Full-Court Press: Root for this underdog

I’m all for acknowledging the Heat’s 22-game winning streak — hell, I’m all for staring at it, slack-jawed. It’s impressive and historical and indicative of everything that the Heat, with their Big Three, were always supposed to be. But that said, I’d like to direct your attention westward to another winning streak, this one 11 games and counting and executed by a team that has gone from a contender to a bust to a team that can only win at home to finally, now, perhaps a contender again.

If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m talking about Denver, that strange mashup of JaVale McGee and Kosta Koufos, Andre Miller and Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, the Manimal, and the rest of the supporting cast. They’re a strange, starless bunch, held together by the debilitating effects of altitude on opponents and George Karl’s coaching.

Before this season began, some people saw the Nuggets as one of the three best teams in the West. That they were unconventional but brilliantly assembled was the argument, but for a while, after they started the season playing 17 of their first 23 games on the road, that viewpoint seemed as if it could be up for debate.

On paper, it’s a funny-looking team. Its second highest-paid player, JaVale McGee, comes off the bench. Its starting power forward attended Morehead State. Ever heard of it? The Nuggets are composed of other teams’ castoffs, one could say, but somehow, they all flourish in Denver. Now, a month left in the regular season, this team without a star is looking like it could make some noise.

It’s a complicated argument, though. Yes, technically, there is no star, and yes, technically, the Nuggets could win a title. But both those statements are of the black-and-white variety, when really what the Nuggets are and what they can do lies somewhere in the grey area.

Sure, there’s no star, but Andre Iguodala is an Olympian and a great defender. Sure, there’s no star, but Ty Lawson is in the middle of a season-long coming-out party, and by next season, he could very possibly be their star. Sure, there’s no star, but there are clearly defined roles and well-distributed talent, and you’d think with that would come some incentive to step up, to claim the role of best player, if only for a night.

Sure, they could win a title, but first they have to prove they can win big games on the road, even if they do secure a four seed or better. Sure, they could win a title, but that’s a long road ahead, dependent on some upsets and even more leadership from guys like Lawson and Iguodala. Sure, they could win a title, but the Heat exist.

Here’s the thing, though: Even if Denver loses in the first round of the playoffs or the second, it’s proving something. It’s proving that there are plenty of ways to construct a team, especially with the rise of advanced stats and the increasingly punitive salary cap rules. We have all these models of how to build teams — the large-market, money doesn’t matter plan vs. the small-market, Spurs-esque one — and maybe this could be another if it sees some sustained success. Maybe its players and skill sets are too unique to be generalized, but it’s too early to tell, and what Denver is doing is different, but it’s also reflective of the current state of the NBA.

If it’s taken this 11-game streak to take them seriously, then so be it.

The other end of the spectrum

If the Nuggets are the classic case of a team with a slow start hitting its stride at the right time, may I remind you that the Bobcats began the season with a 7-5 record? That’s right — this 14-win Charlotte team accumulated half of its victories in just 12 games, and it’s taken 54 to log the rest.

There was no major injury, no standout development that doomed the thing, and that is why it’s at least a somewhat fascinating phenomenon. Sure, Charlotte didn’t really beat anyone of import to begin the season, but at the same time, they can’t really beat anyone at all anymore. There’s a sizeable margin between them and the other cellar-dwellers, with the next-worst teams, New Orleans and Phoenix, having eight more wins apiece than does Charlotte. Yet the Bobcats’ roster isn’t that much worse than those teams’ — or Sacramento’s or Orlando’s, for that matter — so what gives? At this point in the season, it likely matters to few people outside of Charlotte, but with no dooming injury or event to pinpoint, this complete and utter collapse from mediocre to downright terrible is definitely something worth a closer look.

Trending up

The Lakers: They are 11-3 since the All-Star break and, after beating Sacramento on Sunday, are four games over .500 for the first time this season. They’ve now won two games in a row essentially without Kobe Bryant — he played 12 minutes and scored no points on a sore ankle Friday — and look to be cruising past the periphery of the Western Conference playoff standings and into the scrum.

