HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — A rugged early-season schedule and the lack of a true go-to-guy could have been their downfall. It had the potential to render all of that preseason fawning over the Denver Nuggets a waste of time, if these Nuggets weren’t made of the rugged materials at their core.
They played a staggering 17 of their first 24 games on the road, away from the friendly and high altitude confines of the Pepsi Center, going 12-12 during that stretch to stay afloat just long enough to get to the place where they are now. And that place is smack in the middle of a stretch that sees them playing 12 of 14 games at home with a chance to make some serious noise in the Western Conference standings.
The Nuggets are 10-4 since their schedule evened out and are winners of five straight after a Sunday’s victory over the Golden State Warriors. At 23-16, Denver is looking more and more like the team some pundits believed to be a challenger to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Northwest Division and the Western Conference.
There is still plenty of work to do, of course. Even with this recent climb, they are still looking from the outside on the top four in the West. But they’re in a position now to battle the Memphis Grizzlies and Warriors for that fourth spot.
One of the biggest reasons they are in this position is their penchant for playing their best basketball in the fourth quarter of games that could go either way, as Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post explains:
Suddenly, the fourth quarter has become the Nuggets’ quarter.
Whether they slosh through the first three quarters or play well from the start and find themselves in a tight contest, the fourth has been the separation quarter for this team, trying to hit its stride this month.
The Nuggets outscored Golden State 37-18 in the fourth quarter Sunday night to make a tough game look like an easy 116-105 win at the Pepsi Center. It was the Nuggets’ season-high fifth straight win.
So what’s different in the fourth quarter?
“Urgency and desperation and professional pride,” Nuggets coach George Karl said.
The Nuggets turn up the defense and shift the offense into overdrive in the final period. During this five-game winning streak, they’ve outscored their opponents 151-102 in the fourth, an average of 30.2 points to 20.4.
“I feel like we’re most focused in the fourth quarter for some reason,” center JaVale McGee said. “I don’t know why. I feel like we take the first half for granted, but we really go hard in the fourth quarter.”
In addition to the surge, the Nuggets appear to have struck gold on another front. Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari are turning into the sort of 1-2 punch that you need to grind out games, guys who power the attack when need be. They combined for 41 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds against the Warriors.
It doesn’t hurt to get 22 points from your bench in the fourth, as they did Sunday. But the guys who make the Nuggets go on a nightly basis have to do their part to create an opportunity for the bench to handle their business.
But with a core group that also includes HT fave Kenneth “The Manimal” Faried, the versatile and dangerous Andre Iguodala and crafty veterans like Andre Miller and the underrated Corey Brewer, the Nuggets have the pieces to keep their current run going for a while.
With nine of their next 11 games at home, opportunity is banging on the door for the Nuggets.