Earlier this month, the Denver Nuggets were rolling. After a tumultuous offseason and an 0-3 start, they'd re-established their identity as a running and gunning team you never want to play in their home building. Speedy point guard Ty Lawson, having a career year under new head coach Brian Shaw, would put pressure on the opposing team to start games, then the bench would come in and extend leads. After a win in Toronto, Denver's sixth victory in what would be a seven-game winning streak, the locker room was loose and confident, the players seeing their slow start as a distant memory:
"Early on when we were losing, we were like, ‘What the hell?'" said forward Darrell Arthur. "Man, we didn't know what was going on. Those wins were hard to come by."
"Right now I think we can beat any team in the league, the way we're playing," Lawson said.
Things have changed drastically since then. After easily disposing of the Brooklyn Nets, Denver lost seven of 10 games. It is now 14-13 on the season, outside of the playoff picture in a stacked Western Conference. Naturally, the players aren't feeling as free as they were a few weeks ago, via Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post:
"I don't think we're playing with the confidence or sense of urgency that it takes to win," Nuggets guard Andre Miller said. "It's a tight race at the bottom. We can easily move up, or we can easily fall out. So, we've just got to figure out a way to get our confidence back and share the ball a little bit more."
Lawson shared the same sentiment, adding that they are second-guessing themselves. He's probably onto something. In the last 10 games, Denver has drifted away from its attacking mentality. The defense has actually been fine, but for the first time in recent history, the Nuggets have struggled to score. In that span, they have only scored more than 100 points twice. Their 96.1 points per 100 possessions since Dec. 4 ranks 28th in the league, per NBA.com. Denver has played at a pace just above league average in the last three weeks, and it is below average in both points in the paint and transition offense. This is nothing like what we're used to.
After a disappointing homestand, the Nuggets are now 7-6 at the Pepsi Center. The six home losses are double their total from all of last season. You could look at all this and say Denver is in major trouble. That might indeed be the case.
It's worth looking at the Nuggets' recent opponents, though. Denver's last four losses have come against the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix Suns and Oklahoma City Thunder. With the exception of the Clippers game, which was on the road, they haven't been blowouts. While the schedule never totally eases up in the West, it is about to get a little bit softer. What the Nuggets can't afford to do -- and what they rarely did last season -- is lose to inferior teams. This recent stretch started with defeats in Cleveland and Boston, and the Utah Jazz managed to take a game in Denver on Dec. 13. Those are the kind of nights that haunt you when you're fighting for a playoff spot.
With four months left in the regular season, it's probably not time to freak out about the Nuggets. If you started doing that after the season's first few games, you looked silly a few weeks later. In all likelihood, Denver's not as good as it looked earlier in the month and not as bad as it's been recently. In their unforgiving conference, though, the Nuggets need to get back to what was working. And they'll need to do it quickly.