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The next three games will show if the Nuggets are contenders

(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

The Nuggets are coming off of their best all-around performance of the season. It was a win that snuck under the radar, occurring Sunday afternoon in Memphis while most of Denver was still buzzing about the latest Broncos collapse.

For the first time all season, Michael Malone’s team didn’t have to overcome a major lull in order to scratch out a victory. They played well from the start, broke the game open in the second quarter and coasted to a relatively easy 131-114 win.

This is in stark contrast to other victories this season.

It might seem like nitpicking, especially given the Nuggets glossy 9-3 record, but a lot of the early season wins came with caveats. They reeked of performances that weren’t sustainable. They appeared to be setting a trap for a young team to fall into at any minute.

Coming back from 21 down in the fourth quarter to beat the Sixers was exciting, but that’s not a formula that’s repeatable. Blowing a 16-point lead in the final six minutes at Minnesota, only to scramble for a victory in overtime, is dramatic, but it’s also concerning. And being down 12 at home to lowly Brooklyn, necessitating another second-half rally at Pepsi Center to get a win, was another red flag.

That’s why the game against the Grizzlies was so refreshing.

Admittedly, Memphis isn’t very good. They’re a team in transition, currently languishing outside of the likely playoff teams in the Western Conference.

But those kinds of also-rans have given the Nuggets fits this year.

The Pelicans currently have the second-worst record in the West, but they got their first win of the season against Denver. The Hawks have the same 4-9 mark, but they came into Pepsi Center and got a victory.

Those are two bad losses. As stand-alone issues, they’re excusable; no team is going to win every game, even those poised to make a deep playoff run.

But when they were coupled with the head-scratching victories, which is the only way to describe a number of the Nuggets wins through the first 12 games of the season, they added up to a troubling mix. Something seemed amiss in Denver.

This didn’t just extend to the results on the scoreboard. The team’s best player, Nikola Jokic, already needed a conversation with Malone about his lack of aggressiveness. And the head coach also had to chide his team for thinking they had already accomplished something in the NBA; he didn’t like their laissez-faire attitude out of the gates.

So those who were worried about the Nuggets weren’t just making things up. They were taking their cue from Malone. They were watching the games, not just looking at final scores. They were paying attention.

Which means they were watching on Sunday. They actually saw the Nuggets turn the corner.

Perhaps.

Did things finally click for Denver? Have they finally realized that they can’t coast for three quarters, flip a switch and rally to a victory? Did their inability to follow that formula against Atlanta finally deliver the message?

In the words of Gary Kubiak, “We’re fixin’ to find out.”

This week, the Nuggets host three teams who will serve as formidable tests. They’ll need to have things figured out if they’re going to win one, two or three of the monster games on the docket at Pepsi Center.

It starts tonight when Denver hosts to Houston, a team that currently boasts the second-best record in the conference at 11-3. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will provide a major litmus test for Jokic and Jamal Murray in the battle of star duos. The Nuggets need to prove they can hang with a team that has historically given them fits and figures to be among the top seeds in the West at season’s end.

Friday night, things don’t get any easier, as the Nuggets welcome the Eastern-leading Celtics to town. Kemba Walker has been a major difference maker in Boston, averaging 23.4 points, 5.0 assists and 4.5 rebounds to lead the team to an 11-2 start. He and Jayson Tatum will provide another formidable inside-outside test for Denver.

And then on Sunday, the Nuggets have to contend with a bit of a trap game. The Suns don’t jump off the schedule as a must-attend night at Pepsi Center, but they’re off to a surprisingly good start. And the last time they were in town, Denver needed overtime to squeak out a 108-107 victory.

That’s three games in five nights that will provide a huge test for the Nuggets. By the end of the weekend, a lot more will be known about Malone’s team.

Are they legit contenders? If so, they need to be able to compete with and beat the likes of Houston and Boston on their homecourt.

Have the matured as a basketball team? If so, they need to not overlook teams like Phoenix, who are more than capable of winning in Denver.

Hopefully, the Nuggets dodged a bullet early in their season. They read their press clippings, believed they were more accomplished than they were and played below their standards through the first 11 games of the season.

But it didn’t hurt them in the standings. They don’t have a hole to dig out of in an uber-competitive Western Conference.

If they didn’t learn their lesson, however, the slide can happen quickly. Three losses would move Denver to the middle of the pack in the West.

That’s why the next five days are so important. They provide a way to gauge where the Nuggets currently stand, both literally and figuratively.

After games against Houston, Boston and Phoenix, everyone will know if they’re contenders or pretenders.

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