge will have an edge in the series.
A large part of this answer depends on Lawson and Faried not facing any setbacks.
It's quite simple, presuming that everyone is healthy. Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried and Kosta Koufos are the starters, with Chandler still replacing Danilo Gallinari at small forward.
Corey Brewer will play the sixth-man role and light it up from the perimeter. Evan Fournier will also provide a spark on the outside and has increasingly done a good job at getting to the basket with his increased playing time. Andre Miller will backup Lawson at point, while JaVale McGee and Anthony Randolph are the big men off the bench.
The greatest chance for this to change will be because of Faried. He was the only Denver player to start the first 80 games of the season, but missed the last two because of the ankle sprain.
While he is expected to return for the playoffs, he might not be 100 percent. If Faried's playing time is limited in the Golden State series then look for Randolph to see double-digit minutes.
There's no reason to think that Lawson will re-aggravate his heel injury. But if he does, George Karl will do what he did before. He will start Miller at point guard and slightly increase the rest of the guards' minutes.
Denver wins in five.
The Nuggets won the regular-season series 3-1 with their last meeting on January 13. Since that contest, Denver is 34-9 and Golden State is 24-22.
Along with the Nuggets being the hotter team, their depth is more evident. The top-12 Denver players in points per game had a PER of at least 13.9. Golden State only had four with at least that number on its roster.
Plus, one of the best ways to take Denver out of its rhythm is to slow the game down. The Warriors might not run quite as much as the Nuggets, but they certainly aren't a slower-paced team. Denver takes 85.2 shots per game (second) while Golden State takes 83.4 (ninth).
The Warriors are 2-11 on the road against Western Conference playoff teams and the Nuggets are 38-3 at home. Essentially, the chances of Golden State stealing one in Denver are slim.
This isn't a good matchup for the Warriors. The Nuggets move on.
Denver loses in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
Assuming Denver gets through the first round, the San Antonio Spurs or Los Angeles Lakers await. Both teams were banged up throughout the season and are still up against injuries today.
The Spurs brought back Manu Ginobili Wednesday night for 12 minutes of play after missing nine games with a hamstring injury (per Sean Highkin of USA Today). Also, as Dan McCarney of Spurs Nation points out, the San Antonio offense has struggled since Tony Parker sprained his ankle on March 1.
The Lakers have had injury problems since the beginning of the season, but Kobe Bryant's torn left Achilles (via Royce Young of CBSSports.com) is by far the worst. Los Angeles is also awaiting the return of point guard Steve Nash, who is battling a hamstring issue according to Lakers.com.
Regardless of the opponent, the Nuggets will prevail in the series. Their depth and ability to run the floor will keep them playing at a higher level than the older Spurs or Lakers.
At that point, with as well as the Oklahoma City Thunder are playing, it's tough to see them being upset before the Western Conference Finals. This series will go seven games and will be the best of the entire NBA playoffs.
Once again, Denver's edge will be depth, especially since the Thunder no longer have James Harden. The Nuggets won the regular-season series 3-1, with two of the wins decided by a combined five points.
Yet, OKC is familiar with this situation and Kevin Durant is the x-factor. With home-court advantage and the Thunder only giving up 96.5 points per game, Oklahoma City is the favorite.
It's going to be an exhausting, but exhilarating series. Durant makes the plays in the final minute of Game 7 to eliminate the Nuggets.
Eastern Conference - First Round
No. 1 Miami vs. No. 8 Milwaukee - Milwaukee dominated one of the games in the series, although that was just before the turn of the calendar year when the Heat were in a small funk. Miami is far better and will coast into the next round. Miami in four.
No. 2 New York vs. No. 7 Boston - Recent history might be on Boston's side but that has nothing to do with how these two teams are playing. Carmelo Anthony is on fire and New York has won 16 of its last 18, including two dominant victories over the Celtics. Boston only has one win against a playoff team in its last 20 games. It's simply this for the Celtics: no Rajon Rondo, no chance. New York in five.
