RISE TO THE TOP
Midway through the season, the Denver Nuggets sat at the top of the elite NBA Western Conference with a record of 30-14. The Nuggets, who missed the 2017 and 2018 playoffs by one game, have been an improving franchise for the last few seasons. However, this mid-season dominance could not have been predicted prior to the commencement of the 2018-2019 season. The Denver Nuggets started this season with an unexpected 9-1 record and, also unexpectedly, have not fallen off.
In the first 41 games of the season, the Nuggets totaled five 4-win streaks, one of which stretched out to a 7-win streak. Even more telling, they haven’t lost too many games to clearly inferior competition. Against the other seven teams in the West’s top eight, Denver has gone 9-6 with two of those losses coming from Houston. Before the game against Golden State on Jan. 15, the Nuggets won 12 straight at home, recording 18-3 on the season.
Denver has worked to turn around their defense and it has shown. From the 2017-2018 season to this current season, the Nuggets have increased their ability to control the game from the defensive end, improving their Defensive Efficiency from No. 25 to No. 12 in the league, and their Opponents PPG from No. 23 to No. 6. Along the same note, the Nuggets have kept their opponents from scoring 100 points 15 times and have gone 14-1 in that span, currently ranking third in the league for lowest Opponent Average Biggest Lead (9.4).
While a solid defense does a lot to change a team, the Nuggets could not have become a top team in the West without star players and offensive domination. The Nuggets, backed by the city of Denver, have gotten extremely excited about their current position in the league and the team chemistry is insane.
Beyond that, franchise player Nikola Jokic has put up a near MVP caliber season this first half, averaging 19.7/10.1/7.5 while becoming the dominant force and leader of this Nuggets team. Jamal Murray has improved with his ball movement and strategy while veteran Paul Millsap has continued as a key scorer and rebounder for the club. Additionally, the bench of Juan Hernangomez, Trey Lyles, Mason Plumlee, and Monte Morris has performed outstandingly, even Malik Beasley has exceeded expectations while filling in for Gary Harris.
KEY MATCHUP vs WARRIORS
The Denver Nuggets and the Golden State Warriors met at the Pepsi center on January 15th to decide the current top spot for the Western Conference. It was the 43rd game for the Nuggets, and they previously had beaten Golden State during the first week of the season. When they met, the Nuggets were 29-13 and were just a half game above the Warriors in the conference.
The Warriors really came out swinging in the first quarter with eruptive defense and dominant shooting; going 19/25 from the field, 10/14 from three (franchise record), and setting an NBA record 51 first-quarter points. After the first quarter wrapped up, things continued in a similar direction. The Warriors managed to win every quarter of the game, totaling to a final score of 142-111 Warriors.
Steph Curry scored 31 with eight threes, Draymond Green totaled 13 assists, Kevin Durant went for 27 points, and Klay Thompson shot 13-19 to make up 31 points and set a career-high four dunks in a game. As for the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic scored 17 with eight assists, Malik Beasley racked up 22 points with six threes, Jamal Murray scored 21 points with four threes, and Will Barton totaled eight rebounds and 11 points in 23 minutes.
While the loss is only one loss, I’m sure the Nuggets players are not pleased with the result of this game. Not only did the Nuggets lose the game and the top spot in the West, they got blown out. The Nuggets schedule does not look too difficult in the next few weeks, but it will be extremely unfortunate if Denver falls into a skid, allowing Golden State to take off with the top spot before the All-Star break.
For the Nuggets to finish out the season on top would be amazing to watch, but to even stay in the conversation with the recently improved and Boogie incoming Warriors, they’re going to need to ramp up their game even further. To gain a top playoff seed come late April, Denver’s bench will need to continue excelling and the club as a whole must keep focusing on defense.
One other important contributor to the success of this club this season is the continued dominance of Nikola Jokic down the stretch. His play this season has driven the entire Nuggets team to where they stand today and whether or not he can continue doing so for the rest of the season can make or break their seeding for the playoffs. In addition, Will Barton being back to the gameday roster is huge for Denver. If he can perform the way he can and wants to, the Nuggets will see extra strength for their starting five and elite bench squad.
Gary Harris is going to have to stay healthy for the rest of the season if the Nuggets are going to keep their spot amongst the West’s elite. He’s had injury issues his whole career, and although he just returned from his second inactive stretch against the Bulls, a longer leave of absence or a minutes cap could be necessary to keep the young star in good health. Despite Harris’ injury concerns, the bench, especially Malik Beasley, has increased their efficiency alongside a strong starting five. Over the past 30 days, he’s been hitting 2.8 3-pointers a game on 50% from the field, putting up 15 points per game.
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