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NBA Power Rankings: Don’t count Denver out yet

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What does a really bad loss plus a really good win equal for the Denver Nuggets?

DENVER NUGGETS VS TORONTO RAPTORS, NBA REGULAR SEASON Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The NBA is a fickle thing sometimes. In what could arguably be considered the most important game of the year, in front of national audience no less, the Denver Nuggets crumbled in a frankly embarrassing defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers.

The takes flew in: Denver is soft, frauds, a finesse team not ready to battle with the real contenders of the Western Conference. Lineup configurations and coaching aside, for a hot minute it really did seem like they sky was falling.

All it took to erase that was a return home and a convincing 133-118 win over the defending champs. Nikola Jokic earned his 40th career triple-double, Jamal Murray continued his strong play and Gary Harris put the Gary Harris back in Gary Harris with his efficient 15 point night. All is well in Denver indeed.

Honestly, I expected the Nuggets to drop in the power rankings after Friday regardless of what came about against Toronto. Surprisingly, for the most part Denver either stayed flat or even increased in stock.

See what the national media outlets are saying below:

ESPN

Nuggets Rank: 4
Last week: 4

The 133-118 win Sunday over the Raptors was all kinds of impressive, and it showcased what can make the Nuggets special: the balance, the front-line talent and the defensive sturdiness. Head coach Michael Malone was upset after Denver’s loss to the Clippers — not unusual: Try Googling “Michael Malone calls out Nuggets,” and you’ll get quite a few results — but in this case he went with “soft.” Their response against Toronto was anything but that.

Bleacher Report

Nuggets Rank: 6
Last week: 6

The Clippers put a hurting on Denver on Friday with a 132-103 beatdown that could be described in several fashions more nuanced than the one Nuggets head coach Mike Malone chose.

”We didn’t approach the game the right way,” he told reporters. “They kicked our ass for 48 minutes. I can say that 10 different ways but that’s the bottom line.”

After a loss like that, brutal honesty was probably the right choice.

Denver has quietly lost three of its last four games against playoff-bound opponents, re-raising questions we thought it had already answered about its fitness against top teams. Prior to this recent stretch, the Nuggets were 4-1 in their last five games against teams currently in postseason position.

At least a 133-118 win against Toronto on Sunday in which Nikola Jokic poured in 23 points, 18 rebounds and 11 assists closed the week on a positive note.

The Athletic

Nuggets Rank: 6
Last week: 6

Nikola Jokic really did play himself into shape. We’ve all joked about the slow metabolism of the Denver Nuggets franchise player, but seeing him recently made me believe the claims that Jokic dropped 20-25 pounds in-season. He legitimately looks thinner and we know his play has been at MVP consideration levels. Taking the award from Giannis seems unlikely, but Jokic has looked like a guy worthy of a fifth or fourth place vote this season. Once again, the Nuggets are highly competitive for the 2-seed in the West. Jokic is impossible to stop on offense. And if he decides to be a score-first guy in the postseason, it’s hard to envision a game plan slowing him down. Then the Nuggets just need someone else to step up alongside him.

Negative Question: Is the backcourt good enough? Jamal Murray has been a volume scorer this year, but his efficiency leaves a lot to be desired. His jumper has shown the potential we’ve seen from him in college or for shorter stints during his young career. He’s so hot and cold that a little consistency from him would go a long way. On the other side of that, Gary Harris just can’t make shots. He’s barely over 40 percent from the field, and that only happened because he went 6-of-7 from the field on Sunday. He’s not a playmaker for others and his defense doesn’t seem to be what it once projected to be. Murray will have to be the second guy in the playoffs, but that’s tough to find confidence in.

NBA.com

Nuggets Rank: 6
Last week: 7

In their most important game of the season to date (Friday in L.A.), the Nuggets had their worst defensive performance, allowing the Clippers to score 132 points on 99 possessions in a wire-to-wire victory that gave the two teams identical records in the race for second place in the West. Two straight bad defensive possessions at the end of the first quarter put Michael Porter Jr. on the bench until garbage time, and the Nuggets have allowed 127 points per 100 possessions in his 69 post-break minutes. But he wasn’t the only source of breakdowns on that end of the floor as the Clips shot 54% and grabbed 35% of available offensive boards.

The Nuggets recovered from a bad defensive performance by shooting 57% (including 18-for-36 from 3-point range) and assisting on 38 of their 47 buckets against the league’s second-ranked defense on Sunday. They have the league’s fifth best offense and its fifth worst defense since the All-Star break.

The defensive numbers should improve, because their next two opponents rank 29th and 30th offensively since the break. After hosting the Warriors on Tuesday, they’ll play nine of their next 11 games on the road.

CBS Sports

Nuggets Rank: 6
Last week: 7

Denver beat the Pistons and Raptors at home this week, while being blown out on the road by the Clippers. It was a disappointing game for the Nuggets, who are in a battle for the No. 2 seed in the West with the Clippers and Rockets. Nikola Jokic went to work against a Raptors team that was thin up front due to injury, putting up 23 points, 18 rebounds and 11 assists to avoid back-to-back losses.