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How will the Nuggets approach their final road trip of the season?

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Rest? Magic Numbers? Seeding Shenanigans? Let’s talk about it.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Denver Nuggets Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Nikola Jokić could probably use a day off.

Frustrations boiled over at the end of the Denver Nuggets game against the Brooklyn Nets. Jokić, who had struggled for much of the second half and especially in the fourth quarter, was finally pushed over the edge in the final seconds after a missed shot. Jokić believed he was bumped by Nets big man Nicolas Claxton and rushed over to the baseline official to berate the no-call and was promptly handed a technical foul, his seventh of the season.

The Nuggets big man has kept in temper in check for the large majority of the season, instead focusing on having conversations with officials in an attempt to change their minds on certain calls. That wasn’t happening against the Nets, and it appeared that Jokić was as frustrated with the officiating as he has ever been for the entirety of the contest. This doesn’t often happen to Jokić in high leverage moments as someone who stays very focused in the minutes that matter, but when Jokić loses his cool, it’s very noticeable.

It’s hard to blame him either. According to the Last Two-Minute report sent out by the NBA, referees missed a foul call on Joe Harris against Jokić that would have earned Denver two trips to the free throw line in the last minute of a one possession game.

“C’est la vie.”

So is life at the end of an NBA game. There are so many close games during the regular season, and for a Nuggets team with heavy expectations and a player like Jokić that is carrying a burden, it has to be physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing. Not getting calls is a different kind of frustration because the offensive player feels like they have done everything right, forced the opposition to foul them, and...someone not doing their job correctly directly impacts one team’s ability to win or lose an important game.

This isn’t meant as an insult to the officials. Their job is incredibly difficult, and they’re human beings. Errors will happen. It’s a part of the process.

It’s just another reason why the Nuggets need to take a step back and find rest opportunities during this final four-game road trip of the season.

With all of Denver’s injuries over the last four weeks, Jokić has carried such