The NBA Western Conference is jam packed with amazing talent and this year the competition is fierce to say the least. With just over a week until the All-Star break, it appears that the first seven playoff positions are pretty well spoken for, but the 8th seed is still very much up for grabs. Currently the Nuggets hold that last playoff slot, but after their loss to Atlanta on Wednesday their position has become even more fragile. The Nuggets are just one loss away from getting bumped out of the lineup, and the team faces Cleveland off of a back to back on Saturday after a few days on the road.
There are several teams who are making a serious play at a post season appearance (some more serious than others), and they all want Denver out of their way. Portland tops my list of threats, but let’s take a closer look at all the teams who are neck and neck with the Nuggets in the push for the playoffs.
The Pelicans make this list because they’re so close with Minnesota, Dallas and Sacramento in the win-loss category right now. However, the Pelicans lost to the Utah Jazz in epic fashion this week—by 33 points to be exact. Coming up, they’re slated to face hungry Minnesota, and the Sacramento Kings who reportedly committed to keeping Cousins around a little longer which will probably cause the team and their fans to experience a little boost.
The Pelicans’ next couple of weeks also include the Grizzlies and the Rockets which will likely spell disaster for them so although this team is a threat to the Nuggets based on their win-loss record I don’t consider them a serious one. Bottom line is the Pelicans have no heart to win, and they have no leader. Anthony Davis puts up unreal numbers every night and yet the team is still producing a losing season. To be fair, with a team name of Pelicans they were really set up to fail from the beginning. Seriously, I want to meet the committee who picked that name, but I digress. Do I think New Orleans will make a play for the 8th seed? Yes. Do I think they’re serious about it? No.
The T-Wolves are struggling a little more than I thought they would this season but their young roster has all the makings of something very special. Right now they’re three games behind Denver for the 8th seed, but they just snapped a four-game losing streak against the Toronto Raptors. The upside for the Timberwolves is that they’re headed into a three-game home stand where they’ve fared a little better than they have on the road this season.
However, Minnesota does have a challenging couple of weeks ahead, especially with the loss of Zach LaVine for the remainder of the season. They face up against three of the teams who are clamoring for the 8th playoff slot to include the Denver Nuggets where the Timberwolves are coming off a back to back from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The T-Wolves face the Cavs for the second time in two weeks after a 28-point blowout loss in the first match-up so they will be looking to get revenge. Karl-Anthony Towns has stepped up his game under the rim considerably in the last 10 games and he’s been bringing in about 8% more from the field. If Denver wants to stop him and keep their spot they’ll need to bring the defense they brought to the Mavs on Monday.
The Sacramento Kings have certainly had a bumpy season adapting to yet another new coach, but they seem to be slowly getting it together, together. The Kings recently fell victim to trade rumors about DeMarcus Cousins as they do every year around this time, but Kings’ GM Vlade Divac stated that there’s “no way” Cousins will be dealt this season and hopes he’s “here for a long time.” No one will know for sure if this is true until the trade deadline passes, but it is a comforting message for players to hear in the midst of uncertainty.
Sacramento has lost 5 of their last 10 games, and they face Boston and Atlanta before getting a bit of a break with the Pelicans and the Lakers. Sometimes the stress of a trade possibility keeps players on edge, and sometimes the stress of possibly losing a teammate and a team leader can impact those who may not be on the market. With the very public commitment from the GM it’s likely that players are breathing a sigh of relief and will see a boost in energy and numbers.
The thought of Boogie sticking around probably has everyone sleeping a little better at night, and focusing in on a playoff appearance. Case in point, the Kings just beat the Boston Celtics by 16 points. Boston currently holds the #2 seed in the East so the Kings have proven to themselves that they can compete at a high level and win. So far this month, the Kings are shooting at a higher percentage from the field, they’re rebounding more and moving the ball more—all signs point to success in the coming weeks if they keep it up. They sit just two games behind Denver, and they’re picking up speed.
The Mavs have stirred up a lot of chatter recently due to an apparent surge in momentum. Rookie Yogi Ferrell has been attracting major attention and he’s trending upward sparking some hope for Dallas and their fan base. Dallas has won 6 of their last 10 games, but they face some tough teams in the coming days. They match-up with 4th seed Utah Jazz and go on to host the Boston Celtics who are also riding high in the East right now.
The good news for Dallas is that they are starting a 3-game home stand with the Jazz, and they’re about 500 on their own court. Adding to that, Yogi averages 9.5 points per game for the season, but in the last 10 games he’s bringing in 16.3 points and 4.5 assists compared to his season average of 2.8. Anytime you see a player’s assist average spike like that it means very good things are happening on his team as we all have seen with Nikola Jokic. Dallas is also coming off a two-game losing streak so they will be looking to get back into gear and make a major push for wins as we approach the All-Star break. They are a serious threat to Denver’s playoff position right now, and they’re just three games away from that 8th spot so keep your eye on them.
Portland has no business sitting at the 9th seed in the West right now. They’re a much better team than their win-loss record reflects, and they’re just one win away from bumping Denver out of playoff position. Portland is coming off a win against the Dallas Mavericks, but they have a very challenging schedule up ahead. They host the Celtics and the Hawks this week before heading out to face the Utah Jazz on the road. They’re 14 and 11 at home so they’ll be looking to protect their home court to secure their position in the post season before heading into All Star weekend.
Damian Lillard is arguably one of the best guards in the league so why they can’t seem to get it together is beyond me. With a lineup boasting Lillard, CJ McCollum & Mason Plumlee the Trail Blazers definitely have the talent to secure a playoffs appearance. Portland doesn’t see Denver until March 28th at their house, and the Trail Blazers lead the season series with the Nuggets 2-1. We all know the heart breakers the first two losses were so hopefully Denver can get back some momentum to tie it up.
The Nuggets are coming off a frustrating loss to the Atlanta Hawks, and they go on to face New York and then Cleveland back to back. They’re not playing like they did in January, and I’d like to take a moment to express some frustration with Mike Malone. The loss to Atlanta should never have happened. Denver’s rookies played their hearts out, and just when the Nuggets got within striking distance of a win Malone pulls everyone out to put in the non-performers of the game causing them to lose by 11.
Will Barton had an incredible performance against Mavs on Monday, but he got too excited and tried to come in and be a hero again instead of play-making and sharing the ball. Jameer Nelson played THIRTY minutes, scored 6 points, and brought in one, yes one, rebound. In contrast, Jamal Murray played 21 minutes and brought in 11 points & 5 rebounds and was part of the group who helped get the Nuggets in position for a win. Malone has a tendency to pull players when they’re hot which is a momentum killer and a death sentence for the game. The rooks are on the rise so Malone needs to give them the minutes they deserve. I know how hard the Nuggets have worked this season to get to the playoffs, and they’re now in a place where they’ll have to fight like hell to defend their position.
It’s important now to keep the main thing the main thing and focus on what clicked for the team in January. Move the ball, attack on D, cut, and maintain pace for the win. The stiff competition will be good for the baby fresh Nuggs--sharpening them to play at a higher level next season.