Post All-Star break, the Nuggets have locked in and stayed focused on winning. Up until Thursday, they had won the last 9 games at home, and they remain neck and neck with the Golden State Warriors for the first place slot in the West.
To be honest, I couldn’t care less whether or not the Nuggets take first or second in the West as the position relates to their bragging rights. I’m more concerned about who they’ll match up with in the first round of the playoffs. If the post-season started today, they’d face the San Antonio Spurs in the first round, and if they had captured first with a win over Utah, they’d meet the Los Angeles Clippers.
Both teams offer a solid opportunity for the Nuggets to capture a series win, but I’m more confident about the Nuggets over the Clippers than I am about the Nuggets over the Spurs for the sole reason that Coach Gregg Popovich cannot be underestimated.
With just about 6 weeks to go in the regular season, competition continues to get more intense, and I’m glad to see the Nuggets rising to the challenge.
Let’s look at some of the top moments of this week.
Paul Millsap taps into the fountain of youth
The Nuggets executed on all fronts (minus turnovers) against the Clippers on Sunday of this week capturing a blowout win by nearly 30 points. As we all know, the Nuggets rely on Nikola Jokic to bring in the bacon every night, but it’s role players like Millsap that can make or break the team—especially at this point in the season.
Against the Clippers, Millsap got the job done to say the least bringing in 21 points and 16 rebounds. Beyond his scoring impact, he led the defensive effort (something the Nuggets really rely on him for) by contesting 18 shots.
Coach Mike Malone was happy will Millsap’s performance stating,
Paul found the fountain of youth or something. He’s playing like a young Paul Millsap. He’s flying around. We chart everything, Paul Millsap by himself, he contested 18 shots tonight. Eighteen shots, 21 points, 16 rebounds and just impacting the game. His energy is infectious for all the other guys.
Millsap brings a steady defensive focus to the roster, and although the team has adopted a consistent focus on defense throughout the season, I anticipate that younger players might get a little excited heading into the post-season and need some solid grounding.
I’m excited to see Millsap’s experience ready for Denver as the playoffs approach. They’ll surely need his expertise on the court if they want to make it past the first round and possibly beyond.
Nuggets beat the Thunder led by Jokic
The Nuggets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder this week despite a late game rally from Russel Westbrook and his roster. Westbrook is a tricky competitor, and he can’t ever be counted out until the final buzzer sounds. He has an uncanny ability to secure wins, and at third place in the Western Conference, he’s working to lead his team to capture the best position they can get.
In past seasons, the Nuggets have struggled to close out games against the Thunder, but that wasn’t the case this week. Jokic led the charge bringing in 36 points, 9 rebounds and 10 assists—just one rebound shy of yet another triple double.
What I most liked about this win was seeing Jokic truly embrace his role as the man to get the job done when the game is on the line. I’ve said many times before that I like his unselfish style of play, but I also like to see him step into the spotlight when he needs to.
And, Coach Malone isn’t shy about who his go-to is in crunch time.
When the game’s on the line, we’re going to one guy: Nikola Jokic. He’s been able to score in the post against single coverage, double teams. We’ve won so many close games ... and a lot of those you can attribute to Nikola being effective and efficient in the post and score, make the right play or go to the foul line and make a free throw.
In his typical humble style Jokic commented on the importance of his late-game contributions,
Even if I don’t score, I think I can bring something. I can make a good pass. I think the coaches are comfortable to call plays for me and I think the team trusts me.
What’s better is that Jokic appears to trust himself in those moments, and he’s confident he can make a game-winning difference at closing.
The ups come with some downs
Nuggets lost at home to Utah Isaiah Thomas had a bad game
Get over it.
In the Nuggets’ loss to the Jazz on Thursday Thomas’ game was less-than stellar with only 4 points in 11 minutes. He also added 2 turnovers and finished at a -10. Ouch.
However, Thomas was hardly the only Nugget to struggle against Utah. Malik Beasley brought in only 6 points in 24 minutes, Gary Harris contributed 8 points in 22 minutes, and Juancho Hernangomez didn’t even get on the board in his 10 minutes. Meanwhile, Rudy Gobert did a pretty great job at shutting Jokic down almost entirely.
Everyone seemed truly shocked by Thomas’ performance and I even I saw an article headline saying something about the honeymoon period possibly being over for Thomas with the Nuggets fans.
Seriously? Guys, come on.
Thomas made his Nuggets debut just recently after being out for nearly ONE YEAR with a nagging injury that never had the chance to properly heal. His performance for Denver has been pretty great, and he’s done much better than I expected him to.
In his first 5 games (yep, only 5) as a Nugget, Thomas is averaging about 15 minutes per game, and averaging nearly 10 points in his time on the court. And, from what I’ve seen he’s been aggressive at getting to the rim, drawing fouls and quite frankly hitting the ground running.
The moral of the story? Chill. Thomas is a top-level competitor, but he’s working to adjust to a new team and a different style of play. I fully expect it to take him more than a hand full of games to master the Nuggets’ offense. With six weeks until the playoffs begin, I anticipate that will be plenty of time for him to get cozy in time to be a stand-out contributor in the post-season.
The Nuggets are just half of a game back as March begins, and I expect to see them press-on at the top through the end of the season. They’re showing no signs of majorly slowing down, so I’m excited to see where they’ll place mid-April.