79350_nuggets_lakers_basketball_medium_mediumUntil a week or so ago, the big debate around here was whether or not the Nuggets would lose to the Lakers in seven games in the Western Conference Finals or advance to the NBA Finals. Not so fast.

After a blistering January, the Nuggets putzed around in February finishing the month 7-5, and if last night's blowout loss at Phoenix is any indication, February's shoddy basketball could infect March.  Whether its the All-Star break hangover, their coach's scary health situation, the inaction at the trade deadline, the tough schedule or some combination of all the above, the Nuggets have allowed an almost sure-thing Western Conference second place finish to become a three-team race.  

A number of Nuggets fans woke up this morning to the shock of seeing the Mavericks – thanks to a gutty back-to-back win at Charlotte last night – a half game ahead of our boys in powder blue and gold. And if it weren’t for the Clippers miraculously beating the Jazz while most Nuggets fans were asleep, the Jazz would be tied with the Nuggets right now, too.

We all knew that February and March would be tough, and with the exception of an inexcusable loss at Washington on February 19th, most of these losses have been to bona fide NBA competition. But what’s alarming isn’t the six losses, but the way the Nuggets played in five of those six games. Dating back to February 1st, among the Nuggets six losses we’ve seen two no-show appearances against the Suns (once at home, once at Phoenix last night), a blowout loss at home to the Spurs, a fourth quarter collapse at Washington (uncharacteristic for one of the NBA’s best closers…the Nuggets are something like 30-3 when leading after three quarters) and a second half collapse to the Nuggets anointed rivals, the Lakers (lest we forget that a true rivalry only comes about when both teams have beaten each other in a playoff series). Only the undermanned Nuggets gutty 116-106 loss at Utah after beating the Lakers in Los Angeles the night before would qualify for a good loss in the past five weeks.

(On a side note, Altitude’s Chris Marlowe made two dumb statements last night that must be called out. Let me preface this by saying Marlowe has been nothing but nice to me and supportive of this site, so I’ll be kind in my criticism here. First, he said the NBA should do away with the defensive three seconds rule, basically because he doesn’t understand it. Right, because we’d all love to see Shaquille O’Neal stand in the middle of the key for 24 seconds forcing teams to shoot jumpers all day. Even color commentator Scott Hastings was befuddled by Marlowe’s comments on the subject. Second, Marlowe said something to Hastings like “boy, Phoenix sure looks better than the last two times we saw them.” Really? Last I checked, the Suns squashed the Nuggets 109-97 in Denver – and it wasn’t even that close – and in December the Nuggets eeked out a 105-99 victory over the Suns in Denver even though the Suns were playing the second of a back-to-back. Moreover, George Karl has never won in Phoenix as head coach of the Nuggets. In other words, the Suns – despite having no bench – have our number. But I digress…)

So who's to blame and where do we go from here?  For starters, the players aren't passing the damn ball enough.  As pointed out by Hastings on his radio show today, the Nuggets record is 32-5 when dishing out more than 20 assists in a game.  And yet against the Suns they had only 13 total assists and a mere 15 against the Lakers.  Not distributing the ball more is inexcusable for a team that's lethal when it does so.

Secondly, Carmelo Anthony has been shooting with J.R. Smith-like “consistency” and has been more of a sieve defensively than usual…even by Melo’s low defensive standards. Many will say his sprained ankle is still bothering him, but Melo’s ankle seemed fine last night when he was driving to the hole with authority in the first quarter before deciding to shoot ill-timed jumpers for the rest of the game. Since returning from that injury, the Nuggets are 5-4 and Melo has shot over 50% just twice, combined with poor free throw shooting as Nate pointed out in the Suns game recap. And in the last three games Melo’s accuracy from the field has really been J.R.-esque with 8-25, 7-19 and 7-21 shooting performances. Rather than force turnaround jumpers like he did when he was a rookie, Melo must continue to take the ball aggressively to the hole while taking mid-range jumpers when the game comes to him. As he did to near perfection against the Cavaliers a few weeks ago. The Nuggets have plenty of weapons; there’s no need for Melo to force things out there.

Thirdly, George Karl’s use of a tight rotation – while it’s worked to date – might finally be biting the team in the ass. And having Ty Lawson and Chris Andersen go down with minor injuries will only exacerbate this problem. Simply put, the Nuggets core of Melo, Chauncey Billups, Kenyon Martin, Nene, Arron Afflalo and J.R. Smith, having logged many minutes all season, are wearing down. And while Karl arguably should be, or should have been, inserting Joey Graham (not a Stiff), Johan Petro (a semi-productive Stiff) and even Malik Allen (ok, he’s a real Stiff) more from Day One, the organization can share some of this blame for not bringing in an additional big man. Even Karl has gone on record saying the Nuggets need “an additional half body”. If that’s the case, maybe the Nuggets should have brought Earl Boykins back (ok, horrible joke). But considering that Zyrdunas Ilgauskas isn’t walking through that Pepsi Center door (Nuggets fans, don’t buy the charade that the Big Z might be coming to Denver for a second), Karl needs to involve Graham and Petro a bit more in the rotation…at least in the first half.

And finally, the nightly – and within game – performances of Nene and J.R. remain erratic.  There are moments when Nene looks like a dominant All-Star center, and then he'll disappear for an entire half.  Same goes for J.R.  For example, J.R. played exceptional defense in the first half of the Lakers game (he had four of his five steals in the first half) but spent the second half chucking long-range three-pointers and missing defensive assignments.  Nene and J.R. haven't delivered All-Star caliber basketball consistently for 60 games, but maybe they can for 22.

Despite my ranting, a little perspective is in order here. With a quarter of the season to go, the Nuggets remain on pace to win 53 games, are relatively healthy and just had to play four games in five nights. In fact, we could potentially be witnessing a mirror of last season when the Nuggets dropped eight of 11 games in a tough schedule stretch from late February through early March before reeling off 14 wins in 15 games to finish the season strong. The big difference this time around, however, is that while the Nuggets got to play a collection of lambs in mid-March through early April last year, this year they’re being thrown right into the lions’ den. Up next are three games in five nights – all at Pepsi Center – including dates with the Thunder and Trail Blazers. Oh, joy. Soon thereafter the Nuggets have a four-game and a five-game road trip to wrap up March and seven of those nine games are against plus-.500 opponents.

The bottom line is that taking halves off (like we saw in Los Angeles) or games off (like we saw in Phoenix) are no longer an option now that a) the Mavericks and Jazz have essentially caught up with us and the Suns aren't too far behind, and b) the upcoming schedule demands a level of focus not seen consistently from this Denver team since early February.  

If the Nuggets don't get their act together soon, the object in the rear-view mirror of the Western Conference's second seeded team will be us.

Photo courtesy of AP: Danny Moloshok