With three games remaining in the 2011-12 NBA season, the Nuggets can control their own destiny and claim the 6th overall seed in the Western Conference playoffs. That begins with a back-to-back victory over the Orlando Magic in Denver on Sunday evening.
Denver: 35-28 (19-13 at home)
Streak: Won 1
Magic: 36-27 (16-15 on the road)
Streak: Lost 2
Season Series: 1-0 Nuggets
Opposition's Take: Orlando Pinstriped Post
In one of the more bizarre scheduling oddities in a season full of scheduling oddities, the Dallas Mavericks have already played 65 games and their 66th and final game doesn't come until Thursday night. The Nuggets, meanwhile, have three more games to play. Currently, the Mavericks - who hold the tiebreaker with Denver - are 36-29, meaning the most amount of games they can win this season is 37 (which will be tough as their 66th game takes place at Atlanta).
The Nuggets, on the other hand, can run the tables and get themselves 38 wins or, if Dallas can't win Thursday, the Nuggets need only win two of their last three to get 37 wins. Given that an at-Oklahoma City victory (happening Wednesday) is highly unlikely, the Nuggets have to beat the Magic tonight to have any shot at that the 6th seed.
Even though the Nuggets are playing the second of a back-to-back tonight, they should win this game. While the Nuggets easily handled the Suns at Phoenix in a mid-day Saturday affair, the Magic found themselves in a late night dogfight at Utah where they lost in overtime. Assuming the Magic got into Denver sometime in the wee hours of the morning, they will be gassed from the opening tip this evening.
Moreover, the Nuggets took care of the Dwight Howard-less Magic at Orlando as recently as April 1st. In that game, the Nuggets took advantage of a (rare) cold shooting night from three-point range by the Magic - had a (even more rare) decent three-point shooting game themselves - and won 104-101 thanks to big games from both Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo.
Since then, the Magic have been in a full free fall. Including the few games before they hosted the Nuggets, the Magic have won just 4 of their last 13 games while dealing with the news that Howard wants head coach Stan Van Gundy fired (something Van Gundy said directly to the media ... good for him, by the way!) and then the second blow: Howard needs back surgery and is done for the season. The Magic were starting to stink it up with a disgruntled Howard. With no Howard, they have no chance.
Without Howard, the Magic are at a sizable disadvantage height-wise against the Nuggets. They will start the 6'7" Glen Davis at center and hope for the best while the Nuggets throw seven-footers Kosta Koufos, JaVale McGee and Timofey Mozgov back at them. Well, in theory that's what should happen. But we all know the Nuggets will probably play small ball and overuse Al Harrington and Andre Miller in the fourth quarter.
One big concern I have with playing the Magic is that they rely on shooting the three-ball and the Nuggets are terrible at defending the three-point shot. Should the Magic get hot from behind the arc, the Nuggets could be in trouble. Remember, the Nuggets barely beat the Howard-less Magic at Orlando and the Magic had a horribly uncharacteristic three-point shooting game.
SCOUTING THE MAGIC
-Jameer Nelson: Even though controversy has surrounded the Magic all season long, Nelson remains a steady contributor. In his last four games, Nelson has scored at least 16 points and has dished out at least 9 assists.
-Ryan Anderson: Anderson is having a breakout season, averaging a career-high 15.8 ppg and 7.8 rpg and he leads the league in three-pointers made per game with 2.7.
-Dwight Howard: Between the early season trade demands, the game-of-chicken he played with Magic management leading up the trade deadline, the constant feuds with Van Gundy and now the sudden back problems, Howard has proved to be one of the bigger divas in the NBA.
-Jason Richardson: J-Rich has fast become a shell of his former self, averaging a career-low 11.6 ppg.
-Gilbert Arenas: Even though Agent Zero isn't in a Magic uniform anymore, they get to pay him $19.2, $20.8 and $22.3 million over the next three years. Arenas is "amnestied", so it doesn't count against the cap, but still ...
The Nuggets have no excuse not to win tonight. The Magic's spirit is clearly broken, they're playing a brutal back-to-back, they played in overtime at Utah last night and they have no Dwight Howard or Hedo Turkoglu.
The 6th-seed is sitting right there for the Nuggets to take.