The Denver Nuggets will undoubtedly be a tough out once the playoffs start. Their current defensive form could vault them into a title contender.
The Nuggets try to keep sole possession of the Northwest Division lead and extend their current winning streak to five games Saturday night when they host the San Antonio Spurs.
Only one game separates second-place Denver (52-27) from fifth in the Western Conference, which at the very least could be the difference between a division title and starting the postseason on the road. The Nuggets have a tenuous one-half game lead over Utah in the Northwest but have picked an opportune time to clamp down defensively and augment an offense that averages 106.6 points per game - good for second in the league.
Denver forced Oklahoma City to miss its final 13 shots in Wednesday’s 98-94 road victory, and star forward Carmelo Anthony(notes) made the key play without the ball in Thursday’s 98-96 win over the Lakers, blocking Derek Fisher’s(notes) potential game-tying jumper at the buzzer.
“Feels good to do something else, though, other than hitting a game-winner,” said Anthony, who scored 31 points. “That felt just as good as hitting the game-winner. It was a game-winner.”
When Anthony and the Nuggets focus defensively, they are hard to beat. They have limited opponents to 93.0 points per game on 42.1 percent shooting during their winning streak - well below their respective season marks of 102.1 points and 45.6 percent - and are 30-3 when holding foes under 100 points.
The Nuggets have to like their chances of delivering defensively with Kenyon Martin(notes) returning Saturday. The veteran forward will play against San Antonio after missing 18 games with patellar tendinitis in his left knee. Martin underwent platelet-rich plasma therapy March 8 and has been working out with the goal of returning before the playoffs start.
Denver can clinch its second straight division title with victories in this game and Monday at home against Memphis.
San Antonio (48-31) knows all about championship-caliber defense, the driving force of its four titles since the start of the 1999 lockout-shortened season. The Spurs, though, are currently eighth in the West and need to win two of their final three games to avoid finishing with fewer than 50 wins in a full season for the first time since 1996-97.
They head to the Pepsi Center looking to avoid a third consecutive loss following a 107-99 home loss to the Grizzlies on Friday. Manu Ginobili(notes) scored 26 points hours after signing a $39 million extension, but San Antonio allowed Memphis to shoot 49 percent from the field and amass a 48-39 edge in rebounds.
“We are in a great fight with Portland and Oklahoma City,” Ginobili said. “We let this one get away. We should have won and at least taken a one-game advantage.”
The loss dropped the Spurs into eighth in the West, which would relegate them to a first-round series with the top-seeded and reigning NBA champion Lakers. San Antonio could finish as high as fifth by winning its final three games depending on how its tiebreakers against Oklahoma City, Portland and Phoenix play out.
The Argentine guard, though, continued his torrid scoring run. He has averaged 25.8 points his last 12 games, well above his season average of 15.5 points, while shooting 47.4 percent. Ginobili has scored 14.3 points per game versus Denver this season, but has been limited to 32.3 percent (10 for 31) shooting in those games.
The Nuggets won both games at San Antonio, but the Spurs shot 53.2 percent and had seven players reach double figures in a 111-92 victory Feb. 11 at Denver in the most recent meeting.