Just in case there were any doubters out there who didn’t think the post-trade Denver Nuggets could make some noise in the playoffs, they should be convinced now.
The streaking Nuggets won their sixth consecutive game Sunday afternoon. And it was the most impressive win of the season.
Heading into Los Angeles to face a Lakers team that had won nine consecutive games and were looking to track down the San Antonio Spurs for the top-seed in the Western Conference, this figured to be a good litmus test for Denver.
And the Nuggets passed that test with flying colors, beating the Lakers 95-90 and stunning the L.A. crowd.
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This game was won in rare fashion for a Denver team, with defense as the main component and only enough offense to get by.
The game started out with a sloppy opening period. Neither team shot well and Denver took a one-point lead after the quarter.
Late in the second quarter the Nuggets (47-29) poor shooting caught up with them and the Lakers (55-21) were able to go on a run at the end of the half to take a seven point lead into the break.
As usual, it was Kobe Bryant leading the charge for L.A. He had 19 first half points to offset the 18 put up by Danilo Gallinari for Denver.
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But the Nuggets put the clamps on in the second half.
Denver allowed L.A. only 22 points in the third quarter as they came back to tie the game heading into the fourth.
The score went back-and-forth early in the final period, and with just under five minutes remaining, Derek Fisher gave the Lakers an 83-82 lead.
But on the ensuing Denver possession, Raymond Felton hit a three-pointer which sparked an 8-0 run for the Nuggets and gave them a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
The game was sealed with 11 seconds remaining when, up by three, Nene missed a free throw and Kenyon Martin tipped home the rebound. The game-clinching putback was a perfect way for the Nuggets inspirational leader to cap a night in which he totaled 18 points and eight rebounds.
And as has been the case in every game since the trade, Denver got contributions from everywhere.
The first half belonged to Gallinari and his 18 point outburst. He would finish with 22 for the night.
In the second half it was Felton leading the charge. After going scoreless in the first half, the point guard went for 16 in the second, including three from long range.
Even Timofey Mozgov got in on the action. Called into duty in part because of the absence of the injured Chris Anderson, and in part to deal with the plethora of big bodies the Lakers use, the 7-footer was affective for Denver. He had five points and six rebounds in 15 minutes of action and provided good energy and some solid low-post defense.
“It’s a big win,” Felton said. “You hear Lakers, you hear Dallas, certain teams. But you have to talk about the Nuggets, too.”
If the fact that the Nuggets are now 15-4 since the trade wasn’t encouraging enough, the defensive effort on the night will be sure to cause excitement. When Denver needed to come up big the most–the second half–the Lakers were held to just 42 points after halftime.
And while Bryant did score 28 points, it took him 27 shots to do so, making only 10 of them. All this came with the Nuggets playing without possibly their best perimeter defender in Arron Afflalo.
“They’ve been incredibly good,” coach George Karl said of his team. “The thing I see is the defensive commitment maybe is as good as it’s ever been. It seems like they have an attitude about stopping people.”
Denver also clinched a playoff spot with a win, and reaching the fourth seed is now a possibility. The Nuggets trail Oklahoma City by three games, but the two teams meet twice in the next five days.
Regardless of what seed Denver gets, there can be little argument that they are a team to watch in the playoffs.