It is around this time of year as spring is on the horizon that teams in the National Basketball Association (NBA) separate themselves from pretenders to contenders. One team that has clearly done that has been the Miami Heat (56-14), who has won 27 games in a row, 2nd best winning streak in NBA history. While the boys from South Florida have been grabbing the NBA headlines the past few weeks and are head and shoulders above everybody else in the Eastern Conference, in the Western Conference, there are two other teams not named the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs Los Angeles Clippers or Los Angeles Lakers that have been grabbing the spotlight and are rising as playoff time approaches.
One of those teams is the Denver Nuggets (49-23), who are the 4th seed in the West.
On Monday unfortunately, they suffered a 110-86 loss at the New Orleans Hornets (25-46), snapping their franchise (American Basketball Association-ABA/NBA) best 15-game winning streak. It also snapped their six-game road winning streak.
Ryan Anderson led the Hornets with 23 points, hitting 5 for 11 from three-point range and pulling down nine rebounds. Rookie forward Darius Morris had 16 points. Guard Roger Mason, Jr. and rookie forward Anthony Davis had 14 points each. Al-Farouq Aminu had 13 points and eight boards. Rookie guard Brian Roberts, who started in place of an injured Greivis Vazquez had 13 points and a career-high 18 assists and five boards. Center Robin Lopez had 11 points, seven rebounds and three blocks.
To put this loss into a historic perspective, since joining the NBA from the ABA back in the 1976-77 season, the Nuggets back in 1981-82 season had a 12-game winning streak that ended at the hands of the then Seattle Supersonics, now the Oklahoma City Thunder by the same point margin that they lost by last night. The same team got the Nuggets one year later by 30 points ending their 11-game winning streak.
During the 15 wins in succession, the boys from Denver, CO had averaged 109.1 points per contest. Their point differential was a plus 10.2. Eight of the 15 wins in a row came against teams with a plus .500 mark and they had eight wins by double-digits.
One of those eight victories over a winning team came at the 2nd seeded Thunder (52-19) a week ago 114-104 that gave that gave the Nuggets an NBA franchise best 13th straight win.
It was the team’s third win over Thunder in four tries this season and they ended their opposition’s 20-game home winning streak against the West as well as their three-game winning streak overall.
They followed that up last Thursday night by coming back from an eight-point deficit late in the fourth quarter versus the Philadelphia 76ers (27-43) to capture not just their 14th win in a row, but they won an NBA franchise best 16th straight win at the Pepsi Center, to go to 31-3 at home and they clinched a playoff spot for the 10th consecutive season.
The Nuggets won their 17th in succession at home with a 101-95 victory versus the Sacramento Kings (25-46), tying the all-time franchise record of 15 wins in a row. The victory tied them with the Heat for best home record in the league at 32-3. It was also the team’s ninth win at home versus the Kings and their 32nd win against a West opponent, bring their mark to 32-12. Only the Thunder, at 34-12 versus the rest of the West, has more victories in conference.
“It feels great. We’ve been working hard and its starting to show,” Nuggets center JaVale McGee said to Rick Kamla of NBA TV after the game on Saturday night.
“As long as we keep playing the way we’ve been playing, hard, we’ll be fine and hopefully the streak doesn’t end until the end of the season.”
The win last week at the Thunder by the Nuggets was an impressive follow up to their escape by the skin of their teeth at the Chicago Bulls (38-31) in overtime 119-118 the night before, for their then 12th straight victory, which at that point was the most since 1981-82.
Just below the Nuggets at the 5th seed is the Memphis Grizzlies (47-23), who lost for the second time in three games at the Washington Wizards (26-44) last night 107-94.
Wizards lead guard John Wall lit up the Grizzlies for a career-high 47 points, going 13 for 22 from the field and 19 for 24 from the free throw line, grabbing seven rebounds and dishing out eight assists. Center Emeka Okafor had 21 points and nine rebounds. Forward Chris Singleton had 10 points, seven boards and two blocks.
The Grizzlies were led by Mike Conley, who had 23 points, seven assists and three steals. Quincy Pondexter had 14 points off the bench along with five boards. Reserve guard Jerryd Bayless had 14 points, seven assists and six boards. Forward Zach Randolph had just 10 points and seven boards.
After a six-game winning streak at the start of March, the Grizzlies had gone 3-4 in their last seven contests, which included two straight defeats on the road at the Nuggets and at the Utah Jazz (35-36) on 15th and 16th respectably.
They snapped that two-game skid versus the Minnesota Timberwolves (24-44) 92-77 a week ago yesterday for their third victory against the boys from Minneapolis this season and their 10th straight victory against them overall.
