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What Happened?!?!

By: Danny Neubert
The last time I posted something, the world was a different place. The Nuggets were mowing down opponents with ease and efficiency. They were in the midst of a six-game win streak, and had finally eked their road record above .500. Despite the injuries to Kenyon Martin and Ty Lawson, and the increasing absences of George Karl, the Nuggets had a firm grip on the second seed out West with designs on catching the Lakers. If the Nuggets were a wood-chipper, then the rest of the league was Steve Buscemi.
What a difference two-and-a-half weeks makes. The Nuggets, for whatever reason, have completely forgotten how to play the energetic, punishing brand of basketball they had displayed virtually all season. With the season entering it's most crucial point, the Nuggets have lost five of six and slipped all the way to the fifth seed. That's right; if the playoffs started today, the Nuggets would be on the road, where they are an anemic 18-21.
Nearly every team in the conference is playing better than Denver right now, defensively and offensively. On defense, the Nuggets frequently look lost. Obviously without the defensive captain K-Mart in, there will be some struggles. But that's no excuse for blowing rotations and failing to box out. Both of those crucial defensive fundamentals have cost the Nuggets in recent games. In Orlando, J.J. Redick and Ryan Anderson (who?) were able to absolutely light up Denver from 3-point range because the Nuggets were either too lazy or too unorganized to fight through screens and close out. In Boston, the Nuggets let the worst offensive rebounding team in the league collect 17 of them, including six by the point guard Rajon Rondo. The Nuggets' bigs should be ashamed of themselves for that.
When the Nuggets don't play good defense, their offense tends to suffer as a result. At their best, the Nuggets are playing intense, focused defense, creating turnovers and missed shots. The turnovers and rebounds lead to fast break points. Those easy baskets are of the utmost importance for Denver, a team whose half-court offense vaguely resembles musical chairs night at the local retirement home: lots of standing, not a lot of movement. Unfortunately, those fast break points have been few and far between of late. Because of this, a team that averages 107 points a game has failed to break 100 seven of the past eight games. Taco Bell loves it, but us Nuggets fans can hardly believe our eyes.
The selfishness pervading the team must stop as well. The low assists totals cannot be tolerated. The blame game isn't one I am fond of playing, but as the primary ball handlers, the responsibility for distribution falls on the shoulders of Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony. When those guys aren't getting the rest of the team involved, it shows. Guys stop cutting, the team gets into "Watch Melo jack a contested jumper mode", and baskets are increasingly hard to find.
The easy games against inferior competition (Minnesota, Philadelphia, Washington, Los Angeles Clippers, and Sacramento twice) Denver blew in the beginning of the season have caught up to them now, because every game is crucial if the Nuggets want to reclaim home court advantage. After floundering their way through a 1-4 road trip, Denver gets five of their final seven games at home, beginning tonight against the Portland Trail Blazers. The problem is, three of those games are against playoff teams, with the other two being the aforementioned Clippers and the Memphis Grizzlies, teams that have beaten Denver this year. The two remaining road games? At Oklahoma City and at Phoenix, two more playoff teams.
The good news is the Nuggets already have clinched a playoff spot. The bad news is the eight seed and a first-round matchup with the Lakers is very much in play, unless the Nuggets can pull it together. This is the time of year when elite teams play their strongest. If Denver can get on anything resembling a roll before the playoffs start, then there isn't a single team in the league that can beat them. However, if they want to get out of the first round, let alone enact revenge against the Lakers, regaining their home court advantage, and more importantly the swagger and confidence they displayed so prominently from November until mid-March, has to be priority number one. If not, we might be back to the one-and-done playoff disappointments suffered before the breakthrough last season. I fervently believe this team is too good for that. Hopefully they think so too.

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