This edition of Stat of the Week will focus on the semi-incredible run the Denver Nuggets have made in the last few games in a push for the playoffs and discussing different scenarios in which they can actually get into the postseason.
A week ago, the Nuggets were dead in the water. On the brink of elimination, facing a gauntlet of playoff teams while other teams face easier schedules, many Nuggets analysts, including myself, began to write off this team’s playoff chances. The odds were just too great, and the other teams just weren’t losing to help Denver catch back up.
Fast forward a week, and the Nuggets have won four games in a row against four playoff teams: the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Indiana Pacers, and most recently, the Minnesota Timberwolves.
They have done the spectacular, coming back from 18 points down midway through the fourth quarter against Milwaukee, including Jamal Murray stealing an inbounds pass and hitting three free throws in a row after a three-point shooting foul with less than three seconds remaining. They won that overtime game against the Bucks, but also a back-and-forth contest against the Thunder. They applied the accelerator late in the fourth quarter against the Pacers and the Wolves, coming through in big moments where previous iterations of Nuggets teams may have crumbled under the pressure.
The final three games of the season come Saturday on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, home against the Portland Trail Blazers, and a rematch on the road against the T’Wolves. None of those games will be easy by any stretch, but there are possibilities for clinching and elimination scenarios for each of the first two.
Now, because of their hard work, the Nuggets control their own destiny in the final three games of the year. Let’s break down the various scenarios of what Denver must do to get into the playoff picture.
Scenario #1: Win and you’re in
Because of the excellent work the Nuggets have done over the past week, they control their destiny completely. With three games left, all Denver has to do is go 3-0 against the teams in front of them.
Even if the opposing Western Conference teams win as many games as they possibly can, Denver truly controls their destiny now. As long as they win their three games, the Timberwolves are eliminated from playoff contention. Not only that, because the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans play against each other on the final game of the season, the most games each of those teams can win is 48 and 47 respectively. That means that the team with 47 wins would be tied for Denver, and Denver would have tiebreaker over either team.
If the Pelicans are tied with the Nuggets, the Nuggets own a simple head-to-head tiebreaker over them because they won the season series 2-1. If the Spurs are tied with the Nuggets, the tiebreaker would go deeper because the two teams would (hypothetically) be tied in head-to-head and conference record. The next tiebreaker is winning percentage against other teams in the Western Conference playoff picture, and Denver wins that one easily.
That means that the lowest seed the Nuggets can now get if they run the table is a seventh seed, meaning that the minimum, a date with the Golden State Warriors in round one.
However, that’s not all the good news.
All Denver needs to be more than just a seventh seed is a single slip up by one of the teams ahead of them. If Oklahoma City loses on the road against Houston on Saturday and wins the rest of their games, they too would be 47-35. Because Denver won the season series against the Thunder, Denver would best them in any tiebreaker. The same goes for the Spurs and the Pelicans, as was detailed above.
In a three-way tiebreaker between any of those four teams (New Orleans, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver), the Nuggets come out on top.
In a four-way tiebreaker between the four teams, Denver would become the fifth seed due to having the best combined record against the four teams.
And it’s not like a slip up from any of those teams would be out of the ordinary. The Thunder play Houston and Miami in their next two games. The Spurs play Portland and New Orleans in two of their next three. The Pelicans play Golden State, the LA Clippers, and San Antonio in their last three games. I could see all of those games being losses for that group, let alone just one single loss for each of them.
All in all, the Nuggets are in a great spot of they simply win their games. Get a little help, and they may be in a better spot.
Scenario #2 - Win two games against Portland and Minnesota
Denver’s chances to make the playoffs become slightly less bleak in this scenario, but ultimately, they still hold the tiebreaker over the T’Wolves as long as they win these two games.
No matter what the T’Wolves do, they play the Nuggets again on Wednesday in the season finale. If Denver wins their game against Portland, it doesn’t actually matter what happens in Los Angeles unless Denver is gunning for a higher seed.
Here’s the rub though: Denver can’t lose the game against Portland instead. Because Portland is in Northwest division, just like Denver and Minnesota, that game is what helps Denver have the tiebreaker. If Denver wins that game and the one against Minnesota, Denver’s division record of 10-6 would elevate them above Minnesota, who would have a record of 9-7. If Denver lost that Portland game and won the LA Clippers game instead, the two teams would have the same division record, and the conference record tiebreaker would go to Minnesota.
Scenario #3 - Get help from other teams
If Denver did happen to win against the Clippers and lose against the Blazers, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would put Denver in a perilous situation. The maximum number of wins Denver could have down the stretch would be 46 if they won two of three, but if they are only tied with Minnesota, they would be out.
