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Ball Don't Lie

The Denver Nuggets have won eight in a row. Are they for real, and right for the road?

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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The Denver Nuggets can say goodbye to these uniforms for a while (Getty Images)

It’s easy to dismiss Denver’s 126-98 win over the Chicago Bulls from Thursday because the Bulls are working with a shorthanded, injured roster. A 32-point win is a 32-point win, though, and the triumph marked Denver’s eighth victory in a row. The squad’s record currently stands at 32-18, fourth in the west, and the team has finally evened its home and road contests at 25 apiece. This was the hoped-for but not entirely expected response to a tough start to the regular season, one that saw the team play 22 out of its first 31 contests away from Denver.

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That’s an unlikely and unfortunate statistical quirk that the Nuggets have all but remedied with sterling home play. Now that the season’s first 50 have passed, though, and the team can settle in for a final 32 spent equally on the road and at home, can George Karl’s group be counted on to go over the top and join the three world-beaters (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles) ranked above them out West?

Denver columnist Mark Kiszla isn’t convinced yet, all while chiding Andre Iguodala for not playing the sort of all-around ball that typically earns someone making as much as Dre does. From the Denver Post:

Iguodala is a clamp-down defender, a true professional and a compelling interview.

But the NBA is not a spelling bee. You don't get paid $15 million for giving intelligent sound bites or getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

For $15 million, was it too much to expect for the 29-year-old Iguodala to lead the Nuggets in scoring, be an all-league defender and stamp his personality on the locker room?

[…]

So was it too much to expect Iguodala to lead the Nuggets in scoring and shoot better than 60 percent from the foul line? Coach George Karl is never afraid to tell me I'm wrong, so I asked him.

"I'm not unhappy. That's unrealistic. You thought he'd be our leading scorer? I never thought that," Karl said. "He's a good scorer for us, and we have other guys we plug in. The way we play, we don't tilt the offense to one player until the end of the game. We just play basketball, go out, run and see who gets the touches."

To start, the Denver Nuggets didn’t sign Andre Iguodala’s $15 million contract, they merely signed off on it as part of the price of business when dealing for Iguodala last August – that has to be the mindset. The Philadelphia 76ers may have thought they were getting they’re 22-point scorer for years in Iguodala back in 2008, when he signed his current deal, but that’s just not the player he is. Coach George Karl seems to understand that. And we shouldn’t dismiss “clamp down defender” as if that’s just one small part of the package. Kevin Durant is a “clamp down” offensive player that makes half his shots. Both sides of the ball share equal importance.

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Kiszla’s points aren’t without merit. Iguodala has recovered from essentially being bulked out of Philly’s offense last season in terms of points per game, but his three-point shooting has dropped from 39 percent last year (a near-fluke, we know) to 30 percent this year (a bad fluke, we’re sure). Denver’s pace and play would seem to be the perfect tonic for an all-around game that was at times stilted in Philly’s consistent slowly run offenses through various coaches, but his usage rate is right around his career average and, yes, 13.5 points per game does seem a little low. Regardless of what he’s paid.

Dre wasn’t brought in to be a superstar, though. Nobody on this team was, as the Nuggets remain a fascinating experiment made all the more interesting because of the weird home/away scheduling. To peel off a 15-3 run following a 17-15 start mainly because the group was starting to gel and the “@” was taken away from that night’s game program is significant – teams can get into year-long funks (witness Iguodala’s 60 percent free throw shooting, which looks to be a mental mitigating factor right now) and never recover.

The Nuggets have recovered. And now they’re set to be tested again.

Denver is going to have to learn how to play away from Colorado, and improve the winning percentage behind the team’s 10-15 road record. The San Antonio Spurs (17-9), Thunder (15-9) and Clippers (15-11) all take care of their business away from home, and the Nuggets are charged with ascending to their strata. Earlier in the season there was the excuse of a lack of practice time due to all the travel, but the Nuggies have enjoyed over five weeks of relatively easy travel and time to get to know one another.

Starting today, as they board the plane (with burritos in hand) to head out east. Seven of the team’s final 10 games in February are on the road, and even with the fifth-place Memphis Grizzlies fading the Nuggets can’t afford the sort of 2-5 road run that we saw from the team earlier in the year. Partially because of the momentum they’ve earned, but also because Denver’s three home games left this month are against the angry Lakers, the white-hot Celtics, and the division-leading Thunder.

Worse, Andre Miller is rumbling about only playing 25 minutes a night. It seems like the Nuggets have to convince those inside and outside the organization that they’re worth counting on.

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"EVEN-FLOOOW. THOUGHTS ARRIVE LIKE BUTTER-FLIES" (Getty Images)

Even as we dismiss them for only playing expert ball at home, understand that the team’s current numbers are accurate judgments because the team’s home and road totals are now evenly split; with the caveat that the team might not be as bad as they look on the road due to the weirdness of the early schedule.

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The Nuggets have shot up from 24th to 14th in defensive efficiency since the tail end of their initial tour away from home. The team owns the fourth-best offense in the NBA right now in terms of points per possession, and the squad was capable of getting out on the break both during that road swoon (seventh in pace) and in total (second, since the road jaunt ended).

Thirty-two games left in order to jump a tier, and frighten a Spur. It can be done, and like all things Nugget-y, it’ll be worth watching and listening to.

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