Analysis: The Factors Behind the Nuggets' Recent Hot Streak
By Christopher Dempsey, Altitude Sports
Thursday night was “send a message” night for Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who doesn’t want his team’s recent run of success to be clouded by complacency. So Malone railed against a defensive effort he said needed more than just a tweak or two.
“I thought our defense was awful, to be very honest,” said Malone, after the Nuggets beat the Western Conference’s fifth-best team, the L.A. Clippers, by 15 points. “In the fourth quarter they shot 80 percent. In the second half they shot 60 percent. We have to learn when we build the lead, we have to create good habits. Our defense in the second half was not where it needs to be moving forward.”
It resonated throughout the locker room after the game, each player echoing Malone’s sentiments. The bottom line: It is not time to take the pedal off the metal. With about four weeks to play, only Oklahoma City owns a current winning streak as long as the Nuggets’ four consecutive victories in the Western Conference, going into Friday’s games. The Nuggets, closing in on a .500 record, are 2 ½ games ahead of Portland for the eighth spot. They are 3 ½ ahead of Dallas and 4 ½ ahead of Minnesota.
What’s gone right? A number of things – some obvious. Others not so obvious. Here are the factors contributing to the Nuggets’ rise.
Winning at home. Coming into the season, re-establishing a home court advantage was near the top of the list of team goals. The last time the Nuggets finished with a winning home record was in 2013-14, when they had a 22-19 mark at home. Right now, at 20-16, they are on their way to eclipsing that. The Nuggets have won 13 of their last 17 home games and since Feb. 1 have been flat-out dominant in the Mile High City. In that time, the Nuggets are averaging 114.5 points at the Pepsi Center, shooting 41.4 percent from the 3-point line and are making nearly 13 threes per game. It has all equaled a home court that has felt a lot friendlier of late.
The Washington Wizards. The Nuggets are 5-1 in their last six games. The one loss? That was to the Washington Wizards on March 8, who at the time dropped the Nuggets’ lead for the last playoff spot to just one game over Portland. But then this happened: The Wizards went to Sacramento and won, which was a big help to the Nuggets at the time. Then, Washington went to Portland and won, which was huge for the Nuggets, who by then were two games into their current winning streak. Washington going on the road and winning helped the Nuggets sort out their issues without having to do it from outside the last playoff spot.
Improved defense. Defense, the team’s Achilles’ Heel all season long, has been ironed out, to a degree. Because as Malone stated after the Clippers game, the Nuggets are far from a finished and consistent product on that end of the court. But they are also a far cry from where they were, which had been at or near the bottom of the NBA in many defensive categories. This is where they are now: In the Nuggets’ last 14 games – in which they are 9-5 – they are 10th in the league in points off of turnovers (17.1), 14th in points allowed (106.3), 20th in defensive rating (108.3), 10th in fast break points allowed per game (12.6), and ninth in defensive rebounds per game (34.7).
The NBA schedule. There have been many times for the Nuggets to be frustrated about what the NBA schedule has presented them at certain times this season, but not right now. The NBA did the Nuggets a solid during this stretch. Five of the last six opponents the Nuggets faced were on the second of a back-to-back. The Nuggets won four of them. And they’ll get the benefit of another team arriving in town on the second of a back-to-back, as the Rockets play on Friday night in New Orleans before flying all the way to Denver for their Saturday contest against the Nuggets.
Players stepping up. Many of these wins have come with a depleted Nuggets roster. With 126 games lost to illness or injuries, missing players has been an unfortunate part of their makeup all season long. They’ve had a whopping 27 different starting lineups, per Nuggets game notes. Yet through the constant changes, someone has stepped up and played the basketball hero at different times. Will Barton scored a career-high 35 points against the Clippers on Thursday. Wilson Chandler scored a career-high 36 points in a Nuggets win over Sacramento on March 6. Nikola Jokic has five triple-doubles in his last 18 games. Jamal Murray, in his new role as reserve point guard, scored 22 points in a Nuggets win over the Lakers on Monday. Before going down to injury, Danilo Gallinari averaged 19.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.6 assists since the All-Star break.
“We know what’s at (stake),” Jokic said. “We just need to stay focused and keep doing what we are doing. That’s it.”
Christopher Dempsey: @chrisadempsey on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org