The Denver Nuggets have been plagued by inconsistency this season but they seem to have found something at a crucial time to make a run at the playoffs.
Denver finished a 3-1 week that included wins over Boston and at Sacramento on consecutive nights, and they sit a game-and-a-half ahead of Portland with 16 games left in its regular season. The Nuggets will try to make it three straight wins when they host the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday night.
The Nuggets (31-35) bring their high-scoring offense into the matchup but the better news is they have suddenly found their defense. Denver held opponents under 100 points in three of the last four games, a sign the preaching of coach Michael Malone might finally be sinking in.
"We're just trying to play more consistent and make that a priority," rook guard Jamal Murray told The Denver Post after the 105-92 in Sacramento on Saturday night. "We need to play more solid and more tough."
No one was tougher than Gary Harris on Saturday night. He had nine points in the third quarter, benefitting from several nice passes from Mason Plumlee, to help keep the Kings from taking the lead. He finished with 24 points, two off his career high set in Wednesday's loss to red-hot Washington.
"I thought Gary, especially, moved really well without the ball," Plumlee said. "A lot of them were for layups and that's always good."
Denver wants to continue that against the Lakers, who are having as much trouble on the court as off it in another disappointing season for the marquee franchise. Los Angeles has lost nine of its last 10 after Sunday's 118-116 home loss to Philadelphia.
The Lakers (20-46) are in full playing-for-next year mode following a front-office restructuring that gave former great Magic Johnson more control over basketball operations. Sunday, first-year coach Luke Walton shook up his starting lineup, putting rookies David Nwaba and Ivica Zubac with the plan to bring Nick Young off the bench for the first time all season.
With 16 games left, L.A. wants to give some of its young players a chance to show what they can do.
"Nick's been absolutely great for us all year," Walton told The L.A. Times before Sunday's game. "But with giving (Young) so many minutes and wanting to see more of David and see Tyler (Ennis) a little bit before the season end, it's not really fair to him to keep playing four or five minutes per half. We're thinking about making that move and committing even more so to the youth."
Denver is in youth mode, too, but the difference is it is relying on the young players to lead a playoff charge. The Nuggets' best player, center Nikola Jokic, just turned 22, Harris is also 22 and Murray just celebrated his 20th birthday.
In fact, only one regular rotation player, 35-year-old guard Jameer Nelson, is over 29 years old.
That's the team Malone is trying to guide into the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, and wins over teams like the Lakers are paramount to hold off the Trail Blazers, Dallas and Minnesota.
The encouraging sign is the defense Denver has played in its last two games.
"If that can continue, we're going to give ourselves a real chance down the stretch here," Malone told reporters after Saturday's win. "Our guys know it's now or never. We can't wait. If we want to be a consistent team that can win, it has to be defense."