It’s certainly too early to celebrate, but right now is a great time to be a Nuggets fan. Watching the good guys creep up in the Western Conference standings while competing with and even holding off some of the toughest teams in the league gives us hope that our boys will finally have a real shot at the playoffs this year. Now, given the stiff competition in the bottom half of the West, that could change at literally any moment. For now, I couldn’t be happier with what they’ve been doing lately.
Time and again last season, and into this season we saw them see-saw their way through games only to lose control at the very end. A distinct inability to close quarters, halves, and entire games has resulted in sincere frustration from their fans who know they have it in them to be better. So many times they played right up to the moment they could capture the win, and the moment proved too big for them—both for the players, and coaches alike. They couldn’t figure out how to go for the kill shot, and force the momentum to the point of a checkmate. (When I say checkmate here, I mean the point where a team has control of the win both in score and effort, and there’s no foreseeable way the opponent can remove the threat.)
Perhaps it was due to lack of effort some of the time, but I genuinely believe a lack of experience in close-game situations created a false ceiling for them resulting in some heartbreaking losses in winnable games. It seemed like if they didn’t start the game by capturing a major lead, their inevitable late 2nd and early 3rd quarter wane sank the ship.
Looking at this year’s (2018) schedule, the Nuggets have landed the win in several very close games, and the win against Portland is where I noticed them responding to an intensely competitive situation differently than they have previously. Even though the Nuggets won two close games with the Mavericks, and the Clippers just days before, the Denver-Portland rivalry has stirred up intense emotions for both camps since the Jusuf Nurkic/Mason Plumlee trade making the game on January 22nd game different. The Nuggets finally took charge of that emotional energy and used it to their advantage to take control and force a win.
PopcornMachine.net provides excellent visuals of the flow of a game, and as you can see below, Portland and Denver wrestled back and forth with the lead the entire game, but the Nuggets buckled down late in the 4th quarter overcoming a small deficit to win by 3.
It’s these types of situations that prepares a team to compete in a playoff atmosphere and win, and while they’re not going to be perfect every time, I believe the moment is no longer too big for them.
After the win over Portland in January, the Nuggets went on to defeat the New York Knicks and the Mavericks before losing to the Boston Celtics by one filthy point. To be honest, I expected the Nuggets to lose to Boston by a lot more than they did, and I was extremely impressed with their maturity in that game. After an early deficit, they came back and almost beat the team with the best defense in the league.
What you’ll notice is different with the Boston game is that the Nuggets kicked into gear about 1⁄3 of the way into the 3rd quarter, and maintained a decent level of consistency through the remainder of the game. This stands out to me because it wasn’t just a fluke burst of energy or swing in momentum. This was a focused effort put forth with deliberate execution. The Celtics played the Nuggets with all they had in this game, and the Nuggets nearly came out on top. Yet again, the moment (being the entire game) wasn’t too big for them, and even though they lost there was a visible change in their poise.
Denver went on to drop a close-game against the San Antonio Spurs, but they turned that around with this past week’s fourth quarter push to win when they met San Antonio on Tuesday. Despite their injuries San Antonio is never one to count out because Coach Gregg Popovich is a miracle-worker. The Nuggets then took it to Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder with a three-point win that saw the Nuggets maintain steady control the entire game.
Next, the Nuggets took down the Golden State Warriors with another mid-third quarter flex resulting in a checkmate to bring in a comfortable lead at the close.
The Nuggets have won the last 4 out of 5 games with control over their execution far better than we’ve ever seen—particularly in the second half (minus the first half Triple-Double Nikola Jokic blessed us with on Thursday). They’re just barely ahead of the Trailblazers in the Western Conference standings, and they’re quickly closing in on the Thunder for the 5th seed.
The New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz are not far behind, and all of these teams pose a very real threat to the Nuggets’ playoff hopes. However, I’m feeling much more confident than I was around this time last year. The Nuggets have grown to a position where they’re in control more often than they’re not, and they’re showing up regularly to compete for a full 48 minutes and win.
The moment is no longer too big for our Nuggets, and my playoff hopes have now turned into playoff expectations. For the first time in a long time, I believe they can handle the pressure.