Home success, return to health among keys for Nuggets

Denver among nine teams fighting for six Western Conference playoff spots

In just half a season, the Denver Nuggets have come full-circle.

Few people outside the Denver locker room expected much from the Nuggets when 2011-12 began, but plenty hopped aboard the bandwagon when theys raced to a 14-5 start.

Injuries and a taxing schedule took a toll in February, leaving the Nuggets with an 18-17 record and restoring their under-the-radar status heading into the final 31 games of the season.

“I feel we’re kind of where I thought we’d be at this moment,” coach George Karl said. “I wish we’d be one or two games (better). I’m not panicking either way.”

Despite dropping 12 of 16 games leading into the All-Star break, the Nuggets remain in position to make a move in the Western Conference, starting with Wednesday’s home game against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Here are the three keys for the Nuggets as the unofficial second half of NBA season begins:

Get Healthy

For the season’s first five games, Karl wrote the same five names into the starting lineup: point guard Ty Lawson, shooting guard Arron Afflalo, center Timofey Mozgov, power forward Nene and small forward Danilo Gallinari.

In the following 30 games, he added 13 alternative combinations.

Finding consistency in the midst of multiple injuries was difficult for Denver, but the medical report is improving. Lawson (sprained ankle) and key reserve Rudy Fernandez (lower back strain) could return against Portland, while Nene (strained calf) and Gallinari (sprained ankle) are making good progress.

Gallinari, injured on Feb. 6, has been shooting on his own and remains optimistic about a possible return sometime in the first week of March.

“It’s still day-by-day,” he said. “I’m feeling pretty good now, but we’ll see with the recovery how (quickly) I can get to game-level.”

It bears repeating that the Nuggets went 12-3 in January, including 5-2 on the road. In only one of those games did they have more than one starter sidelined by injury.

Though Karl often finishes games with a different group than he starts, the five guys he uses at the opening tip lay the foundation for his playing rotation and how he takes advantage of Denver’s deep-and-talented bench.

Win At Home

Whether the effect of playing at altitude is real or psychological, Denver certainly took advantage of it over the previous four years, never losing more than eight games at Pepsi Center.

The power of the home court has been missing this season as the Nuggets went 9-8 at home before the All-Star break. Denver will play 16 of its final 31 games at home, with each one carrying added importance in a shortened season.

“We have to take care of home,” Gallinari said. “For our fans, for our confidence at home, we have to make Pepsi Center feel like it used to be every year when we you win all the games.”

In his final message to the players before the All-Star break, Karl talked about restoring the team’s home dominance.

Which brings us to …

Break Even On The Road

The disappointment of losing eight home games was countered by Denver’s ability to win on the road. The Nuggets swept a five-game road trip for the first time in franchise history, giving them confidence going forward.

After the nine-game homestand in March, Denver embarks on a seven-game trip that includes only two games (at Chicago and at Orlando) against teams who entered the All-Star break with a winning record.

Under the “Doug Moe Standings,” which award a point for a road win and deduct a point for a home loss, the Nuggets were plus-1 at the All-Star break.

Denver’s chief competitors for the final six seeds in the West looked like this: Los Angeles Clippers (plus-4), Los Angeles Lakers (plus-4), Dallas (plus-2), Houston (plus-2), Memphis (plus-1), Portland (even), Minnesota (minus-3) and Utah (minus-3).

At plus-11 and plus 9, respectively, Oklahoma City and San Antonio are well on their way to earning the top two seeds, leaving nine teams to fight for six spots over the next two months.

The Nuggets certainly plan to fight.

“I’m proud of my team in how they’ve responded,” Karl said. “I love how they play. When you play the game of basketball the right way, it will reward you. We’ve just got to keep playing it the right way.”

Aaron Lopez
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for Nuggets.com, providing behind-the-scenes content, including feature stories and video for the site. Before joining the Nuggets in 2009, he spent 15 years covering Colorado sports for the Rocky Mountain News and the Associated Press, making him one of the longest-tenured sports writers in Denver. Aaron's full bio...