Bench players ensure Nuggets always have fuel in reserve

Denver's second unit flying under the radar

As they filed off the practice court Tuesday, Nuggets reserves such as Melvin Ely, Ty Lawson, Al Harrington and J.R. Smith were not approached for interview requests.

No big surprise.

Their work of late has gone largely unnoticed as the media continue to focus on the future of Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony.

The Denver reserves, who last year went by the nickname Crucial Conflict, are averaging 51.8 points over the past four games. For the season, they rank second in the Western Conference – fifth in the NBA – with a scoring average of 37.2 points per game.

“We’ve had an incredible run with guys on the bench,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “Our bench is playing better than our starters in a lot of ways. If I had to give an MVP right now, I’d probably give it to our bench.”

The recent bench boost started Jan. 11 when the second unit helped the Nuggets dig out from a 14-point first-quarter deficit against Phoenix. Denver completed a 48-point turnaround with a 34-point rout of the Suns.

Lawson was a key catalyst, stealing passes and pushing the ball at full speed.

“I like to make things happen, just push the pace,” Lawson said. “Everybody has fun when we do that. It means a lot more shots and a lot more people getting open. It’s more fun for the crowd and fun for us.”

The fun continued two nights later when the Nuggets gained separation from the Miami Heat in the second quarter of a 28-point victory. Smith hit eight three-pointers in the game and finished with 28 points.

“Our bench has been great,” Nuggets starting point guard Chauncey Billups said. “There’s been a few times we’ve been down in games, they come in and they spark the club and we come back in and close it out.”

Denver’s depth will be needed again this week as the Nuggets face Northwest Division-rival Oklahoma City on Wednesday and the defending NBA-champion Los Angeles Lakers on Friday.

The Nuggets (23-17) have done an excellent job maintaining their focus despite the uncertainty surrounding the team – another aspect that has been overshadowed by daily trade rumors and speculation.

Karl’s return to health after battling throat cancer, Lawson’s development, the improved play of Arron Afflalo and Nene’s All-Star push are among the other storylines that have gone underappreciated as the season hits the midway point.

As the Nuggets prepare for a second-half push, Karl just hopes the repeated questions don’t start to negatively impact his players.

“We had an awful practice today. We were very distracted,” he said. “I have no idea why. It’s part of basketball. You never have great practices every day, but we definitely took a step to the wrong direction in our attitude about whatever we’re going through.”

Aaron Lopez
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for, 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. Follow him on twitter @Lopez_Nuggets. Aaron's full bio...