THE 12th of April last year feels like a lifetime ago. It’s been just under 12 months since the Denver Nuggets were locked in a battle with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the final playoff spot out West. Things didn’t go according to plan that night, with a 112-106 OT loss ending the Nuggets’ season before an expected postseason berth. Against Boston this week they got revenge locking up a playoff berth for 2019 and Mike Malone’s men are still vying for the top overall seed in their conference. While the on-court product has been something to marvel at there’s still an air of uncertainty around the Nuggets and the next two weeks could define them heading into the postseason.
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NO matter how the playoff unfolds this season, Denver can already consider this season as a win. Battling through injury adversity, the Nuggets have looked like a top team out West for the majority of the season. They’ve missed integral players like Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and Will Barton for big chunks of games and their bench heroes have helped to soften the blow. Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Mason Plumlee are the only Nuggets to play all 71 games through the season so far and their growth of the first duo has helped Denver excel. Starting 23 games between Morris and Beasley are just two of seven Nugs boasting double-digit point averages with that depth a catalyst of their 49 wins to date.
AFTER flirting with their rotation, Isaiah Thomas seems like he’ll be the odd one out and Denver will be aiming to solidify their lineup against some quality opponents over the rest of the regular season. Of their 11 remaining games, nine of them are against teams bound for the playoffs with the Nuggets owning the 4th hardest remaining schedule, with the Wizards and Timberwolves their other two opponents – not exactly easybeats. It will be a good tune-up for a Denver side riding six straight wins and eager to make their postseason trip worthwhile.
TRADITIONALLY we see sides develop naturally over the course of a few seasons. They go from a bad team to a budding team, usually followed by breaking through to the a cup of coffee in the playoffs and a first or second round exit. While that might be their fortunes this postseason, the proud owners of the best record in their conference right now seem to have missed a step. It should have happened last year and their failure to crack the postseason had Mike Malone teetering on the edge. Now bound to get some Coach of the Year votes, he will be put to the test in the playoffs, with matchups set to be very telling. As it stands right now the Nugs are 9-2 in the hardest division in the league, but both those losses have come at the hands of the Utah Jazz.
WITH four teams set to feature in the playoffs it’s is worth mentioning that Denver still has three games against Northwest foes where they could be handed another L. The Utah matchup in the playoffs would be the last thing Mike Malone’s men would want though. A Rudy Gobert battle against MVP threat Nikola Jokic could prove difficult to overcome for Denver with the Defensive Player of the Year chance in Gobert holding ‘Big Honey’ to just 40% shooting from three games so far.
REGARDLESS of who Jokic is matched up on, the Nuggets’ postseason could be defined by his sidekick Jamal Murray, who continues his accession as one of the brightest young talents in the NBA. It may sound like a big call for the third year gunner to be deemed in such high esteem, but when he produces Denver wins basketball games. They are 12-2 when the former Kentucky jet scores 23 or more and he continues to develop his consistency trying to offer the Nuggets a nightly source of points, Having Gary Harris and Paul Millsap out of the lineup for portions of the year has put more pressure on Murray to deliver, but make no mistake, he’ll be better from the extra defensive attention.
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THE remaining two weeks of the NBA season will be telling with Denver on the verge of setting themselves up for a deep playoff run in their first postseason action since 2013. On the other hand, a mediocre stretch over the next fortnight could result in them slipping to the third or fourth seed, potentially undoing all their hard work over the first few months of the season and facing the prospect of going on the road in round two.
LOCKING up as many appearances at home as they possible would be huge for a side that owns a 30-6 mark when they play in front of their fans – the best such record in the NBA. It will come in handy for a team that has very little playoff experience on their roster. Only four players on their roster have seen the playoffs before logging a combined 146 games of postseason practice, with Millsap accounting for 87 of them alone.
WILL the lack of playoff action hurt them in 2019? Maybe, but they can’t afford to lose sight of what can be won/lost in their final 11 games.
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