For a stretch of 11 games spanning the end of the 2017 calendar year and January 19, the Denver Nuggets were entrenched in what was widely considered the team’s easiest stretch of the season. Several of the games came against teams with a worse record than Denver and seven of the games were at home, where the Nuggets have held a considerable advantage all year.
In theory, a budding playoff team would have ran the table during this stretch and taken advantage of the somewhat soft schedule. But this is the Denver Nuggets, and nothing seems to come easy for this franchise. The team went 4-7 and momentarily slipped out of the playoffs. Tension heightened after Denver lost at home on the 29th to the lowly Phoenix Suns, leaving fans and analysts wondering if the season was on the brink as the team transitioned into the most brutal part of the schedule.
But then, it wasn’t.
Since January 22, Denver has rattled off wins in five of seven games and narrowly losing the other two on failed buzzer beating attempts. The Nuggets beat playoff teams in Portland, Oklahoma City and Golden State and went toe-to-toe against Kyrie Irving and the Celtics on one night and the San Antonio Spurs on the next. The team now looks night and day compared to the seasonal affective Nuggets of early January.
So what changed?
Following the loss to Phoenix, coach Michael Malone mused over why the team was struggling and determined that he’d been calling too many set plays.. “I want to get back to being a team that’s hard to guard … and kind of get back to the offensive identity that we had last year,” Malone said. “Teams didn’t know what the (heck) we were doing last year,” he continued. “We just played.”
The emphasis on a free-flow offense for this roster seems shockingly obvious. Fortunately, it’s worked, and the results are showing both in the standings and on the stats page. Prior to January 22, the Nuggets held an offensive rating of 106.4, still respectable and 11th best in the NBA. In the seven games since, that number has jumped to 111.7 - the sixth best mark in the league.
Nikola Jokic has returned to the quarterback position and the offense has been humming. For the first time this season, the Nuggets are consistently fun to watch and the team has vibes of being a better version of the “December 15th” team of last season.
But the Nuggets quest for a playoff berth is far from over, no matter how amazing the last week and a half has been. Denver still only sits in the 8th seed of the playoffs in an extremely volatile Western Conference. The Nuggets hold just a one game lead over the new-look Los Angeles Clippers, but are also only two games back of the 5 seed. A lot can happen in the final 29 games of the season. To break its postseason dry spell, the Nuggets will have to overcome one of its worst vulnerabilities: playing to the competition.
For some reason, the Nuggets have yet to bridge the mental gap when it comes to beating opponents they are supposed to beat. The team almost always shows up during marquee matchups or on nationally televised games, but when it comes to the run of the mill games it’s often a different story. For every huge win over the Thunder or spoiler on Golden State, there has been a loss on two days rest to the Lakers or to the 76ers without Joel Embiid or to the lowly Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks at home.
On the year, the number of “good wins” (i.e. games they probably shouldn’t have won) and bad losses (games they probably should have won) probably cancel each other out. This is all good and normal. The Nuggets can truly reach the next level and stand apart, though, if they finally find a way to win almost all of the games against inferior opponents.
The offense has looked to be back to where it should be, and it has been on full display in the past seven games. The true test for these Nuggets will be if they can consistently play their style and control the tempo, and not the other way around. Upcoming matchups with Charlotte and Phoenix should provide some answers, but Denver also faces Houston and San Antonio twice and Milwaukee and the Clippers once each before February is over.
If the Nuggets can pull it together this will be a dangerous team. Add Paul Millsap back into the mix to shore up some of the defense, pull off a trade for an actual backup point guard by Thursday’s deadline and Denver could legitimately be a threat in the playoffs, and not just as an 8 seed. If Denver can’t break down this bugaboo, this magical stretch of basketball will be seen as just another short-lived streak in a roller coaster year.
The Nuggets look to be on cruise control. Hopefully this run is just the beginning, and not the peak, of a promising season.