So, the Denver Nuggets backed into the All-Star Break. They are now 18-17, and currently sitting in the 9th spot in the always-competitive Western conference. The Nuggets have gone 3-7 in their last 10 games and endured a litany of injuries. Ty Lawson, Nene Hilario, Arron Afflalo, Timofey Mozgov, Rudy Fernandez and Danilo Gallinari have all missed a significant number of games. The Nuggets had to rely on their rookies in Kenneth Faried, Jordan Hamilton and Julyan Stone to play in some very tough situations. Admirably, they have done well, but have come up short more than once, likely due to a combination of fatigue, inexperience, and (some) inexplicable coaching decisions. The Nuggets look to take advantage of the break, heal up, and play competitive basketball again.
So what's in store for us in the last 30 games of the season in the second half? Take the ride after the jump.
2/29 - vs. POR - Denver opens up the second half of the season against Portland at home. They will need to bang with LaMarcus Aldridge down low, and Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford will provide a challenge for the Nuggets backcourt.
3/2 - @ HOU - Houston is playing well this year. Scola and Kevin Martin are always tough to handle by the Nuggets, Chase Budinger is having a good season (and a participant in this year's dunk contest). Hopefully Denver will have Nene back for this game and work the low post with Mozgov against the undersized Rockets.
3/4 - @ SAN - Oh boy. Denver has their work cut out for them. After getting drubbed in the Can last night by the Spurs, the Nuggets will now have to travel to the River City to face a squad that should be seeing both Manu Ginobili, Tiago Splitter and Tony Parker at full strength. The Spurs have given the Nuggets fits for years and that doesn't look to change anytime soon.
3/5 - vs. SAC - The Nuggets have handled the Kings this year, and with the turmoil of replacing Westphal with Smart mid-season, the Nuggets should be able to win this one handily, assuming they aren't too fatigued in San Antonio (don't overplay Harrington and Miller, Karl!!!!)
3/7 - vs. CLE - Kyrie Irving is having an excellent rookie season, but with Anderson Varejao injured, the Cavs won't have enough to keep pace with this Nuggets squad.
3/9 - vs. NOH - Will we see Eric Gordon alongside Chris Kaman? Will Chris Kaman be traded during the All-Star break? There's a lot of changes on this Hornets squad, and the only constant is their unfortunate habit of losing in embarrassing fashion. Hornets to Seattle in late 2012?
3/11 - vs. MEM - The revenge of Manimal. Kenneth Faried is going to look to avenge his rookie mistake in allowing a last-second tip-in to seal the game for the Grizzlies on the road.
3/13 - vs. ATL - The always-enigmatic Hawks come to Denver. The garbage fire that is Joe Johnson and his $120 million dollar contract will probably shoot the Hawks out of the game in this one, but the Nuggets have to watch out for the dynamic Teague and high-flying Josh Smith.
3/15 - vs. OKC - Enormous, huge, gigantor game. The Nuggets played the #1 squad in the Western conference very tightly, even with missing Danilo Gallinari and Nene. If either of them are back for this game, it could have a very different outcome than the first time they met.
3/17 - vs. BOS - Is this the year the Celtics' age finally catches up with them? The Celtics are playing mediocre basketball to date, having also dealt with myriad injuries and suspensions. Boston is two games below .500 at 15-17, good enough for the 8th seed in the East.
3/19 - vs. DAL - Dallas and Denver have traded games this year. At this point, both Nene and Gallinari should (hopefully) be at full strength and compete solidly against Dirk and the relatively undersized Mavericks. No shot blockers here.
3/21 - vs. DET - Poor Detroit. Trading Chauncey Billups sent them on their downward spiral, and it doesn't look to end anytime soon.
***At this point, the Nuggets will have played NINE straight games at home before heading on the road for 6 straight to close out the month. If they don't go at least 7-2 during this stretch, they will have failed to capitalize on what is their easiest run of the season.***
3/23 - @ UTA - The Jazz are struggling, but they still have one of the best frontcourts in the league in Millsap and Jefferson. Nuggets need to tighten up the interior defense, because the Jazz certainly won't be making many threes (29th in the league).
3/25 - @ MIN - The Wolves will be hungry for revenge after Denver eked out a victory in late February. Can Faried abuse Kevin Love again?