That means that Denver needs a three-way tiebreaker (or more) in order to survive.
Assuming Minnesota is one of the teams Denver would be tied with, the other teams that tie at 46 wins must give way in a three way tiebreaker to Denver. One of them is New Orleans.
In order for this to work, Denver must win at least two of their games, including the contest against Minnesota. In this scenario, it doesn’t matter which two. New Orleans has four games remaining: a gimme against Phoenix, and three hypothetically tough games against Golden State, the LA Clippers, and San Antonio. The Warriors are still working through some issues but are a tough matchup any given night. The Clippers may be eliminated at this point, so they may not play their best players. They don’t have any reason to lose though, as their draft position is basically locked in to the 13th pick in the draft. The Spurs are playing for seeding, and they surely wouldn’t want to fall below the sixth seed if they can avoid a matchup with the Warriors in the first round.
The combination of factors make this scenario possible. It gives Denver an outlet just in case they win the Clippers game and not the Blazers game.
The same can be said if the Thunder or Spurs drop as well. Here’s what happens in a three-way tie if the Thunder lose both games against Houston and Miami.
In this scenario, Denver gets the eighth seed because they lose a conference record tiebreaker with Minnesota once again, but if they win against Portland instead of Los Angeles, Denver jumps to the seventh seed. This involves a lot of help from a team that has nothing left to play for (Houston) and a team that may be worse than the Thunder (Miami), but that will be a national television game on Saturday night in Houston, and Miami is still fighting for seeding at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Both losses could certainly occur, and if they do, Denver has another outlet.
(On an aside, if the Thunder miss the playoffs and the Nuggets get in, Denver should be making their pitch to Paul George this summer that their team is a playoff team and still growing, while Los Angeles affords no such certainty.)
Finally, if the Spurs tie with the Nuggets and Timberwolves at 46-36, assuming the Nuggets win their final game against Minnesota, the Timberwolves would be out of the playoffs.
Portland and New Orleans would have to do Denver a favor in order to pull this off, but suddenly, the Blazers are in danger of losing their hold on the third seed. Utah is charging fast, and they hold a tiebreaker right now, so if the Blazers want to give themselves a bit of breathing room, they may try and win against the Spurs and hope Utah loses to the Lakers or Warriors. New Orleans is also clearly trying, and if they lose that final game in this scenario, they would be out of the playoffs entirely.
All that being said, if San Antonio, Minnesota, and Denver are thrown into a three-way tie, Denver will come out second behind the Spurs and be the eighth seed. Wednesday’s game against the Wolves is effectively an elimination in this case.
Scenario #4 - Can they go 1-2 and still make the playoffs?
The answer is yes, but only if a miracle occurs.
At 44-35. Denver would then finish the season at 45-37. That means that other teams have to finish 45-37 or lower. Because San Antonio and Oklahoma City both play teams that are in the tank race, it would be irresponsible to predict that either team loses one of those games. Since each team has 45 wins already, they probably will finish with 46 or more.
New Orleans and Minnesota are the two teams that Denver must rely on to lose then. New Orleans also plays a tanker, but they play three tough games after that and would have to lose all three. Minnesota would also have to lose to the Lakers tonight, which isn’t necessarily the hardest game to lose but doesn’t count as a loss until it actually happens.
Denver would then have to lose their next two and win the final one against Minnesota, creating the three-way tiebreaker that Minnesota wins, Denver comes in second, and New Orleans is left hanging out to dry.
Oh, and the Clippers would need to win against New Orleans and Denver AND lose against the Lakers on the last day of the year.
Don’t count on this one Nuggets fans. Too much has to happen.
Don’t think that Denver can win the first two games and plan on resting during the last one. Unless multiple teams are behind Denver by a game in the standings at that point, the Nuggets will have no clinching scenarios before the last game of the year. They will likely have to win to get in, or simply hope another team loses to be tied with them in the loss column.
Overall, Denver’s best chance is to leave nothing up to chance. Win and get in, sweep the next three games, and let the chips fall where they may. There are scenarios where they go 2-1 and still make it, but Denver needs at least a little bit of help in most of those scenarios.
If they win the last two games of the year, they are definitely in.
If they win the last three games of the year, they definitely are in and definitely not playing the Houston Rockets in the first round.
After a tumultuous season filled with as many peaks and valleys as there have been, it’s crazy to think that the Nuggets still control their own destiny. Still, here we are. It will take a big effort from Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, Jamal Murray, and the rest of the Nuggets to get in, but if they do, the season becomes an unquestionable success and should be treated as such.