OKLAHOMA CITY — If it weren’t for the Miami Heat and the brightest star in a tank top and shorts, all of the talk in this league would be about the Denver Nuggets.
But there are no stars in Denver. It’s just cloudy with a chance for greatness.
“It doesn’t matter,” said guard Andre Iguodala after Tuesday’s 114-104 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Nuggets’ 13th straight win. “It’s cool. We’re under the radar. People that know basketball know what we can bring to the table.”
What they’re bringing to the table is March Madness. Denver is the “One Shining Moment” of the NBA — a group of guys who are all-in and all about team, and it’s time to start giving this bunch, a mix of pieces from Carmelo Anthony’s wake paired with Red Bull amounts of energy as well as a dose of veteran savvy, some attention.
Denver played Oklahoma City’s up-tempo, playground, highlight-reel kind of game, but the Nuggets did it better and did it with a deeper, more athletic roster than the Thunder.
Nine guys played. All scored six or more points. Everyone had at least one rebound, seven players got to the free-throw line and seven players had at least one assist.
“I think there’s a confidence coming with this team,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “Is it on the same level as the Thunder or the Spurs or a team that’s made the finals? Probably not. But it’s enough that we feel like we can be confident in the first round of the playoffs. We can learn and hopefully survive a series.”
Survive a series? Surely Karl is underselling his team, which set a franchise record for consecutive wins in a streak where Denver has beaten the Thunder twice, the Clippers, Grizzlies, Knicks, Lakers and Bulls.
This team showed itself as good enough to play with the Thunder, certainly, but more importantly, Denver showed itself as good enough to win the West.
And they did it Tuesday, a night after an overtime win at Chicago and on a night when they lost Wilson Chandler to a separated shoulder. All of this against a Thunder team that was 21-1 in its last 22 home games and had won 20 in a row in Oklahoma City against Western Conference teams.
Andre Miller turned 37 Tuesday and he was the best player on the court, scoring 20 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter. “He plays another 10 minutes and he gets a triple-double,” Karl said. Instead, Miller finished with nine assists and seven rebounds.
The Nuggets’ bench chipped in 47 points and Ty Lawson led the starters with 25. Four starters scored in double figures. All four players who came in off the bench had more than seven points. That’s why the Nuggets were able to survive losing Chandler for the entire fourth quarter.
That’s also why the fastest team in the league might also be the deepest. The Thunder might be able to keep up with Denver’s speed, but they can’t match its bench. The Spurs might be able to provide the same depth, but they don’t have the speed.
Not a bad combination to have.
“The depth of our team and the versatility of our team and who’s going to be, ‘The guy,’ you can’t deny, is a lot of fun to coach,” Karl said.
And really fun to watch, too, because this is a well-rounded bunch. The 64 first-half points the Nuggets scored against the Thunder were the most Oklahoma City has allowed in the first half. The 16 points the Nuggets allowed the Thunder in the third quarter showed that this team can play some defense, too.
Kevin Durant scored 34 and Russell Westbrook had 25, but Denver exposed OKC for what it is – a high-flying, two-man show. The Thunder got 14 points from Kevin Martin off the bench, but he attempted just seven shots. Oklahoma City lacks a consistent third scorer and struggles to get production from anyone not named Kevin or Russell.
“It’s been working for us,” Iguodala said. “We’ve been playing like it all year. Tonight, it just worked out for us. The crazy part is that we have room for growth.”
Meanwhile, the Nuggets are climbing the Western Conference standings, winners of 13 games in a row and tied for third place, just 3.5 games behind the Thunder for second place. The Nuggets own tiebreakers over the Clippers and the Grizzlies, winning the season series from both.
But because Miami has LeBron James and a 23-game winning streak, the Nuggets will continue to play second fiddle. The streak is 13 now, but it’s likely to at least reach 16. Next up: Philadelphia, Sacramento and at New Orleans.
“Thirteen wins is a good run,” Karl said. “I don’t want to get too happy. We have a challenge. There’s no question the brand of basketball we’re playing is growing and our confidence is growing with it.”
Pretty soon people are going to start to notice. Pretty soon, if the Nuggets keep winning, they’ll be considered stars, too.