HANG TIME WEST – This is new because it’s an injury. New because it’s an injury to Danilo Gallinari in particular, and because it’s the Nuggets in something other than an underdog role.
But this is the same.
Denver is in a bad spot, again. And probably, even understandably, they’re being dismissed again. Gallinari was the starting small forward, the team’s second-leading scorer, third-leading rebounder and that rarity of a dependable Nugget at the line. It is a huge loss for a team in the final days of a tense race for slots three-four-five in the Western Conference and heading to the playoffs after what had been a very encouraging second half of the season.
The player, the timing, the standings. So much just went wrong.
Losing Gallinari is obviously a setback, but these Nuggets are masters at shrugging at predictions of impending doom. There has always been something unique about this group in that way, a special personality trait since the Carmelo Anthony trade of February 2011 brought Gallo, Wilson Chandler, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov, among others, and established the core of a roster that already included Ty Lawson. Arron Afflalo was an important part of that, too, until being traded to Orlando before this season.
Once Anthony had leveraged his way out of town, the Nuggets would obviously fall off the map until the rebuilding process took effect. They clearly had no chance to compete with that post-trade roster. Easy call for the lottery.
Immediately after the ‘Melo deal, Denver won 9 of 11 and kept winning. The guys with no chance for the playoffs made the playoffs with an 18-7 post-trade record, then lost in five games in the first round to Oklahoma City, becoming a road mark in the Thunder’s ascension.
Last season, Denver finished second in the Northwest Division and sixth in the Western Conference, just the spot to become the sparring partner for the Lakers in the first round. L.A. was bigger, stronger and more experienced. The Nuggets, though able to play much faster, had no chance. After losing the opener by 15, they were done.
The next thing anyone knew, it was Game 7 at Staples Center. The Nuggets evolved that series into a team that knew it could play with the best and sent a statement, even in defeat and elimination, that it had grown into a legit threat in the West moving forward. After acquiring Andre Igoudala from the 76ers in the summer deal that also sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers and Andrew Bynum to the 76ers, no one could question that.
They were no longer the team being counted out. A jagged start with a brutal road-heavy schedule the first half of 2012-13 gave way to the affirmation that the Nuggets really were good enough for the top four and home-court advantage at least in the first round, not at the Oklahoma City-San Antonio level, but clearly a team capable of a long playoff run.
And then came Thursday night at Pepsi Center and Gallinari planting on a drive down the lane in the second quarter against the Mavericks.
The immediate response — the 132-114 victory over the Rockets — could be dismissed as just one game, the Nuggets playing at home, Houston on the second night of a back-to-back, etc. Fair points. But people have spent years waiting for just one game to give way to the inevitable reality check, and look what Denver has done with those expectations in the past. Besides, that one game was against the possible first-round opponent.
There is no way to predict the Nuggets’ playoff fate without knowing the matchup, only that this team is not going to suddenly blow away in the wind. Getting Lawson back from a heel injury ASAP is obviously key, with no timetable other than the hope that he will return before the end of the regular season. But coach George Karl loves the fighting personality of this team. Somewhere, while wincing at losing Gallinari, they no doubt are loving whatever doubt just crept in.