HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Who’s the league’s hottest team either side of San Antonio? Don’t look now, but it’s the Denver Nuggets.
With a grueling road schedule to open the first two months of the season, some observers predicted a hard charge up the standings once the schedule turned in Denver’s favor, which it did starting Jan. 1 with 15 of 18 games to be played in the Mile-High City.
On cue, the sky’s been the limit for George Karl‘s bunch, which is riding an eight-game win streak — while averaging a whopping 115.0 ppg — as part of a larger 15-3 run since New Year’s Day. They’ve won 13 of those 15 home games and have gone 2-1 on the road.
On Dec. 29, the Nuggets had dropped to 17-15 after an ugly 82-71 loss at Memphis. At that point, Denver had played a discombobulating 23 road games, stood seventh in the West and were just one game ahead of — believe it or not — the Los Angeles Lakers. L.A. was 15-15, the last time that outfit would sniff .500.
Now the high-octane, well-balanced Nuggets are 32-18 and have pushed past Houston, Golden State and Memphis to slide into the No. 4 position in the West, a hugely significant spot for a team that’s 22-3 at home. The top four teams in each conference earn home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Only the smooth-sailing Spurs have fewer home losses (22-2) among teams in both conferences, and no team has more home wins (San Antonio and Oklahoma City each also have 22).
Of course, Karl’s previous seven seasons in Denver have been marked by first-round disappointments six times and twice the Nuggets have wasted a top-four finish by not getting out of the conference quarterfinals (2006 and 2010). Only the 2008-09 Nuggets, who finished second in the West, made it out, with Carmelo Anthony finally taking the team all the way to the West finals before losing to the Lakers.
So home-court advantage isn’t a free pass into the second round, but would the run-and-gun Nuggets rather play four of seven games in the high altitude or, say, in the madhouse that is Golden State’s Oracle Arena?
So now the schedule evens out. Denver has played 25 games at home and 25 on the road (10-15), and next up is a four-game Eastern Conference road swing, including two back-to-backs: Cleveland (Saturday) and Boston (Sunday), followed by Toronto (Tuesday) and Brooklyn (Wednesday).
The Nuggets will look for their two pace-setters to continue their brilliant play that has led to the team’s longest win streak of the season. Neither point guard Ty Lawson nor forward Danilo Gallinari will be in Houston for the All-Star Game, but had they put up these kind of numbers earlier, both might have finally made the squad.
Gallinari is averaging 19.9 ppg during the eight-game win streak and is shooting the 3-ball at a 44.7-percent clip to boost his previously slumping season percentage to 37.3.
Lawson over the last eight games is averaging 18.9 points — more than three points better than his season average — and 8.1 assists — pushing his season average to a career-high 7.0 apg. After posting four double-doubles through the first 42 games, Lawson has two in the last three games and four of his six on the season have come in the last 15 games.
Add Kenneth Faried‘s (12.2 ppg, 9.7 rpg) relentless motor, a deep roster with six players scoring in double figures, and a seventh, Wilson Chandler, back from injury and averaging 9.7 ppg, the Nuggets have a team that can simply gas opponents.
Especially on their home floor.