Tomorrow night, the Nuggets open the playoffs at home against the Utah Jazz -- but the squad's performance down the stretch didn't exactly inspire confidence.
For much of the season, the Nugs looked like a lock for the number two slot, behind only the Los Angeles Lakers in the west. Instead, they slipped to fourth position, and had Utah won its last game, they would have started the postseason on the road. Which is another way of saying they probably would have lost in the first round, as they did like clockwork for much of this past decade until last year.
Are the Nuggets doomed anyhow? Probably not. But fans shouldn't rest easy -- or be under any illusions that they'll manage as deep a run this season as in 2009.
What's wrong with the Nuggets? The team has been beset by injuries during the second half of the season, and while most of the wounded are back on the floor, Kenyon Martin is obviously (very) damaged goods, and the likes of Chris Andersen and Ty Lawson aren't hitting the peaks that were commonplace before they had to sit out.
Moreover, key players such as Nenê and J.R. Smith haven't consistently stepped up their games. They're unreliable and frequently frustrating -- tremendous talents that somehow manage to underperform on a regular basis.
In addition, the Nugs have looked ragged both offensively and defensively since coach George Karl's illness forced him off the bench. Adrian Dantley is a good guy (and he was once a great player), but his charges simply aren't playing like a team under his supervision. Even Chauncey Billups, the man who usually holds everything together, has had periods of late when he's shot too quickly, dribbled for too long and moved the ball around too infrequently. The assist numbers aren't where they should be or need to be for the Nuggets to excel.
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On the other hand...
Billups has a history of stepping up when the spotlight's brightest, and the Nuggets still have Carmelo Anthony, who's deservedly seen as one of the NBA's stars. Moreover, the Nugs match up well against Utah under any circumstances, and the Jazz are at least as handicapped by injuries as the Nuggets, if not more so: Andrei Kirilenko is out and Carlos Boozer's health is a jumbo question mark.
With that in mind, I expect the Nuggets to win the series, but take six games to do so. After that, however, it's an open question whether they could beat any of the other teams likely to get past round one -- and if all the top seeds win, they'd have to play the Lakers. Gulp.
But first things first -- beginning with tomorrow night.