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With no help in sight, the Nuggets must create their own playoff path

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Everyone keeps winning, and the Nuggets must follow suit if they want a chance to save their season.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

I watched the fifth installment of Mission: Impossible with my dad last night.

Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise, continues to create something out of nothing in these movies. Hanging off of an airplane, diving into a vortex, nearly dying at every turn, that’s the life of a secret agent. Perilous.

The whole premise of the Mission: Impossible series comes from the title. Secret agents and even regular people are put in impossibly difficult situations and asked to find a solution. The problem may not always be a normal one, and the solution may not be the one that was expected. Even still, Tom Cruise and his team always seem to find a way to save the day.

The Denver Nuggets are trying to save the day, but first, they need to save their own skin.

The Portland Trail Blazers won again last night. Against the Miami Heat, Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, and the rest of the Blazers have begun to separate themselves, having won their 11th straight contest. At 41-26, the Blazers are solidly in third place in the Western Conference, and while a quick losing streak could bring them back into the pack, there’s no reason to believe they will fall out entirely now.

But it’s not just the Blazers that are making things difficult for the Denver Nuggets to keep pace in the Western Conference playoff picture.

Here are the records of every Western Conference team seeded 3rd through 10th since February 1st:

The playoff race, closer than ever.

Every team in the playoff race has a winning percentage greater than .500 since the beginning of February except the San Antonio Spurs. At 3-11 over their last 14, the Spurs have opened the door for the rest of the West, and most teams are taking advantage. The Nuggets, for all intents and purposes, aren’t doing too badly. It’s the fact that four other teams have the same or better winning percentage during this stretch has hurt so much.

Advanced metrics and playoff projection systems are all against Denver’s postseason odds because of it. ESPN’s BPI playoff odds project Denver’s final record at 44-38 with just a 42.2% chance to make the playoffs, 10th in the West. FiveThirtyEight’s projection is similar, a 44-38 record with a 48% chance of making the playoffs, still at 10th.

Nobody else is losing. The one team that is, San Antonio, is rumored to be getting back Kawhi Leonard on Thursday, their biggest star.

Most every team has dealt with their fair share of injuries, aside from those Blazers at the top of the group. Oklahoma City lost Andre Roberson for the year. New Orleans lost DeMarcus Cousins for the year. Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler has been and may continue to be out until April. Los Angeles missed former Denver forward Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic for a long stretch, and their entire team has had the injury bug. Utah has missed Rudy Gobert for long stretches. Denver has obviously missed Paul Millsap.

And yet, none of those injuries have broken their respective teams. At least not yet.

Time and time again, Nuggets fans have been caught box score watching, hoping for losses by their competitors to make Denver’s journey slightly less weary. Time and time again, those competitors have answered the bell. The cumulative record of all eight teams since February is 80-46, which would be the pace of a team that went 52-30 over a full season. Remove the Spurs’ 3-11 record, and that pace rises to a 56 win team.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Almost every team is doing that right now, which means that the Nuggets can’t afford to slip up anymore. Denver’s last chance was spent against the Dallas Mavericks in a game they had to have and the Mavericks had to lose. There are no more freebies, not with the pace of this playoff race.

There are 15 games left for Denver, and five of those are against the above teams. The first of them? The last game of the upcoming seven-game road trip against the Thunder on March 30th. Between today’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers and that game, there are eight contests Denver must worry about first. They don’t have to go 8-0, nor should anyone expect them to, but they have to come close. Four of those games come against teams with sub .500 records over the next nine days, meaning if Denver slips during this stretch, they will be so far in a hole that they might as well start preparing for the NBA Draft.

It’s not impossible for the Nuggets to make the playoffs. Heck, it’s not impossible for them to be a 4th or 5th seed in a week’s time. Win the next three games in a row while other playoff teams play each other. One playoff team must lose to the other, meaning that one team will slip. Get enough slips from the collective group, and the Nuggets will find their way into the top eight.

But no one will gift the Nuggets a top eight slot. No one is about to help push them over the top. Tanking teams aren’t going to win games against this group. Not even the Warriors can stop the Blazers and Timberwolves from winning, a Stephen Curry ankle sprain be damned.

In order to do this, the Nuggets have to forge their own path. Nikola Jokic has to be his best self. Gary Harris has to step up. Jamal Murray has to become a star on the fly. Paul Millsap has to fly around on the defensive end.

If not, change is coming.