It’s a curious thing: When the Denver Nuggets pass the basketball and keep up the defensive pressure on opponents, they’re almost unbeatable. It seems like a simple formula, but it hasn’t been happening lately. Something had to give, though, as the Nuggets had lost five of their last six games, falling from second to fifth in the Western Conference with just six games remaining in the season.

Last night’s matchup at the Pepsi Center against the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers was a must-win, with the smell of desperation hanging over Denver. The game was scrappy through the middle of the third quarter, with the pesky Trail Blazers hanging close to the Nuggets and making it look like it would be another disappointment.

But the Nuggets passed the ball all night, racking up 24 assists en route to the 109-92 win over the Blazers (via In many of the Nuggets’ losses, they barely escape the single digits in assists, with players opting to go one-on-five and jacking up ugly jumpshots. But when they buy into a team mentality and play tough defense, as they did last night (holding Portland to a paltry 32 percent shooting percentage in the third quarter), they can beat any team in the NBA.

“When we share the ball, we get good results,” interim head coach Adrian Dantley tells The Denver Post. “Every NBA player wants to score. That’s just the bottom line. But we moved the ball around today, and we got a good victory.”

The Nuggets received more good news yesterday, as Kenyon Martin, the team’s defensive heart, reported that his ailing left knee is getting better, and he’s hoping to play in at least a couple regular-season games before the playoffs start in a couple weeks (via The Associated Press).

Martin has missed 14 straight games due to patellar tendinitis, and his teammates have missed his team-leading 9.6 rebounds per game. Martin also brings a defensive tenacity that may not show up on the stat sheet, but it gives the Nuggets a tougher, street-ball-like attitude that’s difficult for opponents to match.