Think back to Halloween night. In what was one of the most anticipated season openers in a long time, the shorthanded Sixers stymied former teammate Andre Iguodala and his Denver Nuggets by a score of 84-75. Spencer Hawes' 16 point, 12 rebound, and 5 block performance, Jrue Holiday's 11 assists, and stifling team defense provided as good a start as the Andrew Bynum-less Sixers could have hoped for.
Now forget about that night and come back to reality.
The Denver Nuggets would be the hottest the team in basketball if the hottest team of the past 40 years wasn't currently playing. Bad timing. They've won their last 13 games (including an ultra-rare road win in Oklahoma City on Tuesday) and find themselves in the most interesting playoff race in the NBA coming down the stretch, for the 3-5 spots in the Western Conference. The Clippers, and the Grizzlies, and Nuggets are currently separated by percentage points.
Why are they playing so well? Basically, they play elite offense and above average defense. Of course heading into the playoffs, they are going to be the team most subjected to "Do they have a superstar" scrutiny, which will be a shame. Not because it's a totally misguided sentiment, but because that line of thinking brushes over one of the most unique teams in recent NBA history.
Offensively, it took a couple of months for Denver to get comfortable running the dribble-drive offense, but since January they've been running on all cylinders. There's nothing tricky about the name of their offense; the Nuggets get to rim more than any other team in the league. Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Corey Brewer, and Wlson Chandler all have the ability to take their man off the dribble and get to the rim, which they do a staggering 36 times a game. That's five shots more than the next highest team. And when they happen to miss on these drives, Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos and Javale McGee are often there to clean up.
Do you guys realize yet that I really, really, enjoy watching the Nuggets play? Because I do. You should watch them more if you enjoy basketball.
What Karl has done with defensively with the Nuggets has been even more interesting, IMO. While Denver's only great defensive player is Iguodala (and in truth, much of the roster is average at best individually), he has them above league average on that end of the floor. Zach Lowe wrote the important piece on this subject. Karl has his team using their team-wide quickness and length (outside of their two short point guards) to play an unorthodox switching and doubling type of defense. The money quote is where Karl says, "Most of the time, it's the defense reacting to the offense. We want more possessions where the offense has to react to us."
Dre Watch: Offensively, Iguodala has had a tough year (the worst of his career by a decent bit), but the Nuggets have a plethora of other options where they get scoring (especially from Gallinari and Lawson in crunch time). Importantly, he's still defended at his usual level (Read this excellent Matt Moore piece). So basically, he's in the position he was always meant to be in.
All that doesn't mean that some in the Denver media doesn't think he scores enough points. Screw the Masters, this is a tradition unlike any other.
Prediction: Did I mention the Nuggets are 30-3 at home? That they play the second fastest pace in the league in the altitude? That they are rested and the Sixers probably didn't get into their hotel until 3 or 4 a.m.? This would be a schedule loss for a good team, which the Sixers aren't. Here's my prediction:
Check out Denver Stiffs for the Nuggets perspective.