Strike 1: With just under three seconds left in the first half of Sunday’s game against Indiana, the Denver Nuggets Jamal Murray hit the second of two free throws to give the home team a 60-55 lead. Immediately after taking the ensuing inbounds pass, and facing little resistance from Murray or any of the other four Nuggets on the court, former Nugget Bruce Brown bolted the length of the floor to hit a layup just before the buzzer.

The play was a microcosm of Denver’s season to date: They still had the lead, but that sure didn’t look right.

Consider this: In a game they won against the Pacers, Denver committed an unspeakable 21 turnovers, gave up 14 offensive rebounds and missed 8 of 23 free throws (65%.) These are little things that have to do with focus and concentration. There’s reason to be concerned about the Nuggets in these kinds of areas.

In their quest to repeat as NBA champions this season, the Nuggets are facing – and not often defeating – a foe that’s on their schedule every single night. It’s not Father Time. Not yet. This roster is largely made up of guys in their prime, so in that respect, the window of opportunity remains wide open.

The foe they have not been able to consistently conquer – at least not yet – is Human Nature.

It wouldn’t be accurate to call Michael Malone’s team complacent, but even with a nifty 28-13 record at the halfway point, Denver doesn’t look nearly as motivated as they did a year ago at this time. During the first half of the season, the Nuggets have largely lacked a sense of urgency. It’s human nature to ease up a bit after you’ve already conquered the mountain you had to climb in order to capture the crown you wanted so badly.

This is an adversary that all champions face, with varying degrees of success. Remember, the NBA hasn’t had a repeat champion since Golden State in 2018. In Major League Baseball, the last repeat World Series winner was way back in 2000, and it’s been almost that long – 2005 – since the NFL has had a back-to-back Super Bowl champion.

Teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning (2020 and 2001 Stanley Cup champs) who are able to maintain that level of hunger and commitment are very rare indeed.

For the Nuggets, recapturing that insatiable hunger that helped drive them to the franchise’s first ever NBA title last season has been tougher than beating LeBron.

To their considerable credit, this year’s Nuggets have done one thing much better than last year’s champs did – they’re beating the teams they are supposed to beat. It’s mid-January, and the Nuggets have yet to lose to a sub-.500 team. That’s important when you’re fighting for playoff seeding and home court advantage in the uber tight Western Conference. But it’s equally important to come out night after night and give your best effort, which the Nuggets have failed to do far too many times this season.

Only the players themselves can control what goes on between their ears. And not bringing your best effort – especially on the defensive end – every night results in games being lost at home to ordinary teams like Houston and Orlando, along with up and coming contenders like Oklahoma City. The beatdown by the Thunder at Ball Arena (OKC is 2-0 in Denver this season) and other lackluster efforts – like the one in Utah last week – are signs of a team that’s just trying to get this regular season over with so they can flip a switch and start playing games that matter again.

If this continues – and Denver’s facing an important and difficult five-game road trip starting this week – the Nuggets could find themselves sliding down the Western Conference standings and losing any home court advantage in the postseason this spring.

Everyone knew Denver was going into this season with a target on their back. All defending champions do. And while fans may have been hoping that would bring out the best in the Nuggets roster as well, it hasn’t. This is not to say these Nuggets won’t flip another switch and become what they’re certainly capable of becoming at some point. They very well might. But if they continue to just trudge through the regular season as if it’s an annoyance that’s just delaying the start of the playoffs, they might very well end up starting that playoff run on the road, looking at a steeper climb back to the top of the mountain.