The Denver Nuggets are 9-4 over their last 13 games but it feels like they’ve been in a slump. Is it more encouraging that they’ve found ways to win or discouraging that they’ve rarely looked like their best self?
Ryan Blackburn: I would lean toward encouraging if the goal is to win a first round playoff series. The teams that are versatile, resourceful, and simply refuse to fail are generally the most successful in the first round. The teams that advance beyond that are the ones with the most talented team and/or player. The Nuggets are in that first stage right now. They are 29-14 in games that incur clutch time, the second best record in the league according to the NBA website. That resiliency bodes well for a first round matchup.
Evan Fiala: I’m a little pessimistic about this. It’s great they have continued to win, but they HAVE to be near their peak if they want to win in the playoffs, no matter who they play in the first round. Hopefully the win over San Antonio will jump start things again.
Gordon Gross: This is basically the ugliest version of Denver that we’ve seen since the first couple weeks of the season. The fact that they’re still 9-4 is great, but this isn’t Denver basketball. Great teams win even with their B and C games rather than having to bring the A game, but we don’t know if Denver can find its A game when the playoffs get here and that’s a bit unsettling. That said, I’m still not concerned. Denver knows HOW to play their game, they just aren’t doing it. But by keeping a top-3 seed they are ensuring they might not need to in order to get out of the first round. It buys them time, and is a good experience to have under their belts.
Ashley Douglas: After the loss to the Washington Wizards, I found myself being overly critical of the Nuggets’ inconsistency lately, and irritated with them for not playing what we all know to be their best. However, I had to stop and realize they’ve performed better than we EVER expected they would this season so we have to keep it in perspective. Sure, it’s frustrating to see them not play to their full potential, but they’ve found ways to keep winning so overall I’m pumped about where they’re at.
The Nuggets can clinch the division title with a win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night. How big of an accomplishment is that?
Blackburn: It’s a massive accomplishment. A year after finishing in last place in the division by virtue of a Game 82 loss to Minnesota, the Nuggets leapfrogging every Northwest division opponent, given the strength of this division. Utah, Portland, and Oklahoma City all have playoff experience and veterans one might expect to elevate their teams over Denver, but the Nuggets have been better than all of those teams for the majority of the season.
Fiala: It’s impressive for sure given how deep the division is, but let’s be honest, division titles are meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
Gross: I consider it less of an achievement than a marker. It’s been almost a decade since Denver pulled that off the last time. Sign posts are good. They tell you where you are, and hopefully where you’re going. It’s a good sign post to reach and a sign of how far Denver has come with this rebuild.
Douglas: Expanding on my previous answer, they’ve already gone above and beyond what we thought they would do this year, so clinching their division is just icing on the cake. The accomplishment has already been made, and the the division title is an expected task to be checked off to close out the regular season on a high-note.
If the Nuggets secure a top 3-seed on Friday, would you rather see the Nuggets rest key players down the stretch or push for the 2-seed?
Blackburn: At this point, I’m all for resting players, snagging the 3 seed, and facing the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. That’s the best playoff matchup for the Nuggets, and it doesn’t look like the Clippers will shift from the 6 seed. Denver can rest Nikola Jokic, start game planning for Los Angeles, and get the roster right before the playoffs.
Fiala: I would lower the minutes played for Jokic, Murray and Millsap but the only game I would fully rest anyone is against Minnesota on that back-to-back. The playoffs start on the 13th which would give a full 3 days between the end of the season and Game 1, plenty of time to recharge. I would be worried about guys getting more rusty than they already are if they rest too early.
Gross: Play the backups. They need to get back in a groove too. Barton, Harris, Jokic, Murray... they could all use some rest in a game or two. Consider it a recalibration, a tune-up before the playoff battle begins.
Douglas: I wouldn’t say that I would like to see them completely rest key players, but perhaps decreasing their minutes to allow the bench to see some time isn’t a bad idea. I’m a bit of a stickler that fans paying to see their favorite players shouldn’t have to deal with them sitting out due to rest, but that’s another column altogether.
Blackburn: As I mentioned above, I think the Clippers are the best matchup. Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, and Montrezl Harrell are dangerous pieces, but the Nuggets have the defenders to match up with those guys, and the Clippers don’t have an answer for Nikola Jokic other than getting him ejected (which seems reasonably likely in one of the games). The Spurs and Thunder are teams the Nuggets have had success against, but I’d still feel more comfortable against the Clippers.
Fiala: Imagine this: It’s game one of the first round. The first playoff game at Pepsi Center in six years. Everyone is pumped, it’s a packed house. Rocky is going nuts. They go to announce the opposing team. Which opposing player will get the Denver crowd fired up the most? Not Danilo Gallinari or LaMarcus Aldrige. It’s Russell Westbrook. The lid of the arena would get blown off with how many “boos” he would get. It would be a phenomenal playoff atmosphere. Yes, the Clippers might be the easier match up on paper, but I want to play the Thunder in the first round because it would be the most satisfying to win. And if Denver ends up losing, it would still probably be the most entertaining series.
Gross: Not the Spurs. I will take the Clippers, as Denver matches up well with them at most positions, or the Thunder who have not been able to solve the riddle of Denver’s offense OR defense this year (despite the likelihood that the Playoff Thunder have a different level of acclimation to the environment and stakes than the Playoff Nuggets have). Stay away from Pop and the Spurs. He deliberately got thrown out of an important game for the standings a minute into it and threw the contest with vanilla play, then called Malone “Mikey” to laughs from everyone including Malone (who adores Pop and vice versa). But this is business, and I don’t want Malone dealing with Pop - who knows him as well as anyone who isn’t Malone’s own father - in Malone’s first playoffs series as the head coach. Give me anyone but the Spurs, thanks.
Douglas: Clippers for sure. The Spurs have one not-so-secret weapon in Coach Gregg Popovich, and he has FAR more post-season experience than Coach Mike Malone so even though the Nuggets just beat them soundly that means nothing for the playoffs. Also, Russell Westbrook is never one to underestimate and he also has high-level playoff experience so the Nuggets could have their work cut out for them if they meet either of these teams. The Clippers are still developing, and only lately have they really come into their own. I’m a huge Danilo Gallinari fan, but he’s kind of the main-guy for LA, and I don’t think he can stand up against the depth and skill level of the Nuggets today. Sorry, Gallo.