The NBA regular season is an 82-game marathon, definitely not a sprint. It's a six-month race for playoff positioning in which athletes’ bodies are pushed to the limit every night.
Inevitably, the gargantuans wear down and every team sustains injuries—how they react determines a great deal, especially during the stretch run.
Many times, if a star drops so does his team's record and chances of a title. Sometimes, if it’s a superstar that’s lost, teams can plummet out of contention (ex. Houston sans Yao).
And, really, how a team manages misfortune can make or break an entire season.
For the Denver Nuggets, the last month has been injury riddled, and the significance of losing stars stung.
First, veteran point guard Chauncey Billups went out with a groin strain. Groin injuries are like a bad cold—lingering and hard to get rid of. Mr. Big Shot was sidelined from three games before attempting to play versus Portland. Billups the veteran made a rookie mistake by coming back too early, which forced him to miss the next six contests—causing Denver to struggle mightily (3-5).
Billups’ absence was felt immediately as the Nuggets reverted to their sorry, stale state before his arrival in ’08.
Ball and player movement was nonexistent, as Denver settled for ill-advised jumpers almost every time down the court. Without Billups, the Nuggets seemed lost—like a pack of dogs without their musher.
There was no one to force the ball to the hoop and draw fouls, one of the Nuggets' most effective ways of scoring. Denver leads the league in free-throw attempts per game at over 31 per from the charity stripe, and the Nuggets need to exploit their biggest strength on offense by getting to the line.
The easiest way to get to the line is to slash through the paint.
The difficulties were compounded and the Nuggets missed out on Carmelo Anthony too—their leading scorer and best player. Melo suffered a knee contusion in the Dec. 28 game against Sacramento, and while he missed the next five games, the Nuggets went 3-2.
While both of Denver's biggest stars missed two weeks each, their backups played considerable amounts of time—and many played well.
Rookie Ty Lawson averaged a stellar 22.3 points and 8.4 assists in three starts without Billups, and Joey Graham scored nine points per in place of Anthony.
Backups starting and playing well will only add to their confidence for the rest of the season, a bonus for Denver.
Plus, without the Nuggets' two leading scorers, other starters were able to shine, most notably center Nene and forward Kenyon Martin.
Nene averaged 16.6 points and 8.4 rebounds when Melo sat, and Martin had three straight double-doubles in Melo’s last three games out. K-Mart was overbearing against Golden State (27 pts, 13 rbs), strong and steady versus Cleveland (19, 12), and impressive in Sacramento (20, 10).
Tonight the Nuggets (25-14) face division rival Utah Jazz (23-17) for the second time in two weeks. Denver beat the Jazz in Utah by 10 in Melo’s first game out, and they will be looking to duplicate that energy on their NBA-best home court where they are 17-3.
Additionally, with Billups and Anthony both in the starting lineup, the Nuggets are 16-4 as Denver’s starting lineup creates matchup headaches for any team.
The Jazz are coming off back-to-back wins against the Cavaliers and Bucks, and they look to continue their four-game winning streak tonight in the Pepsi Center. Utah’s star point guard Deron Williams will be back after missing the last two, and the Jazz always compete hard with the Nuggets.
This will be an excellent, physical Northwest Division battle tonight; and all the fun tips off at 7:00 PM on ESPN.
The Nuggets showed flashes of brilliance, excellence—championship caliber basketball. Denver took a 16-point lead in the second quarter, with amazing passing and awesome energy on the defensive end. But the Nuggets got cocky and let the Jazz back into the game, as Denver was only up seven at half.
The second half was all Carmelo Anthony's as he put on a magical performance to finish the game. Melo scored 29 of his 37 total points after half—many were due to his vigilant work under the rim. Over and over again Melo showed everyone on the Jazz from Ronnie Brewer to Paul Millsap that they are too slow for his explosive quick step as he made many layups and finger rolls with "and ones." Melo went 11-12 on free throws, and the Nuggets shot 49 times from the charity stripe all night.
Plus he out-muscled numerous Jazz players under the hoop for eight total rebounds in the game and stole three balls as well.
Melo was hands-down MVP stature tonight, and more awe-inspiring performances on national TV have to be taking effect with the national media.
Overall, even though Utah tried to come back multiple times, the Nuggets held them off and won the game 112-119. It makes five wins in the last six games for Denver as they have already won the season series with the Jazz at three wins to zero.
The win has more significance, too, since Dallas lost and Denver is tied with them in second now. And the Nuggets have spread their lead over the Trail Blazers to 1.5 games, and they are 3.5 ahead of the Jazz currently.
Denver hopes to keep on their winning track in Oakland versus Golden State Wednesday at 8:30 PM.