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How Denver’s altitude weighs down Nuggets’ opponents

The Nuggets are preparing for their first NBA Finals. To get this far, Nikola Jokic and his teammates had a very good regular season, finishing with the best record in the Western Conference.

Carried by their double MVP, the Nuggets notably relied on an impressive solidity at home. In their dear Ball Arena, they ended up with an overall regular season record of 34 wins and only 7 losses, the second best home record in the entire league behind the Grizzlies. In the playoffs, the record posted at home is even perfect: 8 wins in 8 games!

A breathtaking altitude

While the numbers show Mike Malone’s men are very solid at home, there is an unseen factor that gives the Nuggets an edge. Nicknamed “Mile High City”, the city of Denver is located, as its nickname suggests, at a “mile” of altitude. That is exactly 1,609 meters above sea level. And if the Nuggets players have become used to playing at such an altitude, this is logically not the case for their opponents.

“We are in Denver. The air is scarce here” recalled Jamal Murrayafter Game 2 against the Lakers. “But you have to hang on and fight… Jokic is also exhausted. We were all tired, but we held on. We know they are tired too. We used to play in Denver and they less so. So we know that even if we are tired, they will be just as tired, if not more..

Colorado is thus the highest state in the United States in terms of average altitude. That of Denver logically affects the body of athletes, and particularly visitors. Each breath contains less oxygen than what NBA basketball players are used to in other cities.

This is not a big deal for tourists, but for those who are expected to engage in intense physical activity, such as professional athletes, the effects are felt. Heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure increase as the body compensates for the lower oxygen concentration of each breath to bring more oxygen to the cells. Fatigue and the perception of effort thus occur more quickly.

Altitude is therefore an important advantage compared to other teams. This is a real environmental factor which logically favors the home team. This is why we have seen teams like the Suns or the Lakers arrive earlier in Denver, in order to acclimatize before their playoff series.

An adaptation that takes time

Mike Malone therefore obviously wants to take advantage of this advantage and therefore insisted on the importance for his team of running and pushing the pace very early in the matches.

Although the altitude is known to tire athletes more quickly, it therefore benefits the locals. As a fast-paced team, the Nuggets benefit because they were able to improve their physical condition at the altitude of Denver. In addition, Jamal Murray’s teammates are currently the best NBA team in points scored in home transition since the start of the playoffs, with 19.3 per game.

“We see it throughout the season when the teams come here” underlined the coach. “The altitude is real. Miami arrived late after Game 7 on Monday, so they’ll try to acclimatize as quickly as possible. When we manage to establish this rhythm of play, it is very difficult for the visiting teams to maintain it at the start. Most teams eventually find a second wind and are able to adapt to this rhythm. But yes, the altitude is there. Might as well use it to our advantage”.

The human body can adapt to the altitude, but it takes several days. According to some studies, the time needed to acclimatize to a higher altitude can be calculated by multiplying the altitude in kilometers by 11.4 days. According to this formula, it would take the body about 18 days to fully acclimatize to the thin Denver air. Additionally, one of the possible side effects of altitude is lack of sleep.

The best “home field advantage” in NBA history

Today valuable player in the rotation of the Nuggets, Aaron Gordon does not have a good memory of the altitude of Denver, when he came to play there during his time in Orlando. He thus had to become a player of the Nuggets to acclimatize to the climatic conditions of the region.

“There is no doubt, oh my God” does he rememberabout the altitude he felt when moving around Denver. “I didn’t even feel my muscles. I felt like there wasn’t even enough oxygen in my muscles when I played here. It was crazy. It takes a week or two to get used to it”.

One thing is certain: Miami will not have time to fully adapt to Denver’s altitude. In addition, the last victory of Erik Spoelstra’s men in Colorado dates back to 2016.

“We play there once a year” explains Tyler Herro. “So we don’t have a lot of experience when it comes to matches at altitude. This year we played in Mexico City, where the altitude is higher than Denver. But we feel it. It’s an adjustment, that’s for sure”.

ESPN also notes that the Nuggets have a home win rate (regular season) of 65.2% since their arrival in the NBA. Outside of Denver, the winning percentage is just 35%, a difference of 30.2 percentage points between home and away wins. The largest gap for an operating franchise.

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