Andersen soars, Denver moves closer to clinching playoff spot
Birdman posts double-double, blocks five shots as Nuggets rout Wizards
“I might be crazy, but I think we can make the playoffs and I also think we can be a threat to win in the playoffs. I’m sorry. I just think our guys are good enough to grow up fast and to learn quick and to get excited about playing the game.”
– Nuggets coach George Karl on Feb. 22.
No one can accuse Karl of being a crazy old man.
Sixteen games into a new era of Nuggets basketball, the playoffs are within sight for a Denver team that has demonstrated a heightened focus since trading two of its top players on Feb. 22.
With Friday night’s 114-94 victory over the Washington Wizards, the Nuggets improved to 12-4 since trading Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups and lowered their magic number for clinching a playoff spot to five.
Any combination of Denver wins and Houston Rockets losses adding up to five will give the Nuggets (44-29) their eighth straight playoff berth.
“We’re approaching every game like it’s a playoff game,” Nuggets point guard Raymond Felton said. “We’ve got to prepare ourselves. We’ve got to get ready and stay focused. If we can clinch (a playoff spot) early, we’re definitely going to try to do that, so we can rest some guys and get ready for a playoff run.”
Playing without starters Arron Afflalo (strained hamstring) and Wilson Chandler (sprained ankle), the Nuggets won their ninth straight home game while once again displaying their wealth of depth against the Wizards.
Andersen finished 7-for-7 from the field and added 11 rebounds and five blocked shots while playing through soreness in his surgically repaired right knee. He was limited to just five minutes Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs.
“It’s tough sometimes trying to play through injuries,” Andersen said. “Basically it’s all about getting treatment and getting some time to heal and get rested up. I was able to come out tonight and give ‘em some good minutes.”
The Nuggets trailed by a point when Birdman entered the game midway through the first quarter. He grabbed four rebounds, blocked four shots and scored three points during a 15-0 run to close the quarter.
“Andersen just got it going,” Wizards coach Flip Saunders said. “He dominated the game in the first quarter just with his defense.”
Trailing by 16 points after the first quarter, Washington never got closer than 13 in the second half and fell to 1-34 on the road.
After an emotional victory over the NBA-leading Spurs, staying focused against the struggling Wizards was among Denver’s biggets challenges while playing in front of a sellout crowd for the third time in four home games.
“They have nothing to lose and are playing for nothing,” Gallinari said. “It’s easy to find motivation for a great team like the Spurs. For Washington, you have to be more motivated and focused. Try to get up by 20 like we did and just keep going.”
With Washington in the rearview mirror, the Nuggets now have a four-day break before closing out their homestand Wednesday against the Sacramento Kings.
“Everybody’s got something that’s going on (with injuries),” Denver forward Kenyon Martin said. “It’s going to go a long way toward getting our legs up under us and getting ready for this last stretch.”
With nine games remaining, the Nuggets have put themselves in position to reach 50 wins for the fourth consecutive season. It was a milestone that seemed far-fetched in mid-February but is now a possibility thanks to unselfish play (Denver had 29 assists against Washington), sound defense and balanced scoring.
Of the 14 players on Denver’s roster, 11 have scored in double figures at least once and seven have grabbed at least nine rebounds.
“Their firepower off the bench just doesn’t give you a chance,” Saunders said. “That trade gave them so much depth. Their bench is so deep that they just run numbers at you and really wear you down.”
With 13 wins in their past 17 games, the numbers are looking good for the Nuggets, who remain four games behind Northwest Division-leading Oklahoma City. Denver is 1½ games ahead of Portland for the fifth seed in the Western Conference.
Reaching 50 wins would likely be enough for the Nuggets to secure the fifth spot, but if Denver locks in its playoff seeding, Karl will not pursue the milestone if it means putting his players’ health at risk.
“I’m not going to put (winning 50) ahead of the team,” he said. “If there’s a situation where we’re going to finish in fifth place and we’ve got to rest Nene or Kenyon, we’re probably going to do that. If the last two or three games of the season say you don’t have to play all your guys, we’re probably going to be sensible with our physical play.”
ETC: Chandler has been dealing with chronic soreness in his left ankle and likely will return when the Nuggets play again Wednesday … Denver finished 14-1 at home against Eastern Conference teams, with the only loss coming to playoff-bound Philadelphia in the second game of a back-to-back set on the day after Christmas … The Nuggets are 15 games above .500 for the first time this season … Gallinari was one of 20 NBA players who made a donation Friday to help support relief efforts in Japan. According to Altitude, Gallinari donated $1,000 for each of his 17 points … Tickets for Denver’s potential first-round playoff games go on sale to the public April 2.