DENVER — Kool and The Gang’s “Celebration” blared over the loud speakers at the Pepsi Center after the Denver Nuggets’ 122-106 win over the Golden State Warriors on Monday night.
The song plays after every Nuggets victory, so it was nothing special, and that’s just how the Nuggets treated it.
It wasn’t just any win, however. Denver clinched a playoff berth, something they weren’t able to do until the last game of the season last year.
“What did we do?” Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony asked, and then a reporter informed him of the feat. “Oh, wow. That’s great. I’m excited about that.”
Denver clearly has bigger aspirations this time around — and justly so.
Since the All-Star break in February, the Nuggets have gone 22-2, which is the league’s best record since that time. Denver has gone from a bubble
team, striving just to get to the postseason, to a legitimate playoff contender that no one wants to mess with in that short time.
“This is a pretty incredible team,” Denver head coach George Karl said. “Not losing to any team except Phoenix is an amazing accomplishment. This team has come together, and I think people need to be afraid of them.”
Nuggets owner Stanley Kroenke knew all along this team could pull its act together. He never lost faith in this team.
“I had a lot of confidence in our guys,” Kroenke said. “I thought we put together a good group of guys. A talented group of guys. I always have high expectations, that’s my nature. I’m an optimistic guy. I thought we could come back and thought we had a shot.”
Karl alluded to Denver’s lack of emotion following the win as an attitude that his team has developed over the past three weeks or so.
“This team goes out every night and expects to win,” Karl said. “We have an edge right now, mentally, and I think that’s what you need to be a successful playoff team.”
Denver didn’t necessarily dominate a weary Warriors team, which was coming off a double-overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs from the night before.
The Nuggets took a 68-64 lead to halftime, but Golden State came out strong in the second half. The Warriors eventually took a lead midway through the third quarter, and then Denver forward Kenyon Martin was ejected from the game after picking up his second technical foul.
The incident proved to be a turning point in the game, though.
“We played a team that shoots some crazy shots, and can be very scary,” Karl said. “It was really scary when they took that lead, but that’s woke us up a little bit, I think.”
Strong play from Andre Miller and Anthony — once again — lifted the Nuggets in the final quarter and a half.
Anthony was 12 of 16 from the floor Monday, finishing with a game-high 32 points on top of nine rebounds and three assists.
“Melo’s offensive efficiency in the last three games has been incredible,” Karl said. “He realizes he doesn’t have to take a lot of shots to score a lot of points.”
Miller nearly had a double-double in the first quarter with nine assists and eight points and finished with 16 and 10, respectively. The point guard has averaged 16 assists over the last three games and Karl said he could have had 25 on Monday night.
Denver still has no idea who it will play in the first round of the playoffs, and after the Houston Rockets’ win over the Seattle SuperSonics on Monday, the Nuggets remain a half game out of the sixth playoff spot.
Denver has five games left to finalize its positioning, but regardless of who it is, the Nuggets aren’t going to just be content to be there this time.
“This is my second time going into the playoffs, so I’m young in that nature,” Miller said. “Hopefully that experience can carry on into the playoffs and we can mature and learn how to win in the playoffs. If we can do that and play together, we’ll be all right.”