Three-Pointers: Nuggets beat Thunder, schedule to claim 13th straight win
By Ben Golliver
• All hail Denver's streak! The Nuggets' surprising win carried the indelible feel of a statement game, which says something about both them and NBA observers. Denver proved it has some serious resolve, extending its winning streak to a franchise-record 13 games in the NBA's third-toughest place to play (Oklahoma City was 30-4 at home entering Tuesday) on the second night of a road-road, back-to-back against two playoff teams, after escaping the Bulls in overtime Monday. As for NBA observers, we were reminded that we probably should be paying a little more attention to the Mile High City, even as the Heat's record-setting run ensures that Denver's streak will remain in the shadows until they lose.
Because of their insanely difficult early schedule, which was loaded with road games, the Nuggets were one of the easiest teams to forecast making a second-half push. Few teams play as well at home as the Nuggets, so it was a solid bet that they would surge as the home/road disparity evened out. That's happened, and more. The Nuggets are 23-4 over the last two months, with no home losses since Jan. 16. Denver on Tuesday improved to 8-4 on the road during that stretch, a far cry from its 9-15 start away from the Pepsi Center this season.
The quality has been as impressive as the quantity: Denver is 18-6 against teams on pace to make the Western Conference playoffs, having won its last eight such games. Tuesday's victory was thorough: Denver ran up and down the court, won the rebounding battle, scored 72 points in the paint and outexecuted the Thunder down the stretch thanks to point guards Andre Miller and Ty Lawson, who combined for 17 of Denver's final 25 points. Miller, who finished with 20 points and nine assists on his 37th birthday, was a particular problem, as he nearly single-handedly kept the Thunder at bay late in the game.
• Much like the Heat, the Nuggets have been commanding on both sides of the ball during their streak. That's not necessarily what you would expect, given Denver's run-and-gun reputation. This season, the Nuggets rank No. 3 in offensive efficiency (107.6 points per 100 possessions) and No. 11 in defensive efficiency (102.0 points per 100 possessions). During the streak, they've been elite on both ends. Over the last 13 games, Denver's 111.6 offensive rating has been better than any team's mark for the entirety of the season and its 98.6 defensive rating would rank No. 3, behind only Indiana and Memphis. Playing at that level for essentially a month straight is no accident. It's not a matter of high-pace smoke and mirrors, given the quality of competition that the Nuggets have faced during this run.
The big question, of course: Where does this go for a Nuggets franchise that has advanced out of the first round just once since 1994? That's a fair question not only because of the team's recent history -- three straight first-round eliminations -- but also because the West is so ridiculously loaded that four other teams can claim similar elite levels of play at various points this season. San Antonio, the West's No. 1 seed, had a 16-1 stretch in January and February; Oklahoma City won 12 in a row in November and December; the Clippers reeled off 17 consecutive victories in November and December; and the Grizzlies recently won 14 of 15 in February and March. Playing crème de la crème hoops is simply the rule, not the exception, in the West this season.
• Oklahoma City's defense has crept into the top five in the NBA in efficiency, but you wouldn't know it after watching the Thunder concede 114 points to Denver, the most they've allowed at home this year. This was a fairly out of character night.
Derek Fisher and Kevin Martin are the popular whipping boys on the defensive end, and for good reason. Digging into the on/off statistics for the Thunder's players reveals that Oklahoma City puts up better defensive numbers when Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins, Hasheem Thabeet and Reggie Jackson are on the court than when they are off. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka, meanwhile, all play meaningful rotation roles, with the Thunder performing even or roughly even on defense with or without them.
The weak links, as expected, are Martin and Fisher. The Thunder play at least five points per 100 possessions worse defensively with each of them on the court; in Fisher's case, Oklahoma City's defensive rating drops from an excellent 97.5 when he's off the court to an abysmal 106.9 when he's on the court. Small sample size applies, as he's been with the Thunder for less than a month, but that is simply unsustainable for a team with championship aspirations. Oklahoma City's offensive efficiency numbers with Fisher, meanwhile, have been very good, mitigating the impact of his defensive woes. There is additional reason for hope: The Thunder were actually better defensively with him on the court compared to off the court during the 2012 playoffs. Looking ahead to the postseason, Martin's defense, which sees the Thunder drop from 96.7 when he's off the court to 101.9 when he's on the court, will be the bigger issue, as the team will need his shooting to make life easier for Durant and Westbrook, who combined for 59 of Oklahoma City's 104 points Tuesday. James Harden had a similar impact on Oklahoma City's defensive numbers in 2011-12, so all isn't necessarily lost, as long as Martin can deliver the goods on the other end.