Just beyond the mathematical midpoint of the NBA season, and right before the mythical midpoint, the Denver Nuggets, as was once said by an irate Denny Green, “are who we thought they were.”
They are the picture of consistency.
In fact, they’re downright predictable – frustratingly, maddeningly, infuriatingly, consistently predictable. It might even be said that the Nuggets are “consistently inconsistent.”
Playing at an impressive clip of 31-18, Denver currently owns the fifth-best record in the Western Conference. With Memphis slipping and gripping after dealing away Rudy Gay, achieving the No. 4 seed in the West is not only doable, but it’s expected of the Nuggets. George Karl’s team is deadly at home, losing just three games at Pepsi Center thus far. Furthermore, the Nuggets are red hot, winning 13 of their last 15.
But, boy, oh boy, they sure do make a fella want to pull his hair out.
Last night’s win over Milwaukee epitomized the Nuggets. On paper, Denver should have mopped the floor with the Bucks from start to finish. But on a sluggish Tuesday night, that’s hardly what happened.
As is typical, Denver began its night by going through the motions. They played uninspired basketball for an entire half. At the end of the first, Karl’s squad trailed by two. But by halftime, they’d slipped further, as the scoreboard read 66-51, Milwaukee. Denver played sloppy defense, allowing the Bucks to shoot 60.8 percent in the first two quarters – including a whopping 68 percent in the second frame alone. Offensively, the Nuggets did what the Nuggets do, as they scored in transition but bumbled and stumbled anytime they found themselves in a half-court set.
Ironically, and for a team as good as the Nuggets, this is the norm. This is who the Nuggets are. Rarely when playing in the Mile High City do the Nuggets appear to care about the first two quarters. They’re woefully guilty of playing to the level of their competition until it truly matters, and on most nights in Denver, that’s good enough. Their play within any given game is incredibly inconsistent; yet, they’re winning with great consistency.
Who steps up for the Nuggets on any given night is anyone’s best guess (although of late, it looks as if Danilo Gallinari has decided he can, and will, carry the load when it comes to scoring). After two seasons of a somewhat consistent, “starless” roster, Karl has yet to find his true “go-to-guy.” But somehow, it’s working.
Within any 48-minute span, the Nuggets only real constant is Kenneth Faried, who averages 9.7 rebounds and 12.0 points per game. Faried has become a double-double machine, and on most nights, particularly in the second half of games, big runs produced by the Nuggets can be marked by Faried’s presence on the floor.
Stagnant play, many times, is marked by the time he spends on the bench. At just 6-foot-8, Faried is three rebounds better than the next Nugget (Kosta Koufos, who averages 6.5 boards). And he’s good for five or six possessions each night that never show up in the boxscore; he’s a master at tipping lose balls and nullifying opposing rebounders. Indisputably, he is the team’s most consistent catalyst for energy.
Other constants? That’s not so easy.
Perhaps nightly, there are at least three substitutions that make Nuggets fans scratch their head. That’s fairly standard. It would appear that Karl, who has more depth to play with than any other NBA coach, still struggles with rotations and the allocation of minutes.
Or does he?
Last night’s game was a prime example. While the 6-foot-11, 250-pound Samuel Dalembert went wild against Denver, scoring 35 points on 17-of-21 shooting, and hauling in 12 rebounds, Karl’s big men, Koufos and JaVale McGee, only played a combined 34 minutes – most of which came in the first half. Dalembert was dominating and was seemingly the biggest man on the floor most of the night. Karl stayed small.
During the game, fans screamed for McGee. After the game, Milwaukee coach Jim Boylan confirmed that Karl’s lineup decisions were effective.
“They played small the whole second half,” Boylan noted, “which caused a little bit of a problem for us.”
Perhaps the mad scientist isn’t so mad after all.
But as fans of Denver teams have seen recently, playing to the level of one’s competition isn’t a recipe for success. The Broncos playoff loss to the Ravens serves as evidence that letting a lesser team hang around just long enough can make for sickening final results. Karl’s team should know better; after all, two of their home losses came against a Minnesota team that lacked Kevin Love for the second half and Ricky Rubio all together, and the Washington Wizards who currently have the second-fewest wins in the entire NBA (12).
Regardless, for Karl and the Nuggets, a 50-win season looks inevitable. The playoffs? That’s a given. How exactly they arrive there is always, however, a twisting, turning adventure. Somehow, they just get there. They are consistently inconsistent, but with rave results.
How that formula translates in the postseason, however, is anyone’s best guess. If it’s consistency they’re counting on, the Nuggets are a damn good, one-and-done team.
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