The Denver Nuggets are on a 15-game winning streak that has absolutely no one in a trance or hunting down members of the 1971-72 Lakers and asking them what it means -- and you can probably guess the reasons for that.
One obvious reason: When it comes to winning streaks, Miami currently has the Nuggets beat by a few. Maybe you heard.
One not so obvious reason: Denver's streak isn't even the longest in the Western Conference this year. The Clippers rolled off 17 in a row a few months ago. And they were more entertaining doing it, too.
Still another reason: If the visiting Sixers didn't swallow a grapefruit and give away a five-point lead with 10 seconds left last week -- the mother of all chokes in the NBA this season -- nobody in Denver would need a third hand to add up the wins.
Actually, the winning streak, by itself, isn't what's most impressive or important about the Nuggets here in this clean and dominant stretch run. It's clearly secondary to another magic number, one that motivates the Nuggets very much and will ultimately determine their fate -- and that number is nine.
That's how many wins the Nuggets have against the Thunder (3), Grizzlies (3), Clippers (2) and Spurs (1), the upper class of the West, versus four losses combined this season. Number 9 is proof the Nuggets must be and will be lumped somewhere in that elite group when the season ends. For a team lacking star power and therefore missing the one ingredient that's so important in the post-season, nothing will legitimize them more than this show of force. Nothing can fuel the Nuggets more than the idea they just might be able to defy conventional logic and take their no-stars lineup a lot deeper into spring than most people want to believe.
Yes, it's true, there's a big difference between outscoring Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook now than in May. And matching the Clippers dunk-for-dunk, and showing more grind and grit than the Grizzlies, and being more balanced than the Spurs, all before April Fool's Day. It's all fine for now and makes for good conversation in the dead part of the season. But you know the deal. The Nuggets must do this when it counts, long after the streak ends, long after anyone remembers how they stared down the best teams in the West in the regular season and more than held their own.
The 15-game win streak is helping in this regard by elevating the Nuggets in the standings and into home-court advantage at least for the first round. After a treacherous early-season schedule -- 18 of their first 24 games were on the road -- they have found traction at the Pepsi Center and carved themselves a place among the best in the West. The streak developed as a result of that, and while it's only the third-longest in the NBA, it's certainly nothing to dismiss.
"It's something we're all proud of and want to keep going for as long as we can," said Kenneth Faried. "It shows what type of team we have and how good we can be."
During the streak, the Nuggets have won by an average of 10.5 points (compared to Miami's 11), averaging 111 points while giving up less than 100 (98.7). They've beaten the Thunder twice and the Clippers, Knicks, Grizzlies and Bulls once. They won a game in overtime and another by 23. They're doing it in the West, too, the tougher conference.
"It's a good run," said coach George Karl. "I don't want to get too happy about it because we have a job to do and we have a challenge. There's no question that the brand of basketball that we're playing is growing and maturing and our confidence is growing with it."
Yes, it's not the streak itself, but the manner in which the Nuggets are keeping it intact that is most impressive. They're the definition of t-e-a-m -- though not necessarily by choice. After being forced to trade Carmelo Anthony two years ago, the Nuggets assembled a group of players willing to play within Karl's system, which relies on a long rotation and sharing the wealth.
The Nuggets are all about creating matchup problems. Most of their core players are versatile enough to play two or even three positions. That's valuable. It allows Karl to put a variety of lineups on the floor based on the opponent and what he can exploit. The Nuggets can go small and quick or they can do big and long. They can play half-court and also push the tempo and live on transition baskets. They're No. 2 in rebounding and third in average points per game, and with a pair of vastly underrated point guards in Ty Lawson and the ageless Andre Miller they can play-make you to death.
The true beauty of the Nuggets is how the players buy into the system. That's due to winning, of course; nobody minds if their playing time is rationed when the wins are coming. But it also shows the respect they have for Karl. His rotation goes nine-deep and only Lawson, Andre Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari are virtually guaranteed to get 30 minutes a night. Six players average in double figure scoring, eight average at least nine a game. This is crazy: JaVale McGee, their best interior defender, can see only 18.3 minutes -- this from a seven-footer who makes $10 million a season -- and you don't hear a peep. Everyone appears comfortable with his role and, from the outside anyway, focused on winning instead of stats.
And there's no designated player who'll see the ball in the closing moments of tight games. Obviously, the ball starts in Lawson's hands, and Gallinari gets plenty of consideration because he can shoot and also get to the free throw line. And yet, against the Sixers, the Nuggets went to Corey Brewer. He wasn't even on radar a few months ago, but has found life in a system that feeds the hot hand or the player who can cause the biggest mismatch.
"We all get along well and trust each other and that's why we've had no problems," said Faried. "All the egos get put away."
But what will it all mean in a month? Last season the Nuggets lead the league in scoring at 104 PPG -- but only surpassed that figure once when they were ousted by the Lakers in seven games in the first round. The playoffs tend to favor teams that master the half-court game and also put a player on the floor that makes the other team shiver. The pace gets slower and teams get figured out real quick.
While losing to the Lakers last season was no indictment against the Nuggets' system -- if only because it came in a shortened season and the Lakers were the higher seed -- it also doesn't mean Denver will be any more dangerous this post-season, either.
"I wouldn't want to play them," said Kings center DeMarcus Cousins.
Well, if given a choice, would you rather see the Spurs? With Tim Duncan having an All-Star season at 36 and Tony Parker healed from a bum ankle and a roster every bit as deep as Denver's, aren't the Spurs more dangerous? We'll get a peek Wednesday when these teams play.
And what about the Thunder with Durant and Westbrook? They are the defending West champs. Also, as good as the Nuggets appear to be, if they see a hot Clippers or Memphis team in the post-season then that series may be considered a toss-up.
The Nuggets must hope they're not peaking early and can be this unpredictable and efficient in a seven-game series. There's no reason to believe they can't beat any team in the West if things fall their way, and also no reason why their system, without a proven bail-out player, won't work against them.
We just don't know yet. But we do know the Nuggets are, in fact, lethal right now and if anyone can buzz through the playoffs in this system, it's them. And so, when it comes to a winning streak that's 15 and counting, the Nuggets would prefer to mention they're 9-4 against the teams that stand between them and June.
"This streak is nice, but we want to get another streak going in the playoffs," said Faried.