Nuggets set for playoff push as season reaches midway point
Approaching All-Star break should aid Denver's return to health
There was an element of symmetry as the Denver Nuggets reached the season’s midway point.
After celebrating a hard-fought overtime victory that embodied their team-first philosophy, the Nuggets were able to exhale – if only for a day – before preparing to start the second half of the season on the one-year anniversary of the trade that transformed the franchise.
With an 18-15 record through 33 games, the Nuggets are once again in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase. In fact, Denver is 36-22 (.621) since orchestrating a three-team, 13-player trade on Feb. 22, 2011.
Three of the players acquired in the trade – Danilo Gallinari, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov – have made significant contributions in the first half of 2011-12. A fourth – free-agent forward Wilson Chandler – is optimistic about returning to the Nuggets after spending more than three months playing in China.
Injuries to Gallinari, Nene and several other rotation players have slowed the Nuggets since they matched the best 19-game start in the team’s NBA history, but the upcoming All-Star break and the potential addition of Chandler should put Denver in position to reach the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season.
“When we were healthy, we were 14-5,” point guard Ty Lawson said. “I feel when we get everybody back, they’ll have rested legs. We should be ready to go. Everybody thinks we’ll be at the bottom of the West, but I think we’ll climb back up there.”
Lawson sprained his left ankle Monday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves and is listed as day-to-day. In his first full season as a starter, he is averaging career highs in points (15.5), assists (6.2), rebounds (3.4) and steals (1.41).
Lawson’s development is not unique to a roster that features three rookies and 10 players 26 years old or younger.
Gallinari, 23, was building a case for an All-Star invitation before suffering a severe ankle sprain on Feb. 6, while rookie forward Kenneth Faried has made six starts and is averaging 11.2 points and nine rebounds when he plays at least 15 minutes.
Seven-footers Koufos and Mozgov are blossoming into athletic big men who can defend the paint at one end of the floor and finish on the fast break at the other end.
Rookie point guard Julyan Stone – undrafted out of UTEP – and first-year forward Jordan Hamilton have gained coach George Karl’s trust as injuries depleted the team’s depth over the past several weeks.
Corey Brewer and Rudy Fernandez, acquired from Dallas in the midst of training camp, have provided added energy and experience in a season when energy is often a rare commodity.
The young talent has been complemented by steady play from veterans Al Harrington and Andre Miller. They are the only two Nuggets who played in each of the first 33 games.
“We like where we are,” Harrington said. “We’re three games over .500 with all the injuries and the crazy schedule this month. I’m just happy we’re in this position. We’re going to be sitting pretty after the All-Star break when everybody’s healthy.”
Youth, injuries and a taxing first-half schedule has understandably led to inconsistency, but the Nuggets are not far off the pace that Karl targeted when he tried to forecast his team’s pre-All-Star break record back in December.
“I should bring out my book and show you,” Karl said during his pregame media session Monday. “Basically, we’re right at ‘realistic.’ I thought if we had 20 wins at the end of February, we'd be in a good place. I don't think we'll be in a bad place no matter if we get between 17 and 20. I'm optimistic, seeing the way my team is playing.”
Four of Denver’s past 10 losses have been by four points or less, while a fifth came in overtime on the road against Oklahoma City – the top team in the West.
“Obviously we’ve lost some close ones,” shooting guard Arron Afflalo said. “When we were playing well and were healthy, we gave away a few as well. Overall, it is what it is. We have to close these last two games out and recover over All-Star break and come on strong at the right time.”
After a slow start to the season, Afflalo is playing his best basketball. He has scored at least 20 points in five of the past seven games, and his leaning jumper gave the Nuggets the lead for good in the final minute of overtime Monday.
In the absence of injured starters Gallinari and Nene, Afflalo and Harrington have taken on more responsibility. Denver was without five rotation players in fourth quarter and overtime Monday, and Harrington responded with a season-high 31 points.
“I was tired (Monday night). I’m not going to lie,” said Harrington, who turned 32 on Feb. 17. “I wanted to come out of the game a couple times. I was going to ask to come out, but I just knew we had nowhere to turn, so I kept it to myself. That’s what it’s all about. We all have to pull for each other.”
Even when the Nuggets return to full health, Karl expects more twists, turns, ups, downs, highs and lows in the second half. Currently eighth in the West, Denver sits three games behind third-seeded Dallas and two games ahead of 11th-place Utah.
“It kind of reminds me of the year we made the playoffs and had to win 50 games,” Karl said. “It's going to be that kind of competition for that eighth spot – maybe sixth, seventh and eighth.
“There's going to mishmash of three-game winning streaks, you move up to sixth; two-game losing streak, you move down to ninth. I think it's the way it's going to be for at least four or five more weeks.”
In other words, Nuggets fans should hang on for an exciting second-half ride.