Interchangeable parts. Balance. Hustle. Sharing. Defensive toughness. This is how basketball is meant to be played and it sure is a pleasant surprise to see.
What a ride we as Nuggets fans have been treated to these past few weeks.
Standing proudly at 9-2 since the departure of Carmelo Anthony (and yes, naysayers, Melo's departure will remain relevant until season's end), these Nuggets are playing the best of all sports in the best possible way. Rather than hope to out-shoot and out-score their opposition, our Nuggets are - aghast! - winning games by passing better, rebounding better and defending better. You know, that whole "fundamentals" thing.
And, just to make sure we're not overly fundamental-oriented, we have J.R. Smith making circus shots and long bomb three-pointers.
In emphatically beating the Hawks for the second time in as many weeks, and for only the third time at Atlanta in the last 11 years, the Nuggets put on a basketball clinic that showcased both textbook game play and showmanship simultaneously. It's not unreasonable to start asking just how far this team can go when the postseason dawns.
With the exception of a dreary first quarter that produced just 17 points, the Nuggets seemed to do everything right against the Hawks tonight. They out-rebounded Atlanta 43-35, out assist'd them 26-24, held them to 41.5% shooting (while impressively making 53.4% of their own shots) and limited the Hawks to a mere five three-pointers made against 19 attempts.
The Nuggets did break their own streak of consecutive games played with at least 17 three-pointers made, but managed to can seven of their 14 attempts. I - and I'm sure head coach George Karl - will gladly take 50% three-point shooting any day of the week.
Speaking of Karl, the Nuggets coach continued to deploy his multi-guard lineup, although point guards Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton didn't seem to play together as much as they have been lately. When the dynamic duo did share the floor, however, it proved to be the catalyst for the Nuggets' early third quarter run with the knockout punch coming when Karl combined Lawson/Felton with the returning Arron Afflalo and J.R. Smith.
Ironically, I criticized J.R.'s erratic and inconsistent play on Mile High Sports Radio's Elephants in the Room show during the third quarter, and within minutes of me getting off the air J.R. erupted for 15 points, including three three-pointers made and one incredible twist-around layup. Has any player in the NBA had more spectacular layups and/or dunks than J.R. this season? Fortunately for Denver, the Nuggets only needed J.R. as gravy tonight because we were winning this game one way or the other.
Let's see...in the past few weeks the Nuggets have done what was previously unthinkable: a win against the Eastern Conference champion Celtics, a win at Phoenix, a win at New Orleans and now a win at Atlanta.
How will they pleasantly surprise us next?
NON-STIFF OF THE NIGHT
-Nene, Kenyon Martin and Wilson Chandler: I thought the Nuggets front line really set the tone for this game with stellar defense, tough rebounding and efficient scoring. But as we've seen since the arrival of the "new Nuggets", it's hard to name just one player as the Player of the Game after Nugget victories.
STIFF OF THE NIGHT
-Jeff Teague: The Hawks' second year point guard was abused by the Nuggets back court and finished the game shooting 1-7 from the field with just two assists. Teague's teammates didn't help as every starter finished with a +/- of at least -10.
I'm trying really hard not to get cocky or overconfident about this team as big tests against Orlando, Miami, San Antonio, the Lakers and Oklahoma City loom. But weren't the Celtics, Jazz, Suns, Hornets and Hawks supposed to be big tests, too?