DENVER — Ty Lawson goes down with a torn right heel, the Denver Nuggets keep right on winning. Danilo Gallinari tears an ACL, they don’t miss a beat.
The starless but selfless Nuggets have four chances left to set a franchise record with their 55th win, starting at Dallas on Friday night, before they try to parlay their deep roster into a deep playoff run.
Although Gallinari is out for the season after injuring his left knee last week, Lawson hopes to return this weekend to test out his pain threshold and knock off some rust before the playoffs begin.
The Nuggets hardly missed their top two scorers Wednesday night when they set a franchise record with their 21st straight home win with a 96-86 thumping of the West-leading San Antonio Spurs.
The Nuggets are heading to the playoff party for the 10th straight season, but this time they’re going there without a headliner.
That’s not a bad thing.
After all, they were first-round fodder in all but one of those previous nine trips.
In 2008-09, they took the Lakers to the brink before bowing in the Western Conference finals. That was a star-studded team that finished a franchise-best 54-28 and featured Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Kenyon Martin, Nene and J.R. Smith.
That roster was blown up two years later when Anthony engineered a blockbuster trade to the New York Knicks, a deal that’s unfolded as a win-win for both teams.
Without a go-to superstar, this year’s Nuggets have none of that same star power that they once had but much more moxie built around unselfish ball movement and a philosophy of racing up and down the court to capitalize on young legs and high altitude.
Denver’s deep bench allows coach George Karl to mimic the NHL by sending waves of fresh players into competition to keep up a frenetic pace as opponents heave their chests, gasping for air and shaking their heads.
"They play well together," Spurs guard Cory Joseph said. "They play as a team. All the guys, they move the ball. They get out and run."
Especially at the Pepsi Center, where they haven’t lost since Jan. 18.
"We’ve proven that we can win at home," Corey Brewer said. "When people come in here they should be afraid. I feel like we’re going to push the pace, we’re going to make them play in altitude. They’ve got to play Nuggets basketball."
It’s a winning formula.
Denver is an NBA-best 36-3 at home and hosts Portland on Sunday and Phoenix next week as the Nuggets seek yet another franchise mark for most home wins in a season since joining the NBA 37 years ago. Denver went 36-5 at home under coach Larry Brown in 1976-77.
Rick Carlisle, whose Dallas Mavericks lost to the Nuggets in the second round in the 2009 playoffs, said the transformation in Denver has been extraordinary.
"It’s quite a different team that’s been put together in a different way. They’ve been very smart in the way they’ve done it. It’s a strength-in-numbers type of outfit, a lot of depth, a lot of playmakers, a lot of speed, a lot of skill," Carlisle said. "And they’ve got toughness on this team, too. So, it’s a unique mix. They’re always tough to play here, so with homecourt in the playoffs, they’re going to be extremely dangerous."
The Nuggets are clinging to the third seed in the West at 54-24, a game ahead of the Grizzlies and two ahead of the Clippers.
"That’s the main goal, to get the No. 3 seed and get the homecourt advantage going into the playoffs," said Wilson Chandler, who has blossomed offensively over the last two months and scored 29 points against the Spurs on Wednesday night.
The Nuggets fell behind 14-0 against San Antonio but the bench brought energy — Brewer scored 28 — and Denver raced back on the strength of a 37-10 run that had the Pepsi Center rattling yet again.
"We’re deep and it helps to be deep at this point in the season with all the running that we’re doing," Andre Miller said. "It helps when guys come in off the bench that they bring that amount of energy, knowing that we’re missing two of our best players."
The Nuggets haven’t really slowed down much with Miller and rookie Evan Fornier running the point in Lawson’s absence.
"They’re still putting up astronomic numbers," Carlisle said. "Fornier stepped in, he’s had two career games, so they haven’t missed a beat. When Andre Miller is perceived to lack in speed he makes up for in vision and just the ability to throw the ball ahead. And there’s nobody in the league that can run faster than his passes get thrown up the floor."
Carlisle and Spurs coach Greg Popovich both have suggested Karl deserves consideration for coach of the year honours after building such a potent playoff contender with nary an All-Star to lean on.
"The team is a great example of executing the strategy and the system that the coach wants to employ," Popovich said. "I think more than any other team, they exemplify a group of guys accepting roles whether it be minutes or their roles on the court and how they play in relation to the other players on a consistent game-after-game basis. He’s done a great job in keeping that together.
"So, in my mind, it’s hard to think of anybody who’s done a better job. And at the same time, you don’t find ‘superstars’ on the team. He’s gotten them to play for each other, be responsible for each other and understand they’re better as a unit than they are with one guy doing his thing."
And the loss of Gallinari isn’t a deal-breaker for them, either, Popovich insisted.
"They’re actually more athletic with him not playing but probably don’t shoot it as well," he said. "So it’s a little bit different but still potent in a different way."