The Denver Nuggets' surprising start is quickly losing steam, and staying competitive through February could be difficult.
Expected to be without rising star Danilo Gallinari for a month, the Nuggets look to regroup Wednesday night when they host the Dallas Mavericks in a matchup of teams mired in three-game losing streaks.
Denver (15-10) opened its season Dec. 26 with an impressive 115-93 win in Dallas, and by Jan. 27 owned the Western Conference's second-best record at 14-5. But the Nuggets have dropped five of six since, and their latest setback - a 99-90 home loss to Houston on Monday - was particularly discouraging.
Gallinari left in the third quarter after rolling his left ankle on Chandler Parsons' foot. Although the team originally believed he would be sidelined for six weeks, Gallinari is now expected to miss a month to receive treatment for "a significant ankle sprain."
"No one's going to feel sorry for us except ourselves," coach George Karl said. "If we feel too sorry for ourselves, we're not going to bounce back."
Gallinari, who recently signed a four-year, $42 million deal that makes him the cornerstone of Denver's young nucleus, joined a growing list of injured Nuggets. Starters Nene (left heel), Arron Afflalo (left ankle, right big toe) and Timofey Mozgov (left ankle) were all out against the Rockets, along with reserve forward Corey Brewer following the death of his father.
Nene and Afflalo are expected to return Wednesday.
"It's the season, man. It's the season. It ain't going to stop for nobody," said 13-year veteran Al Harrington, who is averaging 15.0 points. "If Gallo's out, somebody else has to step up and fill that hole until he gets back."
The Nuggets had been enjoying success despite lacking a true superstar, but Gallinari was undeniably the leader. He is averaging a team-best 17.0 points, and Denver is 9-2 when he scores at least 20.
"It's going to be tough," Gallinari said. "Hopefully we can make a good stretch run because February was already a tough month and now it's going to be tougher."
The Nuggets may have to rely a bit more on Ty Lawson, who is second on the team in scoring at 15.5 points. Lawson had a season-high 27 on 10-of-15 shooting against Dallas in the opener.
Harrington and Andre Miller each scored 18 in Denver's fourth straight victory over the Mavericks.
The Nuggets are averaging 110.8 points during that run, and they lead the league at 104.0 this season, but they're averaging 92.0 and shooting 19.4 percent from 3-point range during their three-game skid.
Despite their own recent troubles, the Mavericks (14-11) have been sound defensively, allowing an average of 91.1 points this season. A sputtering offense has been the biggest reason for Dallas' three-game slide, with the team scoring 86, 87 and 88 points.
Against Cleveland on Saturday, the Mavericks led 85-81 with 4:14 to play but then missed their final five field-goal attempts and ended up losing 91-88.
"It's ugly, especially since we have to sit on this one for a couple of days," said Dirk Nowitzki, who had 24 points. "We'll enjoy our day off, the best we can, and come back to work."
Nowitzki passed Elgin Baylor for 22nd place on the NBA's scoring list and needs 23 points to tie Adrian Dantley (23,177) for 21st. He scored 20 against the Nuggets in December.