No. 3 Indiana vs. No. 6 Atlanta - These are two teams that haven't played their best basketball in April, but the Pacers rebounding and defense will prevail. With the exception of Danny Granger because of his knee injury (via Jason Patt of SB Nation), the core of this Pacers team is coming back for unfinished business after giving the Heat a run in the 2012 playoffs. Paul George has a big series. Indiana in five.
No. 4 Brooklyn vs. No. 5 Chicago - Chicago won the regular-season series 3-1 but Brooklyn will get it done. The Bulls consistency has been suspect, to say the least. They looked great when they ended Miami's and New York's winning streaks. Then they looked awful by losing to Detroit and Toronto. Plus, Joakim Noah's health is in question after missing several games down the stretch with his plantar fasciitis injury (per Kevin Zimmerman of SB Nation). Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson are too much for the Bulls to handle right now in a seven-game series. Brooklyn in six.
Western Conference - First Round
No. 1 Oklahoma City vs. No. 8 Houston - It's James Harden going against his former team. The Rockets can score, but they can also give up a lot of points. Houston gets one at home, but OKC is in control of this series. Oklahoma City in five.
No. 2 San Antonio vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers - The most intriguing first-round series. Both teams are facing injuries, but the Lakers can't do it without Kobe Bryant. The Spurs will protect the paint and Gregg Popovich will put Dwight Howard on the line countlessly. San Antonio in five.
No. 3 Denver vs. No. 6 Golden State - Despite the injuries toward the end of the season, Denver is playing as well as anyone in the West. Golden State gets a win at home, but that's it. Denver in five.
No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Memphis - A rematch of the first-round series in 2012. While Lob City gets most of the attention, the Clippers are playing terrific their defense in the month of April. The Clippers won the regular-season series 3-1 and Chris Paul is the difference maker. Los Angeles in seven.
Eastern Conference - Semifinals
No. 1 Miami vs. No. 4 Brooklyn - Brooklyn's best chance is to attack inside with Brook Lopez and company, but it still won't be enough. The Heat swept the Nets in the regular season 3-0 by an average of 21 points. All of those games happened before Miami's 27-game winning streak. Yikes. Miami in five.
No. 2 New York vs. No. 3 Indiana - This might not be Reggie Miller against John Starks, but it's been nine years for the Pacers and 13 for the Knicks since they reached the Eastern Conference Finals. While New York is the hotter team, will Carmelo Anthony be able to keep up his remarkable scoring numbers? It's Indiana's balance against a high volume of jump shots from New York. The Pacers move on. Indiana in six.
Western Conference - Semifinals
No. 1 Oklahoma City vs. No 4 Los Angeles Clippers - While Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul battle it out at the point, Kevin Durant will have one of his best playoff series' in his career. The Thunder swept the Clippers 3-0 in the regular season, with Durant scoring a total of 102 points. Oklahoma City in six.
No. 2 San Antonio vs. No. 3 Denver - The Spurs are just too banged up to keep up with the Nuggets. Popovich has tried to save the team's energy for the playoffs but it doesn't matter. Tony Parker, who is normally as consistent as point guards come, has struggled recently. Denver protects its home floor and wins one of the first two in San Antonio. Denver in six.
Eastern Conference Finals
No. 1 Miami vs. No. 3 Indiana - Indiana has been a tough team for Miami to overcome, largely due to its rebounding and defense, but the Heat will make this look easier than it is. This is a better Miami team than last year and won't overlook the Pacers after the brutal series they had in the 2012 playoffs. Miami in five.
Western Conference Finals
No. 1 Oklahoma City vs. No. 3 Denver - As stated before, this will be the best series of the entire playoffs. The games will be high scoring. The crowds will be electric. It's going to come down to the final minute of the final game, but Kevin Durant gets the Thunder back to the NBA Finals. Oklahoma City in seven.
No. 1 Miami vs. No. 1 Oklahoma City - It's rare that the same two teams return to the NBA Finals in back-to-back seasons, or in any professional league for that matter, but it's going to happen. Miami is on a different level than anyone else in the East and Oklahoma City has the deadly combination of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. This time around the Heat have home-court advantage. Miami goes back to South Beach with a 3-2 lead before winning the title in six games. Miami in six.