Remember when the Denver Nuggets’ season was teetering off the rails a week ago?
Denver was fresh off a shellacking at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks, the team with the worst winning percentage in the NBA. Point-guard-of-the-future Emmanuel Mudiay looked broken. Shooting guard Gary Harris was still on the shelf. The Nuggets were 9-16, in danger of sinking too far to have a realistic shot at the playoffs in the West.
What a difference a week can make.
The Nuggets played the Mavericks again Monday night, and this time — with a different starting unit and a healthy Harris — rolled over Dallas 117-107. The win capped a 3-0 home stand that vaulted the Nuggets (12-16) back into the playoff picture.
The Nuggets have looked like a completely different team since that Dec. 12 loss to Dallas. Two things are at the root of that: Head coach Mike Malone making Nikola Jokic and Wilson Chandler the starters at center and power forward, respectively, and Harris returning from a foot injury that cost him almost a quarter of the season.
Denver has looked like an offensive juggernaut in the first three games with the new starting lineup. It’s scored 124.1 points per 100 possessions in wins over Portland, New York and Dallas. (For a little context, the Raptors score 115.4 points per 100 possessions, which is tops in the league.)
The Nuggets finally look to be playing more and more through Jokic. The second-year Serbian big man had 27 points on 13-of-17 shooting, 15 rebounds and nine assists Monday. Jokic, who the team started alongside Jusuf Nurkic early in the year and then curiously brought off the bench, looks to be building off a strong rookie season. He’s made some absurd passes over the course of this three-game win streak.
“I had no idea he was one assist away (from a triple-double),” Malone said after Monday’s win. “I told him the most amazing stat of the night for you was you had one foul. He had one foul. We played him 38 minutes, which was great to see, and he goes out and gets 27, 15 and nine. He’s a hell of a player. When we play through him, good things happen.”
Jokic wasn’t the only Nugget who put up big numbers. Harris knocked down four of six 3-pointers on his way to a 24-point, four-assist night. Harris has made his presence felt since returning from that foot injury. He was inserted into the starting lineup immediately upon returning, and it has paid dividends. He’s clearly the team’s best on-ball defender, and offensively he’s making smart decisions, knocking down long balls and getting to the rim.
“His presence out there defensively, first and foremost, is amazing,” veteran Jameer Nelson said.
“He’s a guy who’s not talked about because he’s young. He takes pride in guarding the best guard out there and helping guys out of defense. Offensively, he’s efficient. He’s going to make the right play. His energy and him being active allows us to be a better team.”
Harris’ return, coupled with the lineup change, also seems to have benefitted Mudiay.
Mudiay looks to be playing more poised and confident basketball now that there’s more space to operate and Harris is checking the opposing team’s best guard. Over the last three games he’s averaging 16.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.0 turnovers.
The new starting unit played 45 minutes together in the last week. It scored a blistering 143.1 points per 100 possessions, while giving up 105.7 points per 100 possessions in that stretch. That offensive output came against three poor defensive teams and isn’t sustainable. But, regardless, it looks like the Nuggets are onto something.
Denver is only a half game back from Portland for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. It took the Nuggets 26 regular-season games, but it finally looks like they are healthy and have discovered some lineup combinations that work.
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