DENVER — The Nuggets have this thing down.
They have mastered the step-on-their-throat mentality that winning teams have.
Denver’s latest display of the killer instinct spoiled the Seattle SuperSonics’ chance of clinching the Northwest Division crown. The Nuggets’ 121-105 win Saturday night was
the latest in a series of victories that have shown their mettle. Denver has won seven in a row, and four of those were by 11 or more points.
If nothing else, it has given the Nuggets an attitude.
“Yeah, that swagger, that killer instinct, whatever you want to call it,” forward Kenyon Martin said. “It comes from playing well and winning games.”
The only team that has given Denver trouble since the All-Star break is Phoenix, which has handed the Nuggets their only two losses in the last 23 games. Every other team in Denver’s path has been frustrated, dumbfounded or both. Memphis lost two home games to the Nuggets, including last Tuesday’s showdown that might go a long way to determining who gets the higher playoff seed.
The game that could be the best example of these determined Nuggets’ new toughness was Saturday’s win at Minnesota. The Timberwolves knew they had to win that game to keep their slimming playoff hopes alive, but the Nuggets ripped the heart out of them with a 107-104 win. It all but ended Minnesota’s run of playoff appearances at eight in a row.
“That’s big that we’ve been able to be successful on the road,” guard DerMarr Johnson said. “We had that big homestand last month, and that was key. Coach (George Karl) was saying if we take care of that homestand, we’d be pretty good, and we’ve exceeded that. We’ve been going on the road and winning games, and we’re confident.”
With six games left in the regular season, the Nuggets need just one win to clinch a playoff berth. Karl raised the stakes after Saturday’s win, saying this team could realistically win 50 games. Denver is 45-31, and four of the last six games are at home. Its two road games are at Houston on Saturday and in Phoenix on April 18, and both games have playoff implications. If the Nuggets can beat Houston, they may leapfrog the Rockets into the sixth spot in the Western Conference and a probable matchup with Seattle in the first round. A loss Saturday and a loss in Phoenix could put the Nuggets in the seventh spot with San Antonio — and a healthy Tim Duncan — as the likely opponent.
“If Houston plays well there’s not much we can do about that,” Karl said. “If Houston stubs their toe, there’s a chance that next Saturday night in Houston could be a big game.”
If Memphis was to get hot and jump to the seventh spot, the Nuggets would probably play the Suns in the first round.
“We know it’s going to be one of three teams,” Martin said. “That’s all we know.”
The way the Nuggets are playing, they’re not worried about who they play. They’ve been able to impose their style on every opponent since the All-Star break, which is a big reason why they’re 21-2 since a loss at Charlotte on Feb. 16.
“We feel like we’re playing good basketball,” guard Earl Boykins said. “We’re just trying to win basketball games; we’re not trying to kill any of our opponents, we’re just trying to win.”
Golden State won’t be as beatable as its record. The Warriors come into tonight’s game (7 p.m., Altitude) having won 11 of their last 13, which includes a loss at San Antonio on Sunday. They just finished an eight-game win streak, the organization’s best in 30 years, and they’re confident.
“We know what Golden State is about right now,” Carmelo Anthony said. “They’re on fire right now; they’re playing good right now. They’re playing together, so it’s going to be a game (tonight).”