Since the Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony to New York two years ago, the lingering question in Denver has been whether it’s possible to win in the NBA without a true go-to superstar. The Nuggets, with their franchise-record 57 Ws this year, have proven this doesn’t matter in the regular season; their athleticism, deep bench, and non-stop attack allowed them to outscore, outrun, and out-rebound almost everyone between Halloween and Easter. But now that late-spring has arrived, the team finds itself in an all-too-familiar position: looking at a one-and-done playoff run.
The NBA playoffs have become an annual grind almost by definition. The pace is slower, the fouls are harder, and the overall play tends to be sloppier. The Nuggets showcased a beautiful brand of high-flying, team-oriented hoops all season long and figured to beat the Warriors—a no-defense group of gunners that finished with 10 fewer wins this year—fairly easily.
Ironically, Denver’s deficit this time has less to do with whether they can score at the end than with their inability to keep their opponent from scoring at all. The Warriors have averaged more than 112 points in the first four games, carving up the Nuggets from inside and out. If not for an otherworldly performance in game 1 by Andre Miller—who scored 28 points after a season in which he exceeded 20 only three times—they’d already be packing up their Pepsi Center lockers for the summer.
Instead, Denverites have to hope and pray for an improbable (though not impossible) turnaround beginning Tuesday night. Guarding someone would be a good start; the Warriors have shot well over 50 percent in the past three games, including a preposterous 65 percent in their game 2 blowout win.
If the Nuggets’ bow out in the first round yet again, the conversation shouldn’t center around the superstar question—particularly since it’s likely the Knicks and Nuggets would both gladly repeat the 2011 trade. The post-mortem should instead focus on another age-old adage: Defense wins championships.
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—Follow 5280 articles editor Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.