Roughly a half-hour after the final buzzer, Andre Blatche sat in the visiting locker room at Pepsi Center and enjoyed the luxury of breathing normally again.
He and the Brooklyn Nets had just seen the Denver Nuggets sprint their way to an easy victory that left them at a loss for words and oxygen.
“I felt like my lungs were going to explode,” Blatche said. “They definitely have an advantage because of (the altitude). I felt like I ran about 10 miles. It was tough.”
How tough are the Nuggets at home in 2012-13?
With a league-best 35-3 record at Pepsi Center, the Nuggets are in position to break the team record for home victories since joining the NBA 37 years ago. The Nuggets went 36-5 under coach Larry Brown in 1976-77.
Fittingly, Brown is a disciple of Hall of Fame North Carolina coach Dean Smith. The Nuggets currently are led by another Smith protege, George Karl.
“I don’t think there’s any question that it’s one of my bigger philosophies – 30 to 35 home wins is the foundation of a special year,” Karl said.
With an uptempo system and a talented rotation that could go 12-deep, if necessary, the Nuggets are following a blueprint made famous by Doug Moe (yet another North Carolina alumnus) in the 1980s.
Moe believed in three speeds at altitude: Fast, faster and fastest. In his 10 seasons in Denver, the Nuggets won at least 34 home games four times – and never fewer than 27 in any other season.
Moe later joined Karl’s coaching staff from 2005-08.
“I was doing TV at that time and I would talk to George before the game,” Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins said. “He would say ‘Doug never thinks we play fast enough.’ When you play at this tempo, you have to be careful to not get seduced into that kind of game because they will beat you at that type of game.”
Talent is the primary element behind Denver’s home success, but psychology should not be underestimated.
When opposing teams enter the building, they walk under a sign that reminds them of the challenge ahead.
“Pepsi Center welcomes you to the Mile High City. Elevation 5,280 feet.”
For those who might have ignored the sign, Nuggets public address announcer Kyle Speller provides a reminder in the final minutes before pregame introductions.
“I love when the PA announcer goes into what altitude sickness will do to you here before the game,” Collins said. “He goes into the symptoms and you start feeling sick before the game. He plants that in your mind.”
Real or imagined, the altitude agrees with the Nuggets.
They have won 20 straight home games, tying the NBA team record set by Moe’s 1984-85 team. Throughout the streak, which started Jan. 20, the Nuggets have regularly pulled away from teams after halftime.
After a 97-90 loss on Feb. 19, Boston coach Doc Rivers admitted that the altitude – combined with Denver’s pace and talent – played a factor in his substitution pattern and the outcome (the Celtics managed only 40 points in the second half).
“It got to us,” Rivers said. “You could clearly see it. They’re so deep. They just keep bringing in guys and they play at that pace.”
It’s no accident that the Nuggets are built for speed.
Targeting players who can thrive in Karl’s high-octane offense, executive vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri has put together a roster full of athletic players who can run the floor and play multiple positions.
It allows Karl to play the role of a hockey coach who makes frequent line changes to keep the pace to his liking.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever backed off the philosophy (of playing fast at altitude),” Karl said. “Physiologically people say it doesn’t matter, but players will tell you it does matter. Players who come here say it tires them out. You have to fight through the burn.”
The Nuggets could build an infomercial with testimonials from opponents who believe in the effects of altitude.
“Guys are talking about it all the time,” Denver forward Corey Brewer said, “especially late in the fourth quarter. Guys are like, ‘I don’t know how y’all play in this.’ ”
Overcoming the altitude is just one obstacle for visiting teams. When the Nuggets get their running game going, the Pepsi Center crowd gets treated to a real-life Top Plays segment.
“I think the fans here don’t get as much credit as they should get,” Karl said. “It’s a good building. It’s a hot building. It’s an energized building.”
The energy flows both directions.
As one of the league’s youngest teams, the Nuggets naturally tend to have more confidence when playing in front of their fans.
Lawson described the Pepsi Center crowd as “definitely one of the forces” behind Denver’s phenomenal home record. Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul was inclined to agree.
“They feed off the crowd,” Paul said. “They get running, and if you get off to a slow start, you’re in trouble. You’re climbing uphill.”
Paul and the Clippers brought a 17-game winning streak to Denver on Jan. 1, but managed only 35 points in the second half of a 92-78 loss. Entering April, the Nuggets had a 21-1 home record against teams with winning records.
“This is a tough building to play in,” Miami Heat forward LeBron James said. “This altitude is nothing to play with.”
And that’s coming from someone who escaped Denver with a victory.
Just about everyone else leaves town defeated and gasping for air.