Steve Yeater, Associated Press
DENVER — Danilo Gallinari encountered a dogged defender on the court that he just couldn't shake.
No matter what move he made, this bulldog of a defender shadowed the smooth-shooting Denver Nuggets forward everywhere he went at practice on Thursday.
Finally, Gallinari did the only thing he could think of to get open: He leaned over and scooped up the furry new friend that had wandered onto the floor for some playing time.
Hey, even puppies recognize a good player when they see one.
As does the English bulldog's owner, Nuggets President Josh Kroenke, whose team signed Gallinari to a four-year extension worth $42 million.
Gallinari may just be the closest thing this squad has to a bona fide star.
But this team, the one lacking a household name, has steadily developed into a contender, racing out to a 13-5 record, which is second only to Oklahoma City (15-3) in the Western Conference. Denver returns home Friday night against Toronto after putting the finishing touches on a five-game road winning streak.
Maybe once overlooked, the Nuggets are now being taken seriously. Some around the league even consider them a burgeoning power.
"We are playing very well. But the season is still long," Gallinari said. "We have to be consistent."
The secret behind the Nuggets' success has been this: Coach George Karl molding a cohesive unit from a collection of castoffs other teams deemed expendable.
Properly assembled, they've become valuable pieces.
On any given night, just about anyone can step up. Typically, it's been Gallinari, who's led the team in scoring nine times this season, including a career-high 37 points in a double-overtime win over Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks last weekend in Madison Square Garden.
Speedy point guard Ty Lawson has been a big contributor as well, maybe even at an All-Star level. Nene and reserve Al Harrington have come up big, too. Even Corey Brewer has led the team in scoring this season, erupting for 22 points in a win at Milwaukee.
"This team is hard to guard. You can't predict us," Lawson said. "So, you can't game plan against that, set up a defense."
Lawson hobbled out of Pepsi Center on Thursday wearing a walking boot to protect his sore left ankle, adding his name to an already crowded list of ailing players.
He twisted his ankle on Wednesday at Sacramento and joins team leader Arron Afflalo (groin) along with bench player Rudy Fernandez (right Achilles) as iffy for the game against the Raptors.
That's quite a cast potentially sitting out.
Still, quite a cast remains available.
The Nuggets have the luxury of depth this season as 11 different players average at least 11 minutes a game.
A loss like Lawson might hamper some teams. Not the Nuggets, who will simply plug in the veteran Andre Miller and hardly miss a beat.
"He's the master of the system, the professor," Nene said of Miller.
This versatility is precisely what team executive Masai Ujiri envisioned when he amassed the pieces to this squad. He added two big components just before the season, bringing in Brewer and Fernandez from Dallas in exchange for a future second-round pick.
Ujiri also doled out $110 million to re-sign Afflalo and Nene to five-year deals.
"We try to study all these players and see how they fit into George's system," Ujiri said. "You try to bring in the right players that you feel will do well in this system. These guys, they're buying into it and playing hard.
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