There are still 65 more games to go in this lockout-shortened season, but with every club playing roughly every other night through the end of April the marathon starts now. Based on their effortless assault on the NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks on Monday night, the Nuggets clearly have an edge going into this unique 2012 campaign.
Following their 115-93 dismantling of the Mavs, the Denver Nuggets look like they are picking up right where they left off at the end of the 2011 Season. Most notably, the Nuggets are again getting major contributions from role players that could start on most NBA rosters. That unmatched depth is being enhanced by a couple of Denver starters coming to this belated opening stretch of NBA games already in mid-season form.
It all starts with the advanced play of starting point guard Ty Lawson, whose excellent two-game preseason performance versus the Suns foreshadowed a dominant 27-point outburst in Dallas on Monday. Lawson played half a season in Lithuania’s top pro league prior to joining the Nuggets for an abbreviated NBA training camp/preseason, and the result on Monday was Ty dicing his way through poorly conditioned defenders and dropping 67% of his shots right out of the gates.
Forward Danilo Gallinari was playing in his native Italy when the NBA lockout was lifted, and his conditioning shows it. Gallinari’s 15 points in 26 minutes were punctuated by a defensively stout +26 rating while he was on the floor. Center-turned-power-forward Nene was co-leader in plus minus at +26 in just 23 minutes, and both Nene and Gallo turned in 7 rebounds each to lead Denver.
The real story of this season opener – and the story I expect will dominate Denver’s plotline this season – is the inspired play of the Nugget’s second line.
Al Harrington and Andre Miller contributed 18 points and 5 rebounds each in extended reserve minutes. Harrington slimmed down in the offseason to fit in better with the Nuggets, and the boost to his athleticicsm was apparent immediately. Al could have been Denver’s first victim of the Amnesty Clause that allows teams to dump one contract each season, but his rededication to the Nuggets makes him a critical role player instead. Former Nugget Andre Miller came back to Denver from Portland in the offseason pre-lockout and inserted himself so easily into George Karl’s system that it was like he never left.
Shooting guard Rudy Fernandez – a transplant from Dallas via preseason trade – scored 8 and registered 3 steals filling in for recently re-signed starter Arron Afflalo. Playing the role that sixth man JR Smith played last season, Fernandez shot poorly from range but contributed with tenacious defense that held the talented Mavericks at bay throughout the second half.
So complete was Denver’s defensive performance in the first half that Dallas sat superstar Dirk Nowitzki for the entire fourth quarter. Dirk was last year’s NBA Finals MVP, but he could only manage 20 points and a -21 rating against the aggressive Nuggets. The disparity in conditioning between the run ‘n gun Nuggets and the methodical Mavericks was never more apparent than when Dallas rookie power forward Sean Williams – who played just 11 minutes – had to rush to the area behind the Mavs bench to throw up from overexertion.
Now Denver enters a stretch of five games in six days that kicks off with a home date versus the Utah Jazz on Wednesday followed by a quick flight to Portland for a Thursday night road tilt against the energetic Trailblazers. Then the Nuggets play a daytime New Years Eve game in Los Angeles against the Lakers before both teams fly to Denver for a nighttime brawl on New Years Day. By the time the Milwaukee Bucks come to Denver the following day – Monday January 2nd – we will know a lot about how well these Nuggets stack up against some of the tougher Western Conference opposition.
If Denver can grab two division victories right away OR land two high-profile wins against the Lakers, the boys in powder blue will not be flying under the radar like they did late last season. These Cardiac Nuggets are built to win in 2012’s unorthodox pro basketball landscape. Nobody this side of the Heat can run with Denver’s athletic young starters, and no bench in the league can match the talent and tenacity of the Nugget reserves.
Early as it is in this late-start season, the Nuggets look like world beaters. Their pressing defense and aggressive team offense puts them on a level with the division-rival OKC Thunder, and the winner of the Northwest Division will likely have the inside track on the race to the Western Conference Finals. Tune in Tuesday, January 3rd for a full Nuggets 2012 Season Preview and find out Denver’s odds of trumping the Thunder in May.