Confident Nuggets hit the road for difficult four-game trip
When the Nuggets boarded their charter flight to New Orleans on Sunday, they did so with a mix of confidence and humility.
They were less than 24 hours removed from their sixth double-digit victory in nine games, but also well aware that nothing will come easy during a four-game road trip that includes stops in Atlanta, Orlando and Miami.
“We can’t get too happy,” Denver forward Wilson Chandler said after Saturday night’s 30-point win over the Detroit Pistons. “It’s the NBA. There are a lot of great teams. We play a lot of good teams on this road trip, so we’ve got to buckle down and stay focused.”
When the Nuggets (39-27) reshaped their roster with a three-team, 13-player trade on Feb. 22, no one really knew what to expect, including coach George Karl and his coaching staff.
Nearly three weeks later, Denver is establishing a new identity built on the foundation of passion, unselfish play and fundamental defense that has led to a plus-13.5 post-trade point differential.
It would be naïve to think the Nuggets can maintain that dominance on the road, but they have given Karl reason to believe that they can survive the upcoming four-game gauntlet.
“You’re playing four playoff teams,” Karl said. “To transfer our confidence onto the road is always going be a little more of a challenge. To transfer our success defensively on the road (will be) a little more difficult. But I don’t know. I kind of like these guys. I think I trust them a little bit.”
Before the trade, the Nuggets went 10-18 on the road but have since split four games away from the Pepsi Center. Maintaining that consistency will go a long way toward erasing any remaining doubt about their ability to compete come playoff time.
“Everybody’s ready and excited about this road trip,” point guard Ty Lawson said. “It’s an opportunity to see where we’re at, to show other teams that we’re here and ready to make some noise in this league.”
AFFLALO UPDATE: Nuggets shooting guard Arron Afflalo tested his strained left hamstring during a 35-minute workout Sunday on Denver’s practice court, but he is listed as doubtful for Monday’s game against New Orleans.
Afflalo, who has missed two games because of the injury, said the hamstring is feeling better but he can still feel some lingering tightness. With the Nuggets playing well, he doesn’t want to return too soon and risk re-injury.
Teammate Danilo Gallinari worked out in the Denver weight room before heading to the airport. He has missed six games with a broken toe and is also listed as doubtful for Monday.
MAGIC NUMBER: With eight wins in their past 10 games, the Nuggets are closing in on their eighth consecutive playoff appearance.
Denver is fifth in the Western Conference and leads ninth-place Phoenix by five games, giving the Nuggets a magic number of 12 for clinching a playoff berth. Any combination of Denver victories and Suns losses adding up to 12 would put the Nuggets in the postseason.
To put that in perspective, if the Nuggets finish 8-8 in their final 16 games, the Suns would have to go 15-3 to pass them in the standings. Denver holds the tiebreaker over Phoenix by virtue of winning the season series 3-1.
NOTEWORTHY NENE: By scoring 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting Saturday night, Nuggets center Nene became the first player in Denver’s NBA history to score at least 18 points and shoot .750 or better from the field in three straight games.
Considering that Nene leads the NBA in field-goal percentage (.631), his efficiency is no surprise, but he seems to be energized by Denver’s team-oriented play of late.
“I think he enjoys more team basketball and making good decisions as a unit,” Karl said. “Playing two point guards (Lawson and Raymond Felton), the penetrators have helped him get easier shots and easier baskets.”
Nene has recorded four double-doubles in the past nine games, compared to eight in his first 51 games of the season. He insists that his approach has not changed.
“If I have opportunity to go (to the basket), I will. If I have a double (team), I’m going to try to find the open man, the open shot. That is my style,” he said. “That is how I play. Right now, that’s how everybody is playing. It’s fun to play like that.”