Strike 2: Maybe the Denver Nuggets will burst out of the blocks when the NBA regular season resumes. Maybe when they host lowly Washington on Thursday night, they’re rejuvenated, and a beatdown of the Wizards launches them on a nice winning streak that puts them back on top of the tightly contested Western Conference.

Could happen.

Or maybe, by the time they host (currently) fifth-place Phoenix the first week of March, the three games that separate the Suns and the (currently) fourth-seeded Nuggets has dwindled down to one or two games, putting the defending champs in very real danger for losing any home court advantage for the postseason that’ll be less than two dozen games away by that point.

Nuggets Nation wants badly to believe their team can and will flip a switch and return to playing dominant basketball like they did last season. However, if we’re being honest, this Nuggets team has only played dominant basketball on a select few occasions this season, and there’s not much reason to think that they can suddenly morph into what they haven’t been all year.

This flawed Denver team is in real trouble.

Not only is the Western Conference a lot better than it was a season ago – when Denver effectively clinched the top spot in early March before coasting to the finish line – but these Nuggets aren’t those Nuggets. Those Nuggets were not only much deeper – the bench wasn’t getting badly outscored night after night – but they had more experience and savvy as well. Mostly, they were more motivated from start to finish. They took control of games earlier and eliminated a lot of late game stress. They didn’t give away double digit fourth quarter leads on their home court and lose to the likes of Sacramento.

These issues didn’t just crop up in the week before this team went on vacation. Motivation is always going to be an issue for teams coming off a championship. There is no drive like the drive to win that first ring. Even as you talk about wanting to repeat, at some level there’s a satisfaction that takes away an edge. You’ve been able to see it this season each time these Nuggets have decided to play with their food. Yes, up until those final three games before the All-Star break, they were still winning at an almost identical clip to a year ago. But the wins came at a price – the overworked starting five being forced to recover from their own first half malaise in time to rescue a painfully young and offensively timid bench late in games. It was working right up until they emptied the tank in the final minutes in LA against the Lakers. They won that game with a late game spurt, but the fatigue finally caught up to starters Jamal Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, both of whom literally limped into the break.

Both should be back and healthy after an eight-day rest. But the situation that drained them physically hasn’t changed. The bench remains unreliable and offensively challenged. Nikola Jokic – now the favorite to win another MVP award – is having to carry the load most nights, given the offensive inconsistencies of key teammates like Michael Porter Jr. And the notion that “it’ll all be fine come playoff time” is a fallacy. They aren’t going to suddenly get deeper and have a reliable vet like Bruce Brown to turn to. Like everyone else, Denver needs home court advantage in the playoffs.

Ending up the fifth seed would pretty much end their quest for a second ring.

Everyone else around them – that now includes the Suns, who made key additions at the trade deadline – has gotten better. The Los Angeles Clippers are the real deal. Minnesota and Oklahoma City are a collective 4-1 against the Nuggets this season. Denver still plays the young and hungry T-Wolves three more times – on the road in mid-March and twice at home after that. There are still two more against the Suns, and one more in LA against the very hot Clips.

Honesty is the best policy, and honestly, don’t bother to start making parade plans.