1. Streaking Nuggets Continue Impressive Climb
After a late-breaking overtime win the night before, the streaking Denver Nuggets found themselves with less than 21 hours of lead time for a game against the well-rested reigning Western Conference champions. On the road, no less, against a team sporting a home record of 30-4. Most fans and analysts would call that a "schedule loss," a night when a loss of any margin is both expected and acceptable.
Don't tell Denver that.
Tuesday night's comfortable 114-104 comeback win against the Oklahoma City Thunder was an exclamation point to Denver's current 13-game streak, and continues to highlight an incredible turnaround. The Nuggets started the season with a tepid 18-16 record behind a brutal schedule, but as their docket softens, they've quietly transformed into a borderline juggernaut. The Nuggets are a startling 29-6 in their past 35 games.
That hot stretch has carried Denver all the way from a weak hold on the Western Conference's seventh seed to a virtual tie for third, and it has given them an excellent shot at wresting home-court advantage for their first-round matchup. For a team that's currently 30-3 at home and 17-19 on the road, that's not just window dressing -- it's absolutely essential to their hopes of winning a series. That said, Tuesday night was a lot more than just a continuation of an excellent streak or a boon to their playoff hopes. It's easy to overlook, but it's something to bear in mind -- games against Oklahoma City hold a special cachet in Denver.
Consider: It has been less than two years since the Nuggets were bounced from the postseason by the Thunder in 2011. In that series, the Nuggets were looking ahead to the Spurs, a juggernaut they felt they could beat, but they looked too far ahead -- the naught-but-theoretical contenders in Denver were dispatched in a quick five games. Since that series, they've shown occasional flashes of greatness without ever putting it all together.
Tuesday's win was the latest in a season-long series of minor moral victories for Karl and his merry men. With Andre Iguodala's welcome addition helming a swarming perimeter defense and a small jolt to their ambitious transition-based offense, the Nuggets have entered a level of elite play heretofore unseen in the Denver heights. And Oklahoma City provides a brilliant reflection to that end. Prior to this season, the post-Carmelo Anthony Nuggets were a dismal 2-8 against the Thunder. That record includes losses by 13, 15 and 17, with only two exceedingly close wins to counterbalance them.
That was then. This is now.
After a 20-point thrashing in their first meeting, the Nuggets have pulled out three consecutive impressive wins against their former tormentors. They've beaten them twice in Denver and once in Oklahoma City, each time with increasing levels of comfort. This time, they played the most impressive game of their season to date -- Oklahoma City lost the lead in the third quarter and barely challenged down the stretch. Winning a regular-season series against a bitter rival that's dominated you in recent seasons is hardly the same as winning a playoff series, but it's a welcome jolt of confidence all the same.
Their captors vanquished, the question remains: How far can these Nuggets go? It's exceedingly hard to handicap a team such as Denver when you're looking for their playoff performance. It's brutally difficult to assess playoff strategy of a team with a borderline-obsessive focus on at-rim scoring and fast-paced basketball.
When the game slows down and their transition offense sputters, are the Nuggets going to have the half-court game to pull out road wins in the playoffs? Their style of play foments increased volatility; their assists essential, their movement non-negotiable.
Until the playoffs come, nobody knows for certain. But one factoid has to brighten their backers. The Nuggets aren't simply feasting on awful teams this season -- this win puts Karl's boys at 9-4 against the West's top four teams, with 3-1 records against both OKC and the Memphis Grizzlies, 2-1 against the Los Angeles Clippers, and 1-1 against the San Antonio Spurs. The Nuggets of yore were never quite that good against elite teams. And with their defense peaking at the right time, the Nuggets are starting to look like an awfully dangerous spoiler, a more robust edition of their trendy 2011 vintage.
As for their immediate future? With Tuesday's unexpected win in hostile territory, the Nuggets next have three straight games against soft competition to stake out a claim to their own 16-game streak. Then they'll face San Antonio, a statement game against another team trying to exorcise the playoff demons of years past.
