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There’s no secret formula to the early-season success that the Nuggets have found away from Pepsi Center this year.
Through 31 games, Denver has already banked eight road wins. Last year, the Nuggets didn’t see their eighth victory away from home come until Feb. 10.
“It’s fairly simple,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “The defense has been constant this year.”
While the Nuggets’ top-10 offense has been around league average away from home (16th overall), their defense has traveled. Denver is limiting its opponent to 107.9 points per 100 possessions on the road this season, good for the 11th-best mark in the league. A year ago, the Nuggets gave up 112.7 points per 100 possessions away from Pepsi Center, a mark which slotted Denver’s road defense 29th overall.
It’s a peek into the new-found identity that’s powered the Nuggets to a 21-10 start this season and the top spot in the Western Conference. Denver enters Wednesday night’s matchup in San Antonio — where the Nuggets haven’t won since March 4, 2012 when Ty Lawson paced Denver with 22 points and Kawhi Leonard was a rookie coming off the Spurs’ bench — two full games up in the loss column on the second-place Warriors. On the season, Denver’s defense is holding steady at seventh overall and just 0.3 points per 100 possessions behind the fifth-ranked defensive team in the league, the Milwaukee Bucks.
“We’re bringing a little of our Denver Nuggets basketball (on the road),” said Nikola Jokic, who’s playing the best defense of his career.
It’s not rocket science either. Only six teams — the Celtics, Lakers, Kings, Knicks, Pacers, Heat and Hawks — are posting better offensive numbers on the road than at home this season. It’s not uncommon for offenses, especially ones that rely on as much player movement as the Nuggets’ does, to grind to a halt away from home where shots aren’t falling at the rate they do in arenas where teams like Denver are more accustomed to playing. Fatigue from exhausting road trips and lengthy plane rides start to set in as well. That’s where the Nuggets’ stout defense is supplying the firepower their offense has sometimes lacked.
Denver has already banked impressive road wins this season in Oklahoma City, Toronto and Portland, locales where the Thunder, Raptors and Trail Blazers have combined to lose just 13 games all season.
The Nuggets are heading into road games with more confidence too, a precedent that was set on opening night in Los Angeles against a playoff-caliber Clippers team that has lost at Staples Center only four times this year. That night Denver came back from an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit to stun the Clippers on their home court, showing a perseverance to battle back from second-half deficits that wasn’t there a season ago.
“I don’t know how many times we would have won that game last year,” Malone said.
With eight road wins through 15 games, the Nuggets are well on their way to the goal of 22 victories away from home — a number Denver outlined this summer as a prerequisite it would need to hit if the Nuggets wanted to break their five-year postseason drought. Why 22? It’s the average number of road wins that the eight teams who qualified for the postseason in the Western Conference won last season.
To stay on pace to reach that 22-win threshold on the road, Denver needs to reverse course from how its played over the last few weeks. The Nuggets have lost three straight away from home, and over their last two matchups (a home win versus Dallas and a road loss to the Clippers) have given up 118 and 132 points. As of late, the Nuggets have looked more like last season’s bottom-10 defense and less like this year’s team that is the second-best three-point defense in the league, perhaps alluding to just how big of a difference Paul Millsap, who’s missed Denver’s last six games with a fractured big toe, makes on a night-to-night basis.
Even without Millsap, Denver is confident it can flip its recent script.
“We’re just taking on the challenge,” said Monte Morris. “We’re all bought in. Everybody knows the goal once we leave the locker room and head on the floor.”