3/26 - @ CHI - The Nuggets go to the Windy City to take on the Chicago Bulls and speedy Derrick Rose. This will be a real test against the East's elite. I would love to see Ty Lawson prove he can hang with Rose, and we know that Nene can bang with Boozer.
3/28 - @ TOR - The Nuggets go to Canada to face a Raptors squad whose favorite pastime seems to be signing former Nuggets players - Linas Kleiza, Gary Forbes, and Anthony Carter have all had a stint with the Raptors recently. Please don't steal Chandler from us.
3/30 - @ CHA - a.k.a. the best example of why great players are not always great GMs. The Bobcats will never be truly competitive under Michael Jordan's heinous mismanagement.
***At the end of March, I think the Nuggets can go 13-4 (losses @ SAS, vs. OKC, @ DAL, @ CHI), which would leave them with a 31-21 record. Competitive, but they will need to fight in April for a higher seed.***
4/1 - @ ORL - The Nuggets face Dwight Howard and his merry band of misfits. Only he and Ryan Anderson seem to be playing at a high level right now. This may be the last season we see Dwight in a Magic uniform.
4/4 - @ NOH - The Nuggets take on the Hornets once again. Let's hope that they take care of business against a squad they should beat handily.
4/6 - vs. PHX - Earlier this year, the Nuggets ran the Suns out of the building with a fatigued Steve Nash on the bench. I see no reason why they can't do so again.
4/7 - @ GSW - Revenge time against the Warriors. Time for the Nuggets to take it to them in their house.
4/9 - vs. GSW - Away/Home split. Will Marc Jackson show Karl up and take both, will they split, or will the more experienced Karl find a way to win each of these games, as he should?
4/11 - vs. MIN - Denver will play the Timberwolves again in the Pepsi Center, again using the high-flying talents of Faried and Brewer to run against a poor jump shooting half-court squad.
4/13 - @ LAL - The declining Lakers will always be a threat as long as Kobe Bryant and cheap shot artist Andrew Bynum are on the squad, not to mention the Senior Llama, Pau Gasol.
4/15 - vs. HOU - If Nene doesn't dominate alongside Koufus and Mozgov, I will be very disappointed.
4/16 - @ HOU - Home/Away split. See above. The Nuggets can capitalize on their size and speed to ensure the Rockets get demoralized by easy points in the paint. They won't beat them shooting jumpers.
4/18 - vs. LAC - Teraflopper Chris Paul and his protege Blake Griffin come back to the Can. The Nuggets need to mash them into a fine paste. I don't like Chris Paul, and I don't like this Clippers squad.
4/21 - @ PHX - Will the Suns take revenge on the Nuggets beatdowns of earlier in the season? Is Steve Nash still on the squad? Time will tell.
4/22 - vs. ORL - One more showing with the Magic. If Jameer Nelson and Glen Davis aren't playing well by now, Otis Smith may very well have a meltdown.
4/25 - @ OKC - What a tough way to close out the last two games of the season - on the road against the best team in the West, OKC, and an up-and-coming Timberwolves squad. Getting a split here is vital to playoff seeding.
4/26 - @ MIN - The Nuggets wrap up their season against the Wolves, and unless they've locked up a spot, this game could determine whether or not we see bonus Nuggets basketball or start thinking about the upcoming lottery.
***April is much tougher than March. I think The Nuggets can go 9-5 here, which would give them a final record of 40-26. Good enough for a low seed in the West, but I doubt very much else. Their second half record, if this prediction holds true, would be 22-9. Optimistic, I think, but fully healthy this squad can hang with any team in the league.***
With a final record of 40-26, the Nuggets may have a shot to give one of the top seeds in the West - OKC, the Spurs, or the Clippers - a hard fight in the first round, but without homecourt advantage, the Nuggets will have a tough row to hoe.
I'm very much looking forward to seeing how this Nuggets squad reacts to the adversity experienced in February, if they manage to re-sign Wilson Chandler, and whether or not they can prove they have what it takes in the playoffs.
Regardless of what happens in these next two months, it's been a tumultuous season, and I think that this squad will come out of the offseason more experienced and better prepared for the rigors of a full 82 game season in 2012.