They will play, they will compete, and they will wait.
Because the next "schedule loss" is coming.
Aaron McGuire's work appears on Gothic Ginobili.
2. Around the Association
Most valuable player: Ty Lawson was brilliant, but this was Andre Miller's night. The birthday boy celebrated his 37th in style, with a line of 20 points, 7 rebound and 9 assists. He poured in 13 points in the fourth, icing the game with a smile.
Least valuable player: Hard for OKC to win when Serge Ibaka has a night like this. Just six points and two rebounds in 24 ineffective minutes for their frontcourt centerpiece, with lazy defense to boot.
That was impressive: The Nuggets entered the night with a 16-19 road record, far and away the worst in the West's top five. Fun stat. Didn't matter. They recouped from an early 10-point deficit to upset the favored Thunder by double-digits. Off an overtime back-to-back, too? Huge win.
MVP: Five minutes left in a tied game is apparently Toney Douglas time! Sacramento's backup point guard rattled off 11 of his 15 fourth-quarter points in the clutch, including an impossible deep 3-pointer that served as the dagger.
X factor: If the Clippers have an Achilles' heel, it's defending the 3-point line. Douglas and Marcus Thornton took full advantage, providing nine of the team's 14 3-pointers.
That was an explosion: The Kings shot the lights out in the final frame, tallying 38 points and five huge 3-pointers to serve the defenseless Clips a brutal loss.
MVP: Brandon Jennings paced the Bucks offensively with 24 points and seven assists. While it came on 9-of-20 shooting from the floor, Jennings' production nonetheless helped keep the Blazers at arms' length during a big comeback attempt.
X factor: The Blazers posted a season-low eight points in the second quarter, all while allowing Milwaukee 31 in the frame. Milwaukee led by as much as 27 in the first half before Portland came out of halftime showing signs of life.
That was unexpectedly fun: What could have been a dismal, forgettable blowout turned competitive, if not tense. Strong performances from Wes Matthews, LaMarcus Aldridge and the Milwaukee backcourt are to be thanked for a decent show in spite of everything.
MVP: Filling in for the injured David West (sprained lower back), Tyler Hansbrough went "Psycho T" on the Magic, finishing with a double-double (14 points and 14 rebounds) and being a complete pest on the court.
Defining moment: The Pacers got off to a slow start, trailing 12-7 midway through the first quarter. But they rectified that problem very quickly, finishing the period on a 12-0 run to take a seven-point lead heading into the second quarter. Indiana would never look back.
X factor: Defense. The Pacers rank first in defensive efficiency for a reason. They suffocated Orlando defensively, particularly with their length. Every single starter for the Magic struggled on offense and that led to a lopsided victory for Indiana.
3. Tuesday's Best
The NBA's "other" win streak is going strong after Denver overcame Kevin Durant's 34 points in Oklahoma City. The Nuggets have now won 13 straight games and are quickly emerging as a serious contender in the West.
4. Tuesday's Worst
Magic in Indy: The Magic shot 32 percent from the floor. The Pacers shot 39 percent and won by 22. Add to the mix an Orlando team that failed to top 20 points in three of four quarters, and that's now four straight losses for a team that has only three wins since Feb. 13.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"Is Kevin Garnett a role player? Is Tim Duncan a role player? Do you think Tim Duncan is going to be a role player next year? You think Kevin Garnett is going to be a role player next year? And those guys are based more on athleticism than Dirk is, you know?"
-- Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, on Dirk Nowitzki's effectiveness over the next few years in Dallas (Nowitzki turns 35 in June).
8. UVO, Play Funk
9. Stat Check
The Denver Nuggets extended their winning streak to 13 games with an impressive victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Denver is the first team to extend a winning streak of at least a dozen games with a victory over an opponent with a winning percentage of at least .700 since the Dallas Mavericks, 13-0 at the time, beat the Detroit Pistons (11-3) in November 2002.