In their first game without Gallinari, the Nuggets absolutely shredded the high-flying Houston Rockets 132-114. Denver fell behind by 10 after one period, 35-25, roared back to lead at halftime 64-56 and by the time the fourth quarter began, garbage time was imminent as the Nuggets led 102-83.
Along the way, Denver did a lot of this:
The lineup change for the game against the Rockets was that Wilson Chandler stepped into the starting lineup for just the fourth time all season. Chandler was solid with 21 points, six rebounds and three assists and a plus-21 rating.
Corey Brewer also saw some extended minutes off the bench and produced … huge. Brewer played 29 minutes and finished with a team-high 22 points. Brewer is averaging just 12.1 points per game—after the outburst on Saturday—and will be counted on to carry a larger share of the load without Gallinari.
Evan Fournier, the rookie guard from France who has spent much of the season buried on the end of the Denver bench, also came up big against Houston. In a career-high 23 minutes, Fournier knocked down 17 points—including 3-for-6 from 3-point range—and handed out a career-best five assists.
The win improved Denver’s record to 35-3 at the Pepsi Center—the best home-court mark in the NBA—and solidified the Nuggets hold on the third seed in the Western Conference. With five games remaining on its schedule, Denver leads the Memphis Grizzlies by 1.5 games and the Los Angeles Clippers by two games in the race for the No. 3 spot.
That’s a big difference—as in the difference between facing the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs or the Los Angeles Clippers, who can’t finish worse than fourth after clinching the Pacific Division title with a win on Sunday, April 7, against the Los Angeles Lakers.
But that’s not saying the postseason will be a cakewalk for the Nuggets.
For starters, they are the only one of the Western Conference’s elite—the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Nuggets, Clippers and Grizzlies—that has lost more games than they have won away from home. Denver is just 18-21 on the road, a stat that doesn’t bode well for any series in which Denver has to open away from home.
Coach George Karl told the Salt Lake Tribune on Saturday that is far from a problem for Denver.
“You don’t know how we are going to beat you,” Karl said. “I don’t know who my horse is going to be [Saturday night], so you can’t know who my horse is going to be [Saturday night.]”
That would be known as the glass-half-full approach to the Nuggets late in games. The glass-half-empty reply to Karl’s assertion would be that there are nights that the team doesn’t know the answer to that question, either. That can lead to confusion in late-game situations—not an ideal environment for playoff success.
The Nuggets are a fast-paced club, averaging 107.7 points per 100 possessions, the fourth-highest efficiency rating on the offensive end in the association. Defensively, the Nuggets—despite their long-held reputation—aren’t bad. Denver holds opponents to 102.2 points per 100 possessions, which is the 11th-best mark in the NBA.
Denver can also shoot the basketball, tied for sixth in the league with a 54.9 percent true-shooting percentage (TS%), which measures a team’s shooting percentage while accounting for free throws and 3-point shots.
However, Gallinari played a significant part in that gaudy rating. His TS% of 56.1 was second only to Kenneth Faried’s .574 among Denver’s starters. Gallinari was also the team’s most prolific shooter from long range, filling up the basket at a 37.3 percent clip from behind the arc and taking a team-high 5.1 long bombs per game.
Chandler is making 40.8 percent of his treys, but averaged only about half of Gallinari’s attempts (2.6). Brewer, meanwhile, is just a 30 percent shooter from deep.
Denver can also crash the glass, tied for fourth in the league with a rebound rate of 51.9 percent, despite not having a single player in the top 10 in rebounding. Instead, Faried is the team’s top board man with an average of 9.3 per game.
With 53 victories already this season, the Nuggets are just one win shy of matching the franchise’s record since joining the NBA from the ABA in 1976. Denver hasn’t finished below .500 or missed the playoffs in a decade.
On the other hand, the Nuggets have only escaped the first round of the playoffs once in the last nine seasons and haven’t gotten out of their first series since 2009.
Without a go-to scorer and without Danilo Gallinari, the Denver Nuggets might be hard-pressed to do much more than win one series before bowing out in 2013.