The Nuggets get a chance at a little payback tonight as the Atlanta Hawks roll into the Pepsi Center.  

Atlanta embarrassed the Nuggets just over a week ago, and in true Hawks fashion, they have not won since.  Atlanta shot 61% in the first half of that game on their way to racking up 65 first half points.

That has been a theme lately for the Nuggets.  In five of their last seven games they have given up at least 60 points in the first half. In a sixth they gave up 59.  In all seven of those games they have surrendered 60 points at some point in two consecutive quarters (Utah and Orlando both scored 60 points combined in the second and third quarters against Denver).  

Is there any wonder why the Nuggets are struggling?  

About 20 games into the season the Nuggets were third in the league in defensive efficiency (points given up per 100 possessions) at 97.3.  They are now seventh and plummeting like a mob informer in the East River with a 101.4.  That means that since they had a 97.3 19 or 20 games into the season and now have a 101.4 after playing their next 19 or 20 games they have roughly had a defensive efficiency rating of 105.5 over their previous 20 games.  That is bad.  That is New York Knicks, Miami Heat and Minnesota Timberwolf bad.  You know what those teams have in common?  Their fans are all dreaming of Michael Beasley and Derrick Rose instead of playoff victories.

The Nugget players keep saying that it all starts with defense and they are right. This little 3-4 slide they are on started because they are not playing any defense.

Carmelo is going to miss tonight’s game after rolling his ankle due to Kobe Bryant "Bowen-ing" him by stepping under his feet on a jump shot.  That increases the degree of difficulty for the Nuggets, but does not mean they can let this one get away.  The Nuggets still should win this game and to do so they will have to push the pace, share the ball and challenge Atlanta’s jump shooters.  Those are three things they failed to do in their previous loss to the Hawks.

Last week Marvin Williams, Joe Johnson, Anthony Johnson and Josh Childress all had a field day against the Nuggets D.  That cannot happen tonight.  If the Hawks are shooting well again, the Nuggets typical inside out guard the paint first defensive strategy will not work.

It will also help if the Nuggets can shoot half way decent this time.  Atlanta held them to 40% shooting with Najera, Camby, Carter, Kleiza and Diawara combining to shoot a putrid 4-28.  Obviously they cannot be that bad again, but at least two of those guys will have to pick things up on offense to make up for the absence of Carmelo.

The Hawks play an aggressive defense where they send a player to jump the ball handler on pick and rolls.  It will be interesting to see how the Nuggets handle it this time around.  In my mind the best way to stop that kind of defense would be to do what a quarterback would do and throw into the blitz.  If the Nuggets can get the ball to the player that was left by the player jumping the pick and roll they should have plenty of room to operate.  

Once again it comes down to how badly these guys want to win.  Injuries should not impact their effort.  In fact, it should cause them in increase their effort.  The Nuggets keep talking about what they will do when the get healthy.  They better worry about what they are doing right now.  The west is so tight that they cannot go on cruise control and then expect to be able to turn it on when (or if) everyone is available.  

After this brief homestand where they face Atlanta tonight and New Jersey on Friday the Nuggets play ten of their next 15 on the road.  After that, they go into the toughest month of their schedule (March).  They have run out of games that they can afford to lose and stay in the playoff hunt.  

Right now Denver is only a game ahead of Utah who is currently ninth in the conference.  Utah has played the toughest portion of their schedule, and as stated above, the Nuggets have yet to enter into theirs.  

The Nuggets better realize how critical every game is at this point in the season.  I love the NBA Draft, but I do not want to be blogging about it in April.