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Nuggets Making the Grade in Eyes of National Media
Of all of the storylines buzzing during the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, the Nuggets were an undercover topic. The Western Conference has seen two additional teams – Utah and the L.A. Clippers – jump into the playoff race coming down to the wire, and in the predictions of who is in and who isn’t, the Nuggets are getting props from national media for how they’ve played to this point.
“Considering where they are, with (Paul) Millsap being out, it is a really good accomplishment,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said. “The assumption, when Millsap comes back, is that they will get a lot better. I don’t know that to be true, but that’s the assumption.
“The way that Mike (Malone) has been able to work with his roster and manage his roster and make adjustments as the season goes along – he’s really done some of his best coaching this year. So, they haven’t arrived and I expect it to be dogfight for them down the stretch. But, when Millsap was knocked out like that, I think a lot of us thought well that’s it.”
But it wasn’t. Far from it, in fact.
They are 23-19 in the 42 games without Millsap, the four-time All-Star, who has not played since November due to a left wrist ligament injury. And because they’ve been able to successfully navigate those waters, the Nuggets entered the break in sixth-place in the West at 32-26 with 24 games left to play.
“I think they are the most dangerous lower seed in the Western Conference because of all of the different ways they can come at you – (Nikola) Jokic, (Gary) Harris, (Will) Barton – all of these different and talented guys,” NBA TV’s Sekou Smith said. “All of these versatile, athletic young guys that play with energy, who can shoot it from deep, that can get up and down the floor. They would scare me if I’m a higher seed because I wouldn’t know what to expect from them in a playoff setting.”
The Nuggets have survived many different lineups, and coach Michael Malone – and his staff – have consistently found combinations that work.
“There’s a legitimacy there with them that they’ve been fighting the last couple of years to get,” USA Today’s Sam Amick said. “I do give Mike Malone a lot of credit. Everyone knows Mike runs hot, and it is an intense style but it is paying dividends.”
The Nuggets are expected to get the return of injured center Mason Plumlee (calf) as early as Friday against San Antonio and Millsap in the next few weeks.
“The wildcard is they’ve got Paul,” Smith said. “And I’ve said the Paul and (Cleveland’s) Kevin Love are the two guys who are coming back from injury at some point this season that will dramatically change their team’s fortunes. Paul, being a guy that has played as deep as he has into the playoffs, an All-Star, a veteran, on that team? Makes a complete difference for them in a playoff setting.”
Both Smith and Amick also took note of the Nuggets developing young players to get competitive. Jokic is turning in another solid season. Harris has built on a solid 2016-17 season and Murray is having a breakout year in his second season in the NBA.
“It hasn’t been a linear process,” Amick said. “It’s something where I know they’ve had to be patient, but I think they’ve got a good thing going.”
Said Smith: “They are one of my favorite teams to watch because of the dynamic talent and the depth of talent they have. They haven’t really rounded into the form I’m sure some have wanted them to, but I’ve seen so many young teams over the years that they don’t give them the time to grow and develop together.
“To me, what Denver is doing is so smart, because they are giving them that leeway, allowing those young guys to make mistakes, play through them and figure out what their organic form of that team should be, as opposed to trying to jump start that process or accelerate or manipulate it.”
Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com and @chrisadempsey on Twitter