They backed up that solid performance with a grind it out 90-89 overtime win versus the Thunder last Wednesday, which was their second straight win overall, their ninth victory in succession at FedEx Forum and their second win three tries against the Thunder this season.
They unfortunately saw their winning streak end as well as suffer their third straight defeat on the road last Friday night at the Hornets 90-83.
They bounced back in a big way this past Saturday with a 110-106 victory versus the Boston Celtics (36-34).
Prior to the two straight victories versus the T’Wolves and Thunder, which came after two straight setbacks at the Nuggets and Jazz, the Grizzlies had won 14 of their last 17 games, putting up 94.7 points per game in that stretch and holding the opposition to just 87.9 points and outscoring them in the paint by a plus six a contest.
There is still a good chance that the Nuggets and Grizzlies could see each other this postseason if they finish in the fourth and fifth positions in the West, which they respectably occupy now.
They have met four times this season with their last meeting back on aforementioned Mar. 15th in Denver. The Nuggets overcame a 10-point deficit in the third quarter to win 87-80. It was the Nuggets third win over the Grizzlies in four tries this season.
The Nuggets who are one of the highest scoring teams in the league did not crack the century mark in any of the four meetings against the Grizzlies.
They came close in the first two matchups, scoring 97 in the first meeting on Nov. 19, 2012, a 97-92 win in Memphis and 99 points on Dec. 14th, 2012 in a 99-94 victory in Denver.
In their nine-point setback on Dec. 29th, the Grizzlies grounded the high-flying Nuggets as they scored just 72 points in an 81-72 defeat.
The simplest way to describe these two teams is the irresistible force in the way the Nuggets come at you on offense versus the immovable object in the how the Grizzlies play defense.
Only the Houston Rockets (39-31) at 106.4 and the Thunder at 106.2 score more than the Nuggets, who rank third at 105.7 points per game. They also rank fifth in the league in field goal percentage at 47.6, third in assists at 24.2 per contest and first in fast break points at about 19.
Even without that superstar player who scores in bunches and carry a team to victory by himself, the Nuggets handle the load by committee.
The balanced scoring is led by guard Ty Lawson, who averages 16.9 a game. Second to him is forward Danilo Gallinari at 16.4 Swingman Andre Iguodala is third at 12.7. Guard Corey Brewer, swingman Wilson Chandler and forward Kenneth Faried round out the players who score in double figures at 11.8. Veteran guard Andre Miller and center McGee also contribute scoring wise at 9.4 and 9.3 per game respectably.
In the Nuggets last three wins, a different guy has led the way scoring wise.
Last Thursday night, Brewer led the way with a career-high 20 points off the bench, to go along with a career-high five steals. He scored the final six points including three free throws off of a foul on a three-point shot by Damien Wilkins that gave the Nuggets the lead and eventually the win 101-100.
Miller, who started in place of Lawson because of a heel injury, had 21 points and eight assists. Iguodala had 13 points and Gallinari chipped in with 12.
“Were taking it one game at a time and nobody talks about the streak. It’s all about the Heat,” Brewer said after the game last Thursday to NBA TV’s Jared Greenberg. “So let the Heat keep winning and we’ll just stay in the back and keep winning.”
In the overtime at the Bulls last week, Chandler led the way off the bench with 35 points on 13 for 21 from the floor and pulled down nine rebounds. Brewer chipped in with 16 points. Lawson had 13. Iguodala, who hit the eventual game-winner in overtime, had a double-double of 12 points and 10 boards, while also blocking three shots. McGee had 12 and Gallinari had 11 points and seven boards.
A week ago at the Thunder, Lawson led the way with 25 points. Miller had 20 points, nine assists and seven boards off the bench. Faried had 13 points and 15 boards and Gallinari had 13 points and eight rebounds.
This past Saturday versus the Kings, Gallinari led the way with 18 points, eight rebounds and three steals. Faried had 17 points and nine boards. Iguodala had 15 points, five boards and eight assists. Kosta Koufos had 13 points and nine boards.
To put how a different Nugget has led the team in scoring during the season, especially in the 15-game winning streak, seven different Nuggets have scored 20 points or more in a game at least once. Lawson has scored 20 or more on seven of those occasions.
The balance has helped the Nuggets this season, especially when one of the key cogs in the rotation has been out because of injury. The aforementioned Lawson has missed the last three games because of a heel injury and Chandler has been out the last two games because of a shoulder injury he suffered at the Thunder last week. He returned to action last night and had 11 points on 3 for 10 shooting in 30 minutes of the bench.
