Now that the Nuggets have gotten past the most-hyped game of the season, they can start to focus on the biggest game of the season.
Yes, for all the for pomp and circumstance surrounding Carmelo Anthony's return, Friday's game against the Memphis Grizzlies arguably is more significant.
The Nuggets (44-22) are fifth in the Western Conference and 1½ games behind third-place Memphis, which also has 44 wins but has played three fewer games (44-19). Denver has won two of the three matchups this season, so if the Nuggets win Friday, they secure the tiebreaker for playoff seeding (if they finish 2-2, then the tiebreaker for the tiebreaker is conference winning percentage).
With a fourth-place — or better — finish comes home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
"It's two teams playing as well as anyone in the NBA, two totally different philosophies, two totally different styles," Nuggets coach George Karl said after Thursday's practice.
A Nuggets' victory would be their 11th consecutive, most since March 1983. To get it, they'll have to knock off a team that has won four consecutive road games.
"I think it's important that we don't get caught up in who we're playing but how we're playing as a team," Nuggets guard Andre Iguodala said. "It's a game of wills. They're going to try to slow it down; we're going to try to speed it up. ... They do a good job at really working together as a unit. They make the least amount of mistakes, don't gamble too much and do a good job of getting their hands in the game without overextending themselves and getting easy baskets."
The Nuggets thrive off easy baskets, notably in transition. And their offense is like an infomercial for kitchen knives — They slice! They dice! They cut in half ridiculously easy!
Denver leads the NBA with 57.8 points in the paint per game, and since the NBA began tracking that stat in 1996-97, the team with the next-closest average would be the 1997-98 Los Angeles Lakers (54.1).
"We have been playing with a lot of confidence; we have been playing a lot of team basketball," said Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler, who led the team with 24 points in Wednesday's rout of Melo and the New York Knicks. "We have been playing great defense and getting out on the break and getting easy baskets with our defense."
The Grizzlies have two veteran big men, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, who can be menacing on defense and headaches on offense. The Nuggets will start Kenneth Faried and Kosta Koufos, but Faried, for all his energy, is not known as a sturdy one-on-one defender, so the low-post defense of small forward Danilo Gallinari, as well as Chandler, will be paramount.
In the biggest game of the season.