The Toronto Raptors were supposed to fall off this year after a magical run to the NBA title last spring.
Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard moved to Los Angeles, taking away Toronto's most talented player and the primary reason the Larry O'Brien Trophy resides in Canada.
But instead of regressing, the Raptors have surged, and at 42-17 are in second place in the Eastern Conference and looking like they'll be a strong playoff contender when April rolls around. They are 17-3 in their past 20 games, which includes losing consecutive games last week for the first time in two months.
Avoiding a rare three-game skid could be tough when the reigning champions visit Denver on Sunday night, though.
Toronto is coming off a surprising home loss to Charlotte on Friday night in a game in which Fred VanVleet (sore left shoulder) and Serge Ibaka (sore right knee) both were inactive. Norman Powell returned to the lineup after missing nine games with a fractured finger, and Patrick McCaw played after sitting out three with an illness.
Center Marc Gasol hasn't played since Jan. 30 because of his left hamstring injury, but head coach Nick Nurse said everyone is going on the five-game Western Conference road trip that begins in Denver. It also starts a push for playoff positioning with 23 games left.
"We need everybody to get back," guard Kyle Lowry said after Friday's loss to the Hornets. "This is the time. We're in March now and it's time to pick it up a little bit more and try to level up a little."
Getting healthy will help on the trip, especially against a Nuggets team that got blown out by Leonard's new team on Friday night. The Clippers ran Denver off the court in a 132-103 win to tie the Nuggets for second place in the Western Conference.
Denver never led, and the game wasn't competitive in the second half, prompting head coach Michael Malone to call his team's play soft, a label that guard Will Barton agreed with while addressing his teammates postgame.
"This was a wake-up call," Barton said after the loss. "I'm one of the veterans on this team, I know my voice is respected in that locker room, and I really want to win at the end of the day. It's no time to play around; it's time to get serious."
The Nuggets have lost three of their past five games despite the continued strong play of center Nikola Jokic and guard Jamal Murray. Jokic averaged 25.5 points and 10 rebounds in February while Murray scored 23.6 points a game in the month.
Denver likely will need the pair to continue to carry the load while getting more from the rest of the team. Suffering their worst loss of the season might be enough to spark the Nuggets against the Raptors.
Jokic didn't seem worried about the loss in Los Angeles carrying over.
"We've had a lot of bad losses," Jokic said. "Maybe this is just, as you guys say, maybe a little bit more important. But it's still not the end of the world. We've had a lot of losses against teams that have a worse record than us. We've responded well."
--Field Level Media