Strike 1: When is a winning road trip not a winning road trip?

The Denver Nuggets returned from a rough five-game eastern road swing winning three out of five, including a marquee win over the east-leading Boston Celtics. If you go by the scoreboard, it was a successful trip.

But there’s a distributing trend emerging: The Nuggets bench still can’t be trusted. Like, at all.

This trend nearly came back to bite the defending champs when they returned to the friendly confines of Ball Arena for a Saturday matinee with the Philadelphia 76’ers, one of the teams that beat them on the eastern jaunt. With reigning MVP Joel Embiid making his now annual spectator-only trip to Denver and two other Sixers starters sidelined, the weary Nuggets held off the depleted visitors 111-105 in a game that was much uglier than the final score.

Yes, the scoreboard came up in their favor once again. But the Nuggets were far from impressive. This was a game they should have won easily, yet it remained close all the way to the end. Some dude named Paul Reed (?) did his best Embiid impression, pouring in 30 points against a soft Denver defense, and nearly leading a team full of backups to an improbable road upset.

For all intents and purposes, this was the sixth game of the road trip for Denver, who barely had time to unpack before they had to go back to the arena and lace ‘em up again on Saturday afternoon. But the real problem wasn’t the schedule. The real problem remains the number of minutes Denver’s starters are having to play night after night because Nuggets coach Michael Malone still can’t trust his reserves.

This was especially apparent in the fifth game of the trip, when Denver absorbed a beating in NYC. Malone wouldn’t even trust his bench players to hold onto a 20-point deficit.

After winning the fourth game of the trip at Indiana on Tuesday night, Denver arrived in New York running on fumes. It was apparent early that The Knicks were going to run the weary visitors out of Madison Square Garden, which is exactly what happened. Had Malone been more able (willing?) to go to his bench players early, he could have gotten more rest for Nikola Jokic and company, who still ended up playing almost 30 minutes each of a game the Knicks won by almost 40 points. By sitting his worn out regulars for most of the no-contest, the result would have been the same, but the wear and tear on the key players would have been lessened.

That unnecessary fatigue almost cost them the home game against the Sixers.

Tired legs contributed heavily to a porous defense and ugly shooting night against a team missing three starters. The Embiid-less visitors scored 60 points in the paint, while Denver’s dead legs led to a crummy 45% shooting night – and an even uglier 14 missed free throws.

The Nuggets were fortunate to win.

It’s great to have what most consider to be the best starting five in the NBA. But if these Nuggets – currently fourth in the tightly packed Western Conference – have to play those starters 35-plus minutes per game just to try to secure home court for the first round of the playoffs, they run the risk of being completely worn out when the postseason begins.

Christian Braun is struggling badly. Peyton Watson’s defense has been more than solid, but his offensive game is pretty much absent, especially on the road. Reggie Jackson has been running slightly more cold than hot recently, and DeAndre Jordan, should he continue to spell Joker at the center spot, will have to give the reserves a lot more on the offensive end.

Denver still doesn’t have a true night-in and night-out scoring threat off the bench.

The NBA trade deadline is looming on Feb. 8. In a perfect world, the Nuggets could make a move to bring in a veteran scorer to come off the bench in the pressure-packed playoffs. But Denver is up against the salary cap, having committed almost everything to their starters. That means the young reserves are going to have to produce in a meaningful way – both to help the team win games and give the starters some badly needed rest – for the remainder of the regular season.

Finger’s crossed.