The Denver Nuggets left Pepsi Center last Sunday searching for answers after an uneven start to the rest of their season.
They had just lost decisively to the Memphis Grizzlies and were 1-2 after eight days off for the All-Star break. Their hold on the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference became more precarious and it didn’t look promising with games at Chicago and Milwaukee on consecutive nights.
But just when things were looking dire, Denver found its footing with two statement wins. A barrage of 3-point shooting led to a victory against the hot Bulls and a fast start 24 hours later turned into a relatively comfortable win against the Bucks.
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Now the Nuggets (28-33) are heading home for four straight games and looking to put some distance between them and the field. It starts with Saturday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets (26-35), who are only three games out of the last seed in the Eastern Conference.
Denver has a chance for some key wins after a quick, successful road trip.
“It was a great back-to-back for us,” leading scorer Danilo Gallinari told The Denver Post after the win in Milwaukee. “It’s very important for us if we want to make this playoff push. I’m very happy we won these two games on the road.”
The Nuggets won without starting power forward Kenneth Faried, who has missed three contests with back spasms and has already been ruled out of Saturday’s game. Denver will get back veteran point guard Jameer Nelson, who missed Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee because of food poisoning.
The Hornets, meanwhile, will be without a key player. Forward Frank Kaminsky suffered a left shoulder sprain in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s loss in Phoenix. Kaminsky is averaging 11.5 points and 4.7 rebounds but has come on strong since the start of February. He has scored at least 20 point in the last 10 games and is averaging 17.9 points since Feb. 1.
He will be re-evaluated when the team returns to Charlotte after Saturday’s tilt, which wraps up a seven-game road trip.
The grind of the long time away from home — which began the day before the All-Star break — started to show in the loss to the lowly Suns. Phoenix shot 59.7 percent against the Hornets, its best outing of the season.
“They just played harder than us,” guard Kemba Walker said after the game. “We tried to play catch-up way too late, but we got cold. That’s been us all year, play in spurts.”
The Nuggets have had that trouble, too. They followed up an impressive win against Golden State on Feb. 13 with two duds and then were handled by the defensive-minded Grizzlies.
It wasn’t a coincidence that their offensive leader, Nikola Jokic, had sub-par games after the All-Star break but he found a second wind on the road, putting up two triple-doubles to give him four on the season.
The Nuggets also got solid performances from rookies Juancho Hernangomez and Jamal Murray, who is getting more playing time of late. Hernangomez had eight points against the Bucks to add a little offense with Nelson and Faried out.
“When he has the opportunity to play, he maxes it out,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told The Denver Post.
Charlotte is 2-4 on its trip and has a chance to get close to even against Denver. It’ll be tough with Kaminsky out and Walker struggling of late.
The Hornets won’t have Miles Plumlee, either, which takes a shine off the family reunion. Plumlee’s younger brother, Mason, was traded to Denver on Feb. 12 and has played well since coming over from Portland.
Charlotte will get to reunite with a former player in Roy Hibbert. The Hornets traded him to Milwaukee in the Plumlee deal, and the Bucks sent him to Denver for a protected second-round pick at the trade deadline.