Last night, the Nuggets struggled as a whole shooting just 37.9 percent from the floor in their loss at the Hornets. Were out-rebounded 45-32, had just 14 assists to the Hornets 30. New Orleans also blocked 10 shots.
In terms of the other categories, Faried leads the Nuggets in rebounding at 9.4 a game. Lawson leads the team in assists at 6.9. Iguodala leads the team in steals at 1.7 and McGee leads the team in block shots at two a contest.
While they may not be the most stifling defensive team in the league, allowing 101.2 points per game, ranking 24th in the NBA, the Nuggets are second in the league in rebounds a game at 44.9. They are also second in steals at 9.3; tied for third with the Indiana Pacers (44-27) in block shots at 6.6 a game and they rank 11th in field goal percentage allowed at 44.5.
The Nuggets last Saturday were out-rebounded the Kings 46-36. The Nuggets had eight steals, seven blocks and held Sacramento to 45.3 percent shooting.
A week ago, the Nuggets held the Thunder to just 31.7 percent shooting in the second half. While Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Martin combined to score 73 points on 24 for 51 shooting, the rest of the team scored 31 points hitting just 17 of their 41 shots from the field. The Thunder shot just 4 for 25 from three-point land and went 0 for 15 from distance in the second half.
When it comes to defense, the Grizzlies are as good as it gets in the NBA. They are second in the league in opponent’s points per game at 89.7. They are tied with the San Antonio Spurs (53-17) for 4th in in steals at 8.6; they are ranked 6th in forcing turnovers at 15.5 and 5th in opponent’s field goal percentage at 43.9.
What does it take to play great defense like this? Well, Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins told NBA TV’s Vince Cellini, Sekou Smith and David Aldridge on NBA TV’s “The Beat” a last week yesterday that this has been a process of hard work, attention to detail and constant effort and concentration.
“We’ve been developing this over the years and it’s just coming to full fruition this year,” Hollins, who is 186-158 as Grizzlies head coach in his sixth seasons as said.
“I think our guys have just been committed to wanting to win and it’s the comradely that we have, the dedication that we have and the willingness to make the second and third effort continually and challenge shots.”
On top of that commitment and attention to detail, the Grizzlies have something even more valuable, a person who is the embodiment of who they are as a team, especially defensively. That is former Celtic and perimeter defensive ace, starting guard Tony Allen.
“Tony Allen is a dirt worker. He comes in, puts his hard hat on and he goes to work,” Hollins said last week of Allen, who signed as a free agent with the Grizzlies from the Celtics three years ago and ranks second on the team in steals at 1.5 per contest.
“He came in and he helped us to develop an identity of being a tough hard nose physical, aggressive team because that’s what he is. He fits into what Memphis is. Just a hard working city and people love him and I think he should get a lot of recognition as the potential Defensive Player of the Year.”
One thing these two teams have in common is that they both have had to handle some adversity this season.
The Nuggets faced their tough times at the beginning of the 2012-13 NBA campaign as they played a number of their games on the road and they hovered around .500 during the first couple of months.
They have since found their stride and they have not only played well at the Pepsi Center, where they are aforementioned 32-3 and stands 5,280 miles above sea level, they have played much better on the road. Despite their setback last Monday, the team is now a respectable 17-20 on the road.
The Grizzlies started this season like a house of fire going 13-3 to start the season. After Dec. 4th, the cooled off dramatically going just13-11 in that span. Along with that, there were some changes from within that took place.
Back on Jan. 22, the Grizzlies traded forward/center Mareese Speights, guards Wayne Ellington, Josh Shelby and a protected future first round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers (22-47) for forward Jon Leuer.
Eight days later, the Grizzlies were involved in a three-team, six player deal with the Toronto Raptors (26-44) and Detroit Pistons (24-48). The team sent star forward/guard Rudy Gay to the Raptors and in return acquired forward Ed Davis from the Raptors and forwards Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye from the Pistons. Detroit received from Toronto guard Jose Calderon. The Raptors also received in the deal center Hamed Haddadi, who was shipped at the Feb. 21st trade deadline to the Phoenix Suns (23-48) for guard Sebastian Telfair.
Both of these trades were made in order to get under the new luxury tax that is part of the new NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement that was hammered out a season ago.
“We are very excited to add three players who bring with them a tremendous amount of value to our team and have achieved incredible success on the pro, college and Olympic levels,” Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace said on that night of Jan. 30th.
“In these players, we welcome NBA champion and Olympic gold medalist Tayshaun Prince, as well as up-and-coming athletic forwards Ed Davis, who won an NCAA title at North Carolina and Austin Daye.”
