AGAINST all expectations, the Denver Nuggets are still panning for NBA gold. Those who asserted their unexpected rise would be done and dusted by Christmas, then by All Star break, have been proven acutely wrong.
A relative slump by the Golden State Warriors and continued consistency by the Mile High men have kept the Western Conference race improbably tight. Golden State’s narrow victory over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday ensures they will retain top spot even if Denver come out on top when they host the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday.
Rewinding to October, who would have expected the Nuggets to be the ones breathing down their necks?
Jamal Murray: 30 PTS
Paul Millsap: 23 PTS, 5 REB
Nikola Jokic: 18 PTS, 8 REB, 7 AST
Monte Morris: 16 PTS, 5 REB, 6 AST pic.twitter.com/5Q39wKLV0f
— NBA (@NBA) March 13, 2019
Extraordinary for a team that started the campaign as marginal playoff bets. Credit to the league’s second-best home record at 28-6, taking full advantage of the traditional altitude ace in the pack.
But Mike Malone’s men sit second in assists and seventh in points allowed at 107.3 per game to illustrate the strength of their collective. Nikola Jokic, notching 20.4 points, 7.6 assists and 10.7 rebounds per night, may have belatedly garnered attention.
Yet they are a quirky side. Their intensity does not necessarily translate into big early leads. Over the campaign, the Nuggets are just +1. in opening quarter margins even though they put up 29.4 points in first periods.
In fourths, they are scoring 26.6 after accumulating an average margin by the close of the third of +3.2 which translates into +5.1 by the conclusion. Still clutch though, with a top-ranked 10-3 record in games decided by three points or less, even if they are just 4-20 when trailing going into the fourth but 38-1 when ahead.
"We wanna share the ball. We wanna get everyone involved."@jasonterry31 catches up with Nikola Jokic after the @nuggets pick up another home win!#MileHighBasketball | #PlayersOnly pic.twitter.com/SuNZ6lrPMs
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) March 13, 2019
And although they are just 15th overall in points gained at 112.3, they sit fifth in offensive efficiency. This is a group which is good but perfect for flying under the radar. The only cloud on this horizon is a first real slump that has seen them drop four out of six (including a hammering by the Warriors). Scoring has been an occasional issue.
Nevertheless, only the Houston Rockets – who hold a 2-1 cushion in the season head-to-head – really look equipped to deny them a shot at the Dubs in the Conference Finals with a 26-14 record against .500+ opponents.
That should make it a formality against Dallas who have lost six consecutive games and who have been flattered only by fourth quarter rallies to cut extravagant margins, making the Nuggets best value on a 1st half handicap of -7 at 1.96.
And although even a gamble at 10.00 to overhaul the Warriors and top the West seems fanciful, their lustre is not impossible to miss.
FINAL: Rockets survives Mavericks 4th Q comeback despite poor shooting #NBA
Rockets – 94
Mavericks – 93#Rockets
James Harden – 20 pts. 7/25 (28%) FGs, 3/15 (20%) 3-pt FGs
Eric Gordon – 26 pts 10/20 FGs#MFFL
Luka Doncic – 19 pts 15 rebs 9 asts
Jalen Brunson – 18 pts 7 rebs pic.twitter.com/wZsTELFinH
— NBA Outrights (@OutrightsNBA) March 11, 2019
No Bucking the Trend
Only one team has been more steadfast on their own floor than Denver – the Milwaukee Bucks. Starting 27-5 at their shiny-new Fiserv Forum, they’ll look to claim a psychologically important series win over Philadelphia when the Sixers come to town on Sunday.
The 76ers problem lately has been that they have shown they can beat decent-to-poor teams but lose to the elite (and the Chicago Bulls, a real aberration).
But now that Joel Embiid is back, if not entirely maxed, it is all about getting prepped for the post-season and this is a proper examination.
Philly went 5-7 minus the All Star centre but are 38-18 in his presence. He should shore up their defence and it could be worth looking under 213 total points, even though the Bucks remain in menacing mood.