On the bottom of a cardboard sheet outlining Monday's practice plan for the Nuggets, the numbers were written in bold red letters, underlined and punctuated with a pair of exclamation points.
"7-3 in the last 10 games!!"
It wasn't just coach Michael Malone's impressive penmanship that made the message clear. The Nuggets, with two more games left before the all-star break, are playing perhaps the best basketball of their season. Put together a couple of more stretches like the one they produced over the last couple of weeks and Denver will probably find itself in the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
"It's pretty much up to us to do it," said the newest Nugget, point guard Devin Harris, who was acquired last week in a three-way deal that sent 2015 lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay to New York. "We have the resources. We have the talent to do so. Can we win enough games? We control our own destiny to make that playoff push."
The Nuggets, who are 30-26 and occupy the seventh spot in the Western Conference playoff race entering Monday's games, know there is plenty of heavy lifting left. Denver plays four of its next five games at home, including a three-game set at the Pepsi Center coming out of the all-star break, but 11 of their next 15 games after that are on the road. Plus, power forward Paul Millsap is probably still at least a couple of weeks away from making his return from a wrist injury that has erased most of his highly anticipated first season in Denver.
Yet, the bold, red, punctuated numbers on the practice sheet provided a reminder as the Nuggets prepare to embark on the season's final stretch. This isn't the same team that flirted with the postseason last year largely thanks to a Western Conference field that was collectively down. That ended up being a futile effort by an inexperienced squad that faded away as the playoff glare brightened.
This team, one of its architects insisted Monday, is different. It's up to them to recognize it.
"I just want these guys to play a confident brand of basketball and relax," said president of basketball operations Tim Connelly. "We have a very hardworking team. Our coaching staff is the hardest-working staff in the league. I think that preparation should allow us to play with a degree of confidence and swagger as we approach these last 20-plus games."
The confidence the Nuggets have built — a not-so-easy task in the rough-and-tumble West — is one of the reasons Connelly and his staff decided not to heavily disrupt the roster at the deadline. While much of the credit for Denver's offensive surge since mid-January has gone to Malone for allowing his players to attack more freely (a deserved nod, Connelly said), the team's top basketball executive also sees a group of young players who have reached a new level of chemistry.
The desire to make deals last week, both to help the current team and possibly free up needed financial flexibility for the future, was measured against the potential danger of disrupting a rhythm the Nuggets have struck while going to toe to toe with the league's heavyweights over the past month.
"I think it's that guys are getting used to each other," Connelly said. "There's continuity starting to develop with Jamal (Murray) and Gary (Harris) and Nikola (Jokic) and Wilson (Chandler). We have a lot of guys who have been here for several years. So I don't think it's solely (Malone calling fewer plays). I think it's also guys understanding where they're going to cut and where we want our shots. The last couple weeks, it's been fun to see what we've done offensively."