There were two contrasting styles on display during the Denver-Miami game Saturday night.
On one side, you had a team surging, finding its stride by playing complete team basketball, using their athleticism to their advantage, with strong ball movement on one end, an aggressive defence on the other and a team you can see that's bought into unselfish play.
And they were playing the Heat.
It's not like it was Denver's choice to play this way: they traded their two best players - a superstar in Carmelo Anthony and one of the best veteran point guards in basketball in Chauncey Billups. Upon first glance, it seemed that the Nuggets, just clinging to a playoff spot near the bottom of the west picture, would likely be the team that would fade as hard charging outsiders would run them down.
But it's been the complete opposite. In fact, post-'Melo, these Nuggets are not only winning, but they have been doing it in a crushing fashion.
While George Karl tried to tell everyone that this newly formed squad would be better without Anthony and his beloved floor general Billups, no one believed him. And as the better players exchanged in the Nuggets-Knicks deal went New York's way, no one on the Nuggets side could have explained how they were able to transform into one of the dangerous teams to meet come playoff time.
By acquiring Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Timothy Mozgov, the Nuggets (again, unbeknownst to them, I'm sure), became the most complete team in basketball. At every position on the floor, the Nuggets have a more than capable backup. Aside from Chris Anderson, each of the other reserves could conceivably be a starter in the NBA.
Think of another team that goes legitimately 10-deep in the NBA, and that goes for even the teams favoured to be playing deep into the postseason. You can't.
The end result is Karl has a high-octane unit that forces the issue all the time, and doesn't need to change philosophies once he goes to the bench.
Despite falling to the glamour-side Heat Saturday, the Nuggets have lost just four times in 13 games since the deal, and sit a solid but still-not-comfortable fifth in the conference.
In those 13 games, six different players have led the team in scoring. And only Nene and J.R. Smith have done it at least three times. In each of their wins, no less than five players have scored in double figures - in two of their wins, they have had seven and eight in double digits. In three of their losses, they have had four or fewer scorers in double digits.
It's a pretty good sample to show how devastating they are, if they are sharing the basketball. When they do - and they do it often - it's been no contest. Every win but one has been by 10 or more.
While they were swept on their Sunshine state swing, the Nuggets have legitimate wins to their credit on this run. They've beat the Celtics, Hawks and Hornets, while absolutely beating up on the teams they're supposed to: a 40-point drubbing of the Bobcats, a 30-point blowout of the Pistons and a 19-point beatdown of the Suns. And all of their losses have been by six points or less. Bottom line is this team is now a tough out, every game.
While Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago all have their stars, J.R. Smith would arguably be Denver's most talented player, and he doesn't even start for the Nuggets. He would likely be a third or fourth wheel on most of those teams. In fact, that's what he was in Denver when Anthony and Billups were around.
What Denver lacks in top-end talent, their overall position play usually outclasses what another team can throw out there. So yes, Derrick Rose would be a no-brainer pick over Ty Lawson, but with Lawson and Raymond Felton, you can count on consistent point guard play all game, whereas when Rose sits (can you even name his backup? It's CJ Watson), you're just hoping that his replacement can hold the fort.
The Celtics needed to trade a centrepiece of their title team in Kendrick Perkins just to find another wingman to compliment Paul Pierce. The Nuggets throw out Gallinari and Chandler. You see what I'm saying.
And there's more. When you play the Heat, you know what you're going to get. Plenty of LeBron and Wade, sprinkled in with Chris Bosh. For them to be successful, it's not any combination of the three that they need to win games - all three need to play well to give their team a chance (which they all happened to do Saturday against Denver, which led to their win). When 10 professionals with pride and good skill put out a solid performance game in and game out, the odds of winning vastly improve.
