Posted January 26, 2012 on AP on Fox
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. ''We're a growing team. We're going to keep growing. It's going to take some time. This is not something that we put together to say, `OK, it's now or never.' We want to see these young guys grow.'' That's why the Nuggets made a commitment to Gallinari, the 23-year-old Italian forward who they think will only get better with more court time. Not only that, but the signing helps with stability. The last thing the Nuggets want to go through is another Anthony ordeal like last season, when they were shopping their star around for the best deal, rather than lose him for nothing in free agency. What the Nuggets ended up getting in return for Anthony has helped set this run in motion. They're 31-12 since reshaping their roster, becoming a team that doesn't rely on one player so much as a bunch of them. ''We have a lot of really good players, unselfish players,'' Gallinari said. ''Everybody really likes to work hard.'' That's certainly what has stood out to Ujiri, who stopped by to observe a packed practice floor Thursday on what was an optional day for the players. ''You see them here, they are basketball junkies,'' Ujiri said. ''They come in here and work. There's something to be said for them. Hopefully, it translates to wins, into building something.'' --- Follow AP Sports Writer Pat Graham on Twitter:

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