What was supposed to be a week-long test for the new-look Nuggets began with an emphatic thumping over the Hornets in New Orleans. A victory over Atlanta would make it three straight road wins for the Nuggets and nine wins out of 11 games in the A.M. (After Melo) Era. But who's counting, right?
Instead of withering on the road against tough competition as the Nuggets did when Carmelo Anthony was the ostensible leader of this team, our new-look Nuggets seem to thrive when the challenge is at its greatest. Witness the Nuggets' impressive post-Melo wins at Utah, at Phoenix and at New Orleans to go along with an overtime thriller loss at Portland in the team's second game featuring the new cast. The Nuggets lone disappointing road effort came against the Clippers two Saturdays ago, and with how they've played since that game seems like a lifetime ago.
Standing in the Nuggets way of a third straight road win (an unimpressive benchmark that would simply tie the Nuggets previous best road streak of the season) are the Atlanta Hawks, a team the new-look Nuggets took down easily just two weeks ago. I should know, because I was there. The Nuggets' February 28th victory over the Hawks in Denver ended with a 10-point difference in the Nuggets' favor, but it wasn't really that close. The two teams traded baskets for three quarters and then the Hawks - weary from a back-to-back outing at Portland the night before - succumbed to the Nuggets' wave of energy off the bench, notably from J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton who combined for 35 points off the pine.
Fortunately for our Nuggets, they get the Hawks coming off a back-to-back again. Unfortunately, it's one of the oddest back-to-backs that you'll ever see in the NBA: the Hawks are playing at home on both nights. Does it count as a back-to-back when you get to sleep in your own bed?
Unlike our Nuggets, the Hawks don't appear to be playing for much. In theory, the guys from Atlanta should be working hard nightly to catch Orlando and commandeer the Eastern Conference's fifth-seed, but the Hawks - having played .500 ball recently - seem all-too-content to be ensconced in the junior varsity conference's fifth position. Watching the Hawks in person a few weeks ago and tracking their games leading up to Wednesday's affair with the Nuggets, they come across as a talented team that just goes through the motions.
The Nuggets, conversely, are hardly going through the motions. Whether it's the aftermath of the Carmelo Anthony trade, the fear of drawing the Lakers, Spurs or Mavericks in the first round, head coach George Karl's newfound enthusiasm for coaching defense, their incomparable depth that has sparked a battle for minutes at each position, or all of the above, the Nuggets aren't just playing great basketball...they're playing inspired basketball. And all of Nuggets Nation has noticed (and the bandwagon is getting full again) based on the emails and texts that pour in during each subsequent Nuggets victory.
One challenge for Karl going into Wednesday's game is whether or not to play Arron Afflalo and/or Danilo Gallinari, each of whom has missed the last few games with a hamstring and toe injury, respectively. When I interviewed Karl last week, he was particularly concerned about rushing Afflalo back as hamstring injuries can easily be re-aggravated and require as much rest as possible to heal up properly. And while Karl (like all of us) must be dying to see what Gallo can do on the floor on a nightly basis, the Nuggets might be able to steal another win without the services of two of their most talented offensive players.
The looming back-to-back with Orlando and Miami may require the services of AAA and Gallo, but if the Hawks continue their mediocre play perhaps those two players can score another few days of rest without costing the Nuggets another road victory.
SCOUTING THE HAWKS...
-Al Horford: Horford is one of the most efficient players in the NBA and had one of his more efficient games when playing Denver two weeks ago. In that Hawks' loss, Horford made 10 of his 15 field goal attempts, grabbed 16 rebounds, dished out four assists and stole the ball twice. Even though he's an undersized center a la Nene, Horford had no trouble out-playing Nene that night.
-Jamal Crawford: Even though Crawford is having a down season, this star bench player has gone off for 50 points as a member of three different teams. No Stiff does that.
-Joe Johnson: The Hawks were foolish to offer Johnson a maximum contract this past offseason, but he remains their best offensive player.
-Marvin Williams: Felton's teammate when the University of North Carolina went all the way in 2005, Williams was drafted second overall ahead of Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Felton, even though the Hawks were (and still are) desperate for a true point guard. Sadly, Williams has receded as a player with each passing season and will never live up to the hype that led to the Hawks drafting him so high.
-Hilton Armstrong: Speaking of Stiffs, the 6'11" Armstrong has never been able to get his career off the ground despite the NBA's desperate need for serviceable centers.
Opposition's Take: Peachtree Hoops