Is Denver the NBA's next title town?
The Nuggets are rolling through the playoffs. Time to consider them as title contenders?
We hardly talked about the Denver Nuggets all season, even as they won 54 games and finished with the second-best record in the Western Conference. We looked to other teams -- San Antonio, Utah, Portland, even New Orleans -- as potential foils for the Lakers' dynasty and never gave the Nuggets a second look. Even after they changed their stripes with an offseason roster makeover and in-season trade for Chauncey Billups, we thought they were too volatile, too unsteady and too selfish to be real contenders. Forget about under the radar, these Nuggets are downright subterranean. If a team such as L.A. or Cleveland had romped through its first seven games of the playoffs like this, we would be pulling up comparisons with the greatest teams in history. But because these are the Nuggets, they've made barely a ripple.
The Rocky Horror Time Zone isn't doing them any favors, but at any time of day, the networks don't seem too enthralled with their story. Take the Nuggets' historic 58-point pounding of the Hornets, for instance -- TNT didn't, so the game was exiled to the barren wilds of NBA TV and broadcast by announcers who weren't in the building.
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So if you haven't been paying attention to the Nuggets, I'm here to tell you -- no, implore you -- to pay attention to the Nuggets, because there's a chance you might be seeing an awful lot of them in June.
For starters, they appear to have already booked a trip into the conference finals. Denver is up 2-0 in the conference semifinals, and teams that are up 2-0 win 93 percent of playoff series. But it's not just that the Nuggets are up 2-0; it's also that this series, which looked like a good matchup just a few days ago, now appears to be a mismatch.
Dallas won 50 games, finished 25-13 in its final 38 games and knocked out San Antonio in five games, yet the Mavs are nowhere near as good as Denver. At several times during the first two games, the Nuggets had five of the seven best players on the court. Late in the first quarter Tuesday night, when the lineups were Billups-J.R. Smith-Carmelo Anthony-Chris Andersen-Nene against J.J. Barea-Jason Terry-Jason Kidd-James Singleton-Erick Dampier, you could argue the Nuggets had the better player at every position.
They're still a secret outside Colorado, but it's a different story along the Front Range. The Pepsi Center has become more boisterous by the day, with fans expecting every 3-point attempt by Billups and Smith to draw net and cheering as soon as the ball leaves their hands. Tuesday night, they serenaded the Mavs with a "You can't beat us!" chant, as Marc Stein detailed.
It wasn't bravado, either. They were just saying what everyone was already thinking.
So is this team a legitimate contender? Let's get down to the nitty-gritty and see.
For starters, there's the impressive postseason run. Denver won six of its first seven contests and won them by an average of 21 points per game -- the greatest average margin through seven playoff games in league history. Of the five previous teams to post margins of plus-14 or better in their first seven games, four won the NBA title. I'll take that as a positive omen.
Better yet, we have reason to believe that the Nuggets' great playoff run is just a continuation of the way they closed out the regular season. Excluding a meaningless, season-ending game in Portland, Denver finished the season 14-2.
The two losses were on the road, to the Lakers (by 14, without Kenyon Martin) and to the Suns (by three). The 14 wins, meanwhile, were mostly one-sided affairs. The Nuggets' average scoring margin in that streak was plus-10 points per game; throw in the seven playoff games, and in their past 23 meaningful games, they're 20-3 with a plus-13.4 average scoring margin. Ouch.
Of course, the Nuggets had played 65 games before that point and weren't nearly as impressive. After the All-Star break, they lost six straight road games, including contests in Indiana and Sacramento. In February, they lost to Boston by 38 and to New Jersey by 44. So why should we believe that this recent hot streak is somehow more indicative of their level going forward?
The answer, basically, is health.
Although a lot of teams struggle with minor ailments (or major ones) by this point, the Nuggets are healthier than they've been all season. Their run began when Anthony Carter returned from a hip injury to solidify the backcourt rotation and Martin returned from a lower-back strain to fortify the frontcourt. Martin missed a few more games with sore ribs, but everybody else played.
Then there's Carmelo Anthony's elbow. It clearly bothered him for most of the first half of the season, as he shot blanks until around mid-March. It's not just a coincidence that the Nuggets snapped their road losing streak when Melo pumped in 35 at Memphis, or that he had 29 and 43 in consecutive road wins in New Orleans and Dallas a week later.
In the 20-game stretch starting with the Memphis game (but excluding the meaningless, season-ending Portland game), Anthony is back to putting up the Melo numbers we expect: He's averaging 25.2 points per game and shooting 46.3 percent from the floor. Because of all the blowout wins, he's doing this in just 35.4 minutes per game. That puts his per-minute scoring on par with that of his previous two seasons, after he had fallen far short of that level for the first three-quarters of the season.
In addition, he's providing another Melo number we hadn't expected: 4.3 assists per game. Anthony has averaged only 3.1 for his career and remained at that level most of the season, so perhaps now is when the Nuggets' newfound esprit de corps has finally rubbed off on what had been one of its most reluctant practitioners. And Melo visibly defended harder this season and increased his rebound rate for a third consecutive season.
From there, things have just snowballed. Smith struggled with his shot for much of the season, for reasons that aren't entirely clear. In Denver's torrid 23-game stretch, he has made a total U-turn, averaging 19.9 points a game off the bench and shooting 44.6 percent on 3-pointers -- a pretty daunting number considering he's attempting more than nine a game. (Expected return on his 9.3 3-point attempts: 12.4 points, for a true shooting percentage of 66.7. No wonder the fans start cheering as soon as he winds up.)
Then there's Mr. Big Shot. Remember, this whole "leading a near-invisible 54-win team that gets scorching-hot in March, upsets the Lakers and takes the league by storm" thing isn't new ground for him: He and his Detroit Pistons did the same thing in 2004.
This time around, his jump shot has been a major player in the story. Like Smith, Billups was shooting below his career averages for much of the season but has been making up for it in a major way ever since. In fact, he has made Smith look like a rank amateur. In the team's 23-game hot streak, Billups is shooting an amazing 51.3 percent on 3-pointers.
It's not hard to connect the dots here. When Anthony rediscovered his touch, defenses had to pay more attention, and when he started sharing the ball, Billups and Smith benefited with a slew of wide-open looks. More winning begat more sharing, and all of a sudden, the Nuggies look unstoppable.
We don't know where this story ends. Denver could end up like the 1986 Lakers, who had nearly as torrid a postseason start before flaming out in five games against Houston in the conference finals. Or they could end up being the third lightning-in-a-bottle champion in the past six years, like Billups' 2004 Pistons and the Miami Heat in 2006.
All I know for sure is that we haven't been paying any attention to these guys, and we're missing out on what could become the year's biggest story. They may play in an inconvenient time zone and lack a little in the superstar department, but every shred of evidence we have says the Nuggets have become a legitimate title contender. It's high time we treat them as such.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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