Nuggets reach 50-win mark, clinch fifth seed in West playoffs
For the better part of five months, the Denver Nuggets navigated through a fog of trade rumors, only to dock the ship in a harbor of doubt.
Playing without a true superstar, the Nuggets were generally dismissed as an afterthought to make the playoffs, let alone win 50 games.
Trade speculation, injuries and a roster overhaul aren’t exactly a blueprint for success, but the Nuggets aren’t exactly a cookie-cutter team.
“Everybody says we don’t have a superstar, but we have a lot of legitimate stars on the team that can play anywhere and play a lot of minutes,” point guard Ty Lawson said. “For people to say we have no superstar, we really don’t need one.”
It’s hard to argue with that statement after the Nuggets reached 50 wins for a team-record fourth consecutive season Monday night by pulling away for a 134-111 victory over the Golden State Warriors in front of another sellout crowd at the Pepsi Center.
Fittingly, nine Nuggets scored in double figures for the first time since Nov. 24, 1987, as Denver improved to 18-6 since the All-Star break and clinched the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Like an Oscar winner at the Academy Awards, Nuggets coach George Karl tried not to leave anyone out as he deflected credit for the team’s success.
“I’m extremely pleased,” Karl said. “The script on who should be thanked, it’s a long list. Coaches should be thanked. The front office, the fans, they all played a little role of keeping our confidence in a (good) place. We never buried ourselves. Everybody who’s been on our roster probably had a role in at least one or two wins. It’s a great run. I would say it’s one of my more enjoyable years.”
It’s not over yet. With 50 wins in the books, the Nuggets will conclude the regular season Wednesday in Utah before opening the playoffs at an NBA arena yet to be determined.
The Oklahoma City Thunder currently hold the No. 4 spot in the West but they are just a half-game behind the Los Angeles Lakers and one game behind the Dallas Mavericks in the race for the No. 2 seed.
“I don’t really care who we play,” Denver guard J.R. Smith said. “To be the best team in the league, you have to play the best teams. I don’t think we have to be afraid of anybody. We can take on any challenge and be successful as long as we keep believing in our team.”
Smith was among the catalysts in Monday night’s home finale, scoring 17 of his 22 points in the third quarter. Backup center Kosta Koufos added 16 of his career-high-tying 18 points to help Denver pull away in the fourth.
Koufos played nearly 19 minutes in the second half after starting center Nene left the game with a strained groin.
“Whenever (Karl) calls on me, I’ll be prepared to the best of my ability,” Koufos said. “Given time, I can show I can play in the NBA. At the same time, I’m on a good team. We’ve got good players, and I’ll continue to work hard.”
Koufos – along with Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Timofey Mozgov – was one of five players acquired by the Nuggets on Feb. 22 as part of a three-time trade centering around Carmelo Anthony.
Denver’s ability to reach the 50-win mark while operating on the fly is a testament to the coaching staff, the players and the front office.
“I think we have a great coaching staff. They have held me together very well,” Karl said. “Masai (Ujiri) and Josh (Kroenke) have come in and given a new energy to the organization and I think I’m the benefactor of all that.
“I’m also the benefactor of players hanging together through the tougher months and then bringing energy and commitment during the latter months. I’m just a policeman observing. It’s been a damn good year and hopefully it’ll be extended for some more good times.”
Now that their playoff seed is secure, the Nuggets will try to get healthy.
Arron Afflalo (hamstring) and Chris Andersen (ankle) returned to the lineup against Golden State, but the injury list still included Nene, Chandler (ankle), Gallinari (ankle), Mozgov (ankle, knee) and Al Harrington (foot).
Most of the injuries are considered minor and the Nuggets should have a full complement of players when the playoffs start Saturday or Sunday.
“I’m not really worried about it because it’s not my job to be worried about it,” Smith said. “At the same time, I care for these guys. These guys are my teammates. I just want everyone to be healthy so we don’t have any excuses going into Game 1.”
After sitting out four games, Andersen certainly looked ready for the postseason. He had 14 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots in just 22 minutes.
“He was dynamite,” Karl said. “(Between) his bounce and step and blocked shots and defensive energy and rebounding, he was a force.”
With the playoffs looming, the same can be said of the Nuggets.
“I think what we have right now is a team that respects their opponent but we don’t have a lot of fear of our opponent,” Karl said. “I think that’s a good mentality to have when you get ready to play the best basketball played in the world of basketball.”