Strike 3: All season long, the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets have been playing with their food.

Maybe that’s just the way they like it?

Maybe the Nuggets players – because it’s most certainly not the way head coach Michael Malone and his staff would like things to play out – have decided they can collectively mess around for a half or more, keep the game close, or sometimes build a big lead and then let it slip away, and then flip that proverbial switch when they need to and pull out wins against teams good and bad. Maybe they’re getting their kicks that way?

It might make the rest of Nuggets Nation want to pull their hair out at times, but it appears that this is how this group of competitors want to do things.

The Nuggets have only “won” all four quarters of a game one time since the calendar turned to 2024. Every game is a tussle. On the other hand, they lead the NBA in fourth quarter point differential, meaning they do actually flip that switch in crunch time. Maybe playing close games is the motivation they need in their drive to repeat?

What other explanation is there? These Nuggets, supremely talented and capable of being the best team in the league on every given night, seem to find a way to turn games that should not be in question into fourth-quarter battles. On the good side, it’s not like they’ve ended up on the wrong side of the scoreboard very often. Denver only has a small handful of “bad” losses this season – losing three of four to lowly Houston in November and December, and dropping both games to Orlando, plus an ugly loss to a crummy Utah team back in January. That’s pretty much it, but they are going to lament losing three times to the Rockets if they don’t win the Western Conference.

In most games this season, regardless of the colors of the other team’s uniforms, the Nuggets have stuck to the script: Coast through the first half, play an average or below average third quarter, and then turn it on in the final stanza.

It’s a formula that works.

Will it work in the postseason? There’s no reason not to think so at this point. Many of us have been worried that the starters are having to play too many minutes, with the bench play being so erratic and undependable most of the year. While Malone and his coaches would like to see the starters put games away earlier and give more time to the inexperienced guys on the bench, it appears the starters like all those minutes and don’t really want to share.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

We shall see. The Nuggets surge since the All-Star break has been impressive. Except for perhaps a guy like veteran Reggie Jackson, who’s probably logging too many minutes at this point in his career, they don’t seem overworked. The starters aren’t showing any effects of being worn down late in the season. Quite the opposite, actually.

It’s not a secret that they’ll need to be fresh for the playoffs, especially with the key bench guys being so hit-and-miss. It’s all on the Nugget starters.

If for some reason they start showing signs of fatigue, and the quest to repeat falls short, then perhaps we circle back and decide that playing with your food isn’t such a great idea afterall.