Trending down

The Knicks, who have lost four straight as well as a good chunk of the impact players on their roster. With no Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler or Amare Stoudemire on Sunday, they lost by 13 to the Clippers — a valiant fight when that shorthanded, really — and the conversation surrounding the Knicks is now focused on how they’ve been a .500 team for much of the season after an absolutely torrid start. Now there’s Anthony’s knee, and Chandler’s too, to worry about, and the New Yorkers are looking downright old and tired.

Best of the week

Team: The Heat, who have won 22 in a row, tying the 2007-08 Rockets for the second-longest streak in NBA history. (The longest, 33 games, belongs to the 1971-72 Lakers.) And that’s about all there is to say on that.

Player: San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, who after sitting out Tuesday’s game in Minnesota to rest on the second night of a back-to-back scored 28 points on Thursday and 30 on Saturday. He shot 64.1 percent over those two games, playing 36 minutes in one and 35 in the other. On Saturday, he recorded his second 30-plus-point, 12-plus-rebound, 5-plus-block game of this season; only one other player in the league has had such a game this year, Atlanta’s Al Horford. A reminder: Horford is 26. Duncan will turn 37 next month.

Worst of the week

Team: The Pistons, who have lost eight straight and 11 of their past 12 after going on a 15-13 run in the two months between Dec. 21 and Feb. 21. Lawrence Frank’s team is looking a lot more like the one that lost its first eight games than the one that began to creep from terrible to mediocre this winter.

Player: In this week’s edition of Spurs players at every extreme, Manu Ginobili, who shot just 30.8 percent in his four games and recorded two consecutive games in which he scored just seven points. He had an impressively bad minus-30 point differential against Minnesota on Tuesday, and suffice it to say, if Duncan acted impervious to age this week, Ginobili is showing it, big time.

Telling stats

23,777 points, 25,201 points: Paul Pierce’s and Kevin Garnett’s career point totals, respectively. Pierce passed Charles Barkley this week on the list of all-time scorers in league history, and Garnett passed Jerry West. Pierce moved into 20th place all-time, Garnett 15th, and Garnett also became one of just eight players ever to be top-15 all-time in both career points and career rebounds.

0.1 points: That’s the Warriors’ average point differential, which actually just swung into the positive after Sunday’s 30-point win over Houston. Golden State has been in something of a controlled fall since the All-Star break, and its differential is the smallest by far of any team in contention in the West, despite the fact that the team is still holding the sixth seed. That’s a bad sign for a team that’s looking lately like as good a candidate as the Jazz to fall out of the playoff race.

52 percent of clutch FGA: Through Wednesday’s game — so before his ankle injury — Kobe Bryant had taken 52 percent of the Lakers’ field goal attempts in clutch time, and his 49.0 usage percentage in clutch time is three times higher than that of the Laker with the next highest, Antawn Jamison.

What we heard

“I’m not criticizing anybody, but it’s part of the rules that’s just not great. We’re an entertainment business. That’s not entertaining for anybody.”

 — Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni on Wednesday, criticizing the Magic’s “Hack-a-Howard” techniques, which led to Dwight Howard tying his own NBA record for free throw attempts in a game, going 25-of-39 from the line. Not only was the method agonizing to watch, it also didn’t work in Magic coach Jacque Vaughan’s favor; the Lakers won, 106-97.

“I can imagine it’s hard for a referee to ref a Miami Heat game.”

“It’s hard for me to take that sometimes. I feel like things are kind of swayed. Maybe (I should) care a little less.”

 — Bucks big man Larry Sanders on Friday after being ejected from his second consecutive game. Sanders had already been bounced from the Bucks’ loss to the Wizards Wednesday and gave the refs each a mocking thumbs up after they tossed him, and he was ejected again during a loss to the Heat for arguing a foul call.

What’s ahead

I couldn’t resist suggesting two games this week, because of course you want to watch more basketball now that the playoffs are just a month away.

Heat at Celtics, 8 p.m. ET Monday: Who doesn’t want to see what kind of excruciating mental and physical torture Kevin Garnett has planned for Ray Allen this time around?

Nuggets at Thunder, 8 p.m. ET Monday: The Nuggets’ winning streak, which will be at 12 by this point if they beat the Bulls on Monday, could easily snap on the road in Oklahoma City. Denver has been a far better team at home — it’s 19-13 on the road vs. 25-8 at home — and if it can pull out a win in Oklahoma City, that will bode well for its playoff chances.

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