While the team struggled at the beginning with the new additions, they have gone 18-8 since Jan. 30th.
“The core of the team is still here,” Hollins said last week. “We lost one of the core members in Rudy and then we added Tayshaun Prince. We added Ed Davis and Austin Daye. The guy’s willingness to recommit to do what we’ve been doing. We had a little lull right after the trade and then we recommitted to defending and sharing the basketball and doing what we’ve done before and I told them you’re a good team and you have to believe if and you have to go out and do the things necessary to win and they’ve done that lately.”
Even with the new editions, this team will go only as far as starting center Marc Gasol (14.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.7 bpg 49.2 FG%), Conley (14.0 ppg, 6.2 apg, 2.3 spg-2nd NBA) and Randolph (15.7 ppg, 11.6 rpg-3rd NBA, 46.6 FG%) can take them.
When Conley scores 20 points or more in a game this season, the Grizzles are 9-3 so far.
Last week versus the Thunder, Conley led the way with 24 points, seven boards, five assists and two steals. Bayless had 20 points on 5 for 10 shooting, including 4 for 6 from three-point territory and 6 for 6 from the free throw line. Randolph and Gasol had double-doubles of 15 points, 18 rebounds and 14 points and 15 boards respectably.
Defensively, while Durant and Westbrook scored 52 points combined, the Grizzles’ defense held them to just 18 for 53 from the floor and they hit between them 1 triple in 10 attempts. The Thunder shot just 35.7 percent from the field and connected on just two three-pointers in 18 tries.
In the loss at the Hornets last Friday evening, Conley had 20 points, but shot just 5 for 13 from the field. Gasol and Randolph struggled with just 16 points, six boards and 14 points and nine rebounds respectably.
The Hornets front line duo of center Lopez and Davis played well as they had 23 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks and 18 points and 15 boards respectably.
The Grizzles shot just 41 percent in the loss, while the Hornets shot 47.4 percent and out-rebounded Memphis 49-33.
In last Saturday’s win versus the Celtics, Bayless off the bench paced six Grizzles in double figures with 30 points on 11 for 20 shooting, including 4 for 6 from the land of plenty. Forward Darrell Arthur had 18 points on 8 for 14 from the floor and seven boards. Randolph, who did not start because he was late for the morning shoot-around had his 40th double-double of the season with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Conley had 12 points, 10 assists and four steals. Prince also had 12 and Davis had 11 points, eight boards and matched a career-high with five blocks. Allen had a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds against his former team that he helped to win a championship five years ago.
The Grizzles won without Gasol, who is out indefinitely because of an abdominal tear. This was the first game he has missed this season.
For both the Nuggets and Grizzles, they have used their tough times this season to spur them to their amazing records this season and on a collision course to possibly meet this postseason.
Currently, the Nuggets hold the No. 3 seed in the West by half a game over the Clippers (48-23) and a full game over the Grizzles.
Both teams will be a tough matchup whoever they face in the first round or it will be an incredible series if they meet each other next month in the playoffs.
Information, statistics and quotations are courtesy of 3/18/13 6:30 p.m. edition of NBA TV’s “The Beat” with Vince Cellini, Sekou Smith, David Aldridge and South Florida Sun-Sentinel writer Ira Winterman; 3/19/13 1 a.m. edition of ESPN 2’s “NBA Tonight” with Cole Wright and Chris Mullin; 3/19/13 3 a.m. edition of NBA TV’s “Gametime” with Vince Cellini, Chris Webber and Brent Barry; 3/21/13 7 a.m. edition of NBA TV’s “Gametime” with Vince Cellini, Isiah Thomas and Rick Mahorn; 3/22/132 3:30 a.m. edition of NBA TV’s “Gametime” with Jared Greenberg and Ron Thompson; 3/23/13 3 a.m. edition of NBA TV’s “Gametime” with Rick Kamla, Alvin Gentry and Dennis Scott; 3/24/13 1 a.m. edition of ESPN 2’s “NBA Tonight” with Doug Kezirian and Kurt Rambis; 3/26/13 2:30 a.m. edition of NBA TV’s “Gametime” with Vince Cellini, Dennis Scott and Brent Barry; www.espn.go.com/nba/standings/stats/denver-nuggets/memphis -grizzlies; www.nba.com/gameline of 3/21/13-3/226/13; www.espn.go.com/nba/story-Jan. 30, 2013 “Rudy Gay traded to Raptors;” www.nba.com/grizzlies-Jan. 22, 2013”Grizzlies Complete Trade with Cavaliers."