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An uptick & unexpected optimism

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No time for resting on laurels, it’s time to double down on working toward wins.

Being in the spotlight can’t be easy—when every move you make is broadcast for the world to see, and available for replay at a moment’s notice. It’s no secret that the Nuggets took some harsh criticism to start the season, and I will be the first to say I was quick to be very concerned about the direction things were taking.

While I make no apologies for my stern observations, and while I reserve the right to criticize when need be, I will acknowledge that the Nuggets are really doing some things right as of late and it’s starting to pay off.

If I didn’t think this team was capable of greatness, I wouldn’t waste my time. It’s because I see the potential that I look at things with such a critical eye, and while I will remain cautious, I’m much more optimistic after these last two wins.

The state of our Nuggets is currently a 7-5 record at 6th place in the Western Conference ahead of the Trail Blazers and the Clippers in the playoff race. The Nuggets haven’t been over .500 since Hector was a pup (thank you Chris Marlowe), and they certainly haven’t looked like they would make a serious run at a solid playoff position since the beloved and fondly remembered 2012-2013 season.

Sure, it’s only a 2-game winning streak, but the things we’re starting to see are signs that change is taking place, and that the team is actually coming together.

So, big picture, what are the Nuggets doing right?

1 DEFENSE

This is truly where it all starts. Defense allows teams to maintain control of any game, and puts the offense in a position to secure a proper lead. While Paul Millsap is still finding his spot on the offense, he’s been a welcome presence on defense and he’s showing to be an anchor for the other players to remain focused.

Millsap proved clutch against the Thunder contributing a total of 6 blocks, and 7 rebounds to the Nuggets’ 8 point win. The Nuggets held the Thunder to just 94 points, and while Russell Westbrook had a bad game, the fact that Denver held their opponent to under 100 is a product of solid work on defense.

2 BALL MOVEMENT

Nikola Jokic is a passing god, and it looks like he’s really starting to rub off on his teammates. The Nuggets are doing a great job of playing unselfish basketball right now, and everyone is moving on offense to make themselves available for an open shot. Against Brooklyn, the Nuggets had 5 players contribute 3 or more assists with no one in a clear lead. Against OKC, the Nuggets had 6 players contribute 3 or more assists with everyone putting in fairly equal effort to move the ball.

Jokic still needs to be the one orchestrating this symphony, but the rest of the roster appears to be following suit recognizing that it doesn’t matter who scores as long as you get the win.

3 BEING AGGRESSIVE & ATTACKING THE RIM

One of the tell-tale signs of a struggling offense is a hesitancy to penetrate to the rim, choosing instead to take pull-up threes in transition that I akin to throwing a Hail Mary. The Nuggets struggled with defensive pressure early on this season, and that caused them to react by reverting to isolation mode and what my fellow Stiff Daniel Lewis has referred to as “Hero Ball”.

I believe this was primarily a product of a confused offense. Everyone was still getting used to one another, and moving away from centering the shot facilitation around Jokic was causing discomfort for last season’s returning players. For now, that issue looks to be correcting itself as Jokic and Millsap adjust to one another under the rim, and as Murray settles into the starting point guard role. We are also starting to see some more aggression from Emmanuel Mudiay, but I’m going to save my analysis on that until we see some more consistency to draw a substantial conclusion from.

Overall, I like what I’m seeing from the Nuggets these last few games (Warriors game quarters 1 & 2). They’re looking much more comfortable, and a little more confident on offense, and their defensive identity is FINALLY starting to come into focus. I’m pretty impressed that things have come together as quickly as they have, but the thing to do now is double down on these efforts to continue to get stronger and more consistent.