After racking up six-straight victories, all the excitement surrounding the Nuggets seems to have suddenly evaporated with two straight losses to two solid Western Conference teams. Are Nuggets fans overly panicking? Or is reality settling in? How the Nuggets perform on Thursday against the Clippers and Friday against the Lakers will go a long way towards answering those questions.
Prior to Sunday's game against Thursday's opponent - the Los Angeles Clippers - the Nuggets looked like world beaters. They had won six straight games, five of them on the road, and had ascended to the second spot in the Western Conference overall standings. The dialogue around here wasn't just about the winning streak, but about just how far our Nuggets could go in the post-season.
Two straight losses later - one at home to the Clippers on Sunday and another on the road to the Grizzlies on Tuesday - and Nuggets fans have suddenly become pessimistic. And while I think Nuggets fans have a right to be frustrated, the pessimism is a bit overdone. Should the Nuggets lose to the Clippers tonight and the Lakers on Friday, I'll add myself to the ranks of the skeptics. I'm not there yet.
Looking back at the win streak, the Nuggets won those games for three obvious reasons: they racked up a lot of points, stayed disciplined with the basketball in crunch time ... and they played really crappy teams (with the lone exception being the Philadelphia 76ers, who the Nuggets impressively beat in overtime in Philly). And because those teams are so crappy, it's hard to predict the future for our Nuggets based off those victories.
The Nuggets were able to rack up a lot of points against the Clippers on Sunday, as well, but the Clippers aren't a crappy team. In fact, they've become one of the NBA's hottest squads, winning four straight (at home against Memphis, on the road in Denver, at home on a back-to-back against Oklahoma City and at Utah last night in a thriller) and eight of their last 11. The Clippers are - at long last - playing like the team many feared they would become when they acquired superstar point guard Chris Paul just before the regular season began.
While attending the Clippers vs. Nuggets loss on Sunday, a few things stood out to me that cost the Nuggets the game ...
... not having Ty Lawson killed the Nuggets. Even though Denver put up 105 points, they never had the pace that Lawson brings to run the Clippers out of the building in the fourth quarter.
... Chauncey Billups was phenomenal. Not only did he channel Chauncey circa 2005 with his jump shot and energy, but he baited the referees into an assortment of bullshit calls that went the Clippers way.
... DeAndre Jordan had a field day defensively, blocking five Nuggets' shots and distracting many more.
... with Lawson out, Chris Paul never had to work defensively which enabled him to rack up 25 points, six rebounds, seven assists and two steals, while only turning the ball over once.
... Blake Griffin barely touched the ball and he still posted 17 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks on the Nuggets.
... Nuggets head coach George Karl allowed Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro to dictate the lineups, and thus went with small ball throughout much of the second half even though center Timofey Mozgov looked alive and well throughout the first half, stayed out of foul trouble, made his shots, blocked shots, etc. The Nuggets are blessed with size which begs the question: why aren't we using it more often?
So given that these two teams played just a few days ago, Karl and the Nuggets need to address the litany of issues above and correct them for tonight. Doubly fortunate for the Nuggets, Lawson will be back for this rematch with the Clippers and the Clippers will be playing the second of a back-to-back (after a very tough night in Utah) and their fourth game in five nights. And one has to believe that at some point, the Clippers lack of depth at virtually every position except point guard (where they are stacked better than any team in the NBA) will catch up with them during a grueling schedule stretch such as the one they're experiencing now.
Point being, I don't care that this game is being played at Staples Center. A rested, healthy Nuggets team should be able to exact some revenge on a worn out Clippers team ... especially after Sunday night's disappointing loss in Denver.
Scouting the Clippers ...
Blake Griffin: I didn't think it was possible for Griffin to top last season's amazing dunk on Mozgov (when the Moz was a Knick), but he did just that against Kendrick Perkins and the Thunder on Monday night. Not surprisingly, Griffin has followed up his stellar rookie season with an exceptional sophomore season. If he has one weakness, it's from the free throw line where he makes just 50% of his attempts. So the Nuggets must put Griffin on the charity stripe often!
Chris Paul: The catalyst for getting the Clippers into Western Conference aristocracy just a few months into the season. Enough said.
Mo Williams: Williams would start on about 15 NBA teams, but with the arrival of Paul and Billups he has been relegated to a backup role. He's probably not happy about it, but it's not affecting his production and his field goal and three-point shooting percentage are both at career high levels.
Reggie Evans: It's hard to call Evans, a former Nugget, a "Stiff" when he gets the most out of his (very) limited basketball ability. But Evans will forever be remembered for grabbing ex-Clipper Chris Kaman "inappropriately" during the Nuggets' disastrous 2006 playoff loss to the Clips, the Clippers only playoff series victory in franchise history since moving to Southern Californa.
Ryan Gomes: The consummate journeyman, Gomes is shooting a career low 34.9% from the field and 18.2% from three-point territory.
The Nuggets cannot afford to piss away anymore close games against elite opponents and must take advantage of elite opponents - like the Clippers - when they are on the tail end of a tough schedule stretch. For all the euphoria surrounding the Nuggets right now, we are only three games ahead of 10th-seeded Memphis and just 1.5 games ahead of the eighth-seeded Lakers.