David Zalubowski/Associated Press file photo
David Zalubowski/Associated Press file photo
Before every game at the Pepsi Center, the public address announcer admonishes the crowd to drink plenty of water because at 5,280 feet one can get dehydrated pretty quickly.
It’s more showmanship than a public health service, really, designed to remind opponents that they’re about to play a mile above sea level.
The Denver Nuggets long have tried to use altitude to their advantage, and this season they finally have the type of team to capitalize on the thin air.
With a starting five led by speedy point guard Ty Lawson and an energetic bench that only ramps up the pace on chest-heaving opponents, the Nuggets are 26-3 at home this season.
That’s tied with the Miami Heat for the best home record in the NBA.
The Nuggets have won 11 in a row at the Pepsi Center in their quest to catch Memphis for the fourth seed in the Western Conference playoffs, which would give them the home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Lawson’s fastbreak buckets are accompanied by the “beep-beep” of the Looney Tunes’ Road Runner as he leaves hapless defenders in his wake a la Wile E. Coyote.
The real show starts when the starters take a break, though.
Night after night, it’s Denver’s reserves that provide the energy and enthusiasm that riles up the crowd as they run opponents to their bench for a breather.
Wilson Chandler and Corey Brewer provide the scoring punch, JaVale McGee the dunks and rejections and Andre Miller the alley-oop passes, while Lawson, high-flying Kenneth Faried, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari and Kosta Koufos grab a breather and a front-row seat to one of the best shows in basketball.
“It’s been great,” Chandler said. “We’ve got a chemistry going. We’re pretty much going in at the same time; we just go out there and play hard. Andre and JaVale hook up for a few lobs, and JaVale’s on the boards blocking. Andre’s orchestrating the whole deal, and Corey’s running around on defense, fast breaks.”
On some nights, the reserves are better than the starters, logging just as many minutes and most of the memorable moments.
In a 105-103 win over Oklahoma City last week, the Nuggets’ bench outscored the Thunder’s reserves 71-11, led by Chandler’s 35, which tied a career high, in a thriller that Lawson won with a sweet jumper with 0.2 seconds left.
Brewer led the Nuggets with 22 points Monday night when they won their 11th consecutive home game by running the short-handed and short-of-breath Atlanta Hawks until they were doubled over grabbing their shorts and gasping for air in a 104-88 rout.
“They’re a fast-breaking team, and as soon as a shot’s missed it seems like there are already two guys already back for a layup,” Hawks star Josh Smith said.
In a 119-108 win over the Lakers last week – their best overall game of the year – the Nuggets outscored L.A. 33-3 on the fast break.
“That’s a killer,” said Kobe Bryant, shaking his head. “That team is like a track team over there.”
And the Lakers were like a bunch of shuffle-boarders, trailing on the scoreboard and the hardwood all night long as they trudged through the second game of a difficult back-to-back.
“Once they miss a shot, it seemed like a jailbreak,” Lawson said. “Everybody was trying to run downcourt and get the layup.”
Or the arena-shaking slam dunk.
Or the rim-rattling alley-oop jam.
“We play fast so by the time our bench guys get in, they’re a little tired,” Brewer said. “We pick the pace up and get a lot of easy baskets.”
Because of that bountiful bench, the Nuggets think they can keep this up in the playoffs, too, when the games tend to slow down and turn into more of a half-court matchup.
With his reserves playing so well, especially Wilson, Karl uses a quick hook as a motivator for his starters to play a little harder and smarter on defense.
“I think Wilson coming off the bench gives me a luxury. I’m not sure the starters like it, but the hammer is pretty clear. If you’re not going to give me what I want or what we’re focused on, I’m going to go someplace else pretty quick,” Karl said.
“I’ve never seen the depth of the quality of the backup” unit like this one, he said.
Chandler said the key is that the nonstarters see themselves as second to no one. They’ve all started before, and it’s almost like a shift in hockey: A new group comes in with fresh legs and an aggressive approach, so there’s no slowing down.
Indeed, Karl basically has two starting lineups.
“JaVale/Kosta – some people take JaVale; some take Koufos. Kenneth/Wilson – some people will take Kenneth; some people take Wilson,” Karl said. “Corey’s having such a great year that you’ve got to get him in the game because he gives you so much energy. Andre/Ty – I mean, I think most people would take Ty; but Andre still could win games as a starter in this league. There’s no question in my mind if you gave him a team and gave him a starting lineup, he’d win.
“And Iguodala is the wild card” which gives Karl the flexibility to go with a big or small lineup depending on the matchup.
“What I love about it is injuries aren’t going to have a major factor in our personality,” Karl said. “If we get a guy out for two weeks, it sometimes actually lifts a team because a guy gets to play, he knows he’s going to play, there’s more energy coming into the game, and it’s fun. It’s a fun team.”
At .896, the Nuggets are in position to post their best home winning percentage in franchise history. They went 36-5 for an .878 home winning percentage in 1976-77, their first season in the NBA and never have been able to reach such lofty heights since then.
“Well, that’s reachable,” Karl said.
They would love to get an extra home game in the first round of the playoffs, which might just be the ingredient they would need to advance.
“We enjoy playing here,” Karl said. “There’s a connection with the fans. And when we get it going, there’s an energy to the building I think everybody can feel. Hopefully, the opposing team feels it some, too.”
Along with the lung-searing altitude.