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Nuggets' thrilling win over Hawks shows Denver's strengths...and weaknesses

No question that the Nuggets' 118-117 overtime victory against the Atlanta Hawks last night was exciting: I left the Pepsi Center feeling simultaneously elated and in need of emergency medical care.

But while the contest certainly spotlighted many of Denver's attributes, it also left me wondering if the squad's issues will result in yet another one-and-done playoff "run."

As broadcasters Scott Hastings and Chris Marlowe noted in an intro broadcast at the arena, the Nuggets are finally healthy after what seems like months when one or (usually) several key contributors were sidelined. Not that everyone played. Kosta Koufos's healing process may not have been as complete as implied, since he never saw the court, and neither did Chris "Birdman" Andersen -- punishment, in all likelihood for an abysmal performance in the latest loss to the Memphis Grizzlies -- or Jordan Hamilton. But Danilo Gallinari finally seems to be back at full speed after looking tentative by his standards in his first post-injury appearances. And it was great to see Rudy Fernandez back on the hardwood -- and to watch him drain his first couple of shots from long distance.

The challenge of reintegrating all these elements likely resulted in the Nuggets looking brilliant at times from an offensive standpoint, and inept at others. The squad built up a lead as large as twelve points, only to piss it away via turnovers (one by Andre Miller was particularly agonizing to watch) or empty possessions. And when the Hawks grabbed leads, no single Nugget stepped up and took over. In the end, a committee of players contributed, which might seem like an ideal situation. But it also resulted in the kind of herky-jerky possessions that spell drought in a playoff setting.

Even more worrisome was the myriad of defensive lapses. Anyone who's watched Atlanta knows the Hawks love the three-ball, and yet the rotations were slow all night, allowing Joe Johnson and Josh Smith to score practically at will; they finished with 34 and 33 points, respectively, which is absolutely unacceptable. Granted, the Nugs came up with occasional spectacular play, including a brilliant hustle block by Kenneth Faried, whose increasing minutes show that coach George Karl finally realizes what a diamond in the rough he's got. But Faried is still learning the NBA game, and he was frequently out of position, leading to easy Atlanta buckets.

The same could be said of Nene, who remains a bundle of contradictions. He scored 22 points to lead the team, but he only gathered six rebounds. And too often, the Hawks treated him like a swinging door when driving to the hoop, with one notable exception -- a block so brutal that the Pepsi Center shuddered like a bowl of gelatin hooked up to a car battery.

So how the hell did the Nuggets wind up winning? Timely buckets from the likes of Al Harrington and Ty Lawson certainly helped, as did an overturned out-of-bounds call that allowed Gallo to launch the sort of wild three that shouldn't have gone in but somehow did.

Denver also benefited from some dramatic twists and turns -- such as a bail-out foul call at the end of regulation that should have spelled doom but didn't when the Hawks' Kirk Hinrich inexplicably missed the second of his two gift-wrapped free throws. And I still don't quite understand how Zaza Pachulia missed a game-winning layup with the clock ticking down in OT. Of course, I was in the second-to-the-top row on the other side of the areana, so that makes sense. But the mystery remained even after watching it on replay.

Indeed, the Nuggets are damn lucky to escape with a win against a quality team. But they've got to improve if they want to avoid a grimmer fate in the postseason.

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