When you have that many players who accept that they could be sitting or on the court depending on what the team needs or if someone is riding a hot hand, it adds an element at crunch time that few teams have. Coming out of a timeout, there are arrays of plays and combination of players Karl can use to get a crucial score. How would you like to be a defence dealing with that? Not knowing who's getting the ball must be close to as effective as having Kobe as your finisher, right?
In many ways, the Nuggets are the feel-good squad in the NBA by default. No superstars, exciting brand of play and a team constructed as a team.
To draw a baseball example, they're like the Mariners that went bonkers winning once all-world stars like Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez were traded or left via free agency.
While superstar teams have become the trend, the Nuggets - who were basically forced to deal Anthony or lose him for nothing - are showing for now at least, there's an alternative to superstar teams.
Ultimately, they're going to have to make some noise in the playoffs to convince fans and teams alike that it's possible to survive in the NBA this way. So far, so surprisingly good.
But like that successful Mariners squad, a good thing can last only for so long.
Enjoy it, because the way the NBA has been going, you may not see something like this happen again for a long time.
On to this week's matchups:
Boston at New York (Monday at 7:30pm et)
Orlando at New York (Wednesday at 8pm et): Fitting that after talking all about Denver, their former star has had a so-so go thus far in his new digs. When Carmelo arrived, much of the talk was about how high the Knicks would climb up the east ladder. Now, they're just battling to keep the pesky 76ers off their backs. A very tough week ahead, with two of the conference heavies coming into the Garden. Both Orlando and Boston have plenty to play for as they jockey for position in the east. By the way, you thin Miami is hoping that the Knicks get caught by Philly? That would be a Miami-Philly first round, rather than the Heat having to go through the Knicks.
Utah at Memphis (Monday at 8pm et): The other team that many felt would fall off in the west (and were somewhat correct) was Utah. They have been completely underwhelming in the Ty Corbin era, but they are still in the mix and this one is a biggie. Heading into the week, Utah was just a game behind the Grizzlies, who have fizzled a little bit down the stretch. Perhaps they're hearing the footsteps, or more likely, a small-market team is showing how tough it is to stay afloat when one of their big-money men (Rudy Gay) continues to rehab a sore shoulder.
Miami at Philadelphia (Friday at 7:30pm et): When the Knicks acquired Carmelo, all the talk was at what point they were going to chase down Atlanta to take the fifth seed in the east and beyond. What they didn't factor in was that the 76ers would be surging and, heading into this week, could actually pass them for sixth in the conference. Intriguing matchup this Friday, because if things continue currently (Sixers winning and Knicks losing), this could be a preview of a first round matchup. Quick observation on the Heat (because there is never enough): it's obvious that Chris Bosh needs to be involved in the game for them to be successful. While the team has done the job getting him touches, he has put it on himself to be more aggressive and assertive. If Bosh keeps up this level of play, he is easily the most lethal third option in the NBA. That may sound funny, but his contribution is essential for the Heat to have any shot at a title, and that's no joke.
Chicago at Atlanta (Tuesday at 8pm et): While there was a lot of talk about how the Heat would handle their tough stretch against tough competition, the Hawks have quietly struggled with theirs. This month against teams with winning records, they are just 2-6. One of those wins and losses has come against these very Bulls. While the Bulls are battling for top spot in the conference with their MVP favourite Derrick Rose leading them, the Hawks sit as one of the few middle-class teams in the league. In the east, they are above the lower tier but quite far off the elite, and, barring a major win streak or losing streak, it's likely this is where they'll be come season's end, with what could be another disappointing early round exit against the Magic.
Washington at Los Angeles Clippers (Wednesday at 10:30pm et): Second round match between the last two top picks in the NBA. While not even an injury would derail Blake Griffin's trip to the Rookie of the Year podium, it's worth noting that John Wall has quietly put together a sturdy rookie season running point for the Wizards. Both Griffin and Wall are so raw still offensively, getting most of their points and highlights using sheer athletic gifts. Should be nice to watch these two develop over the next five years, as they grow into the stars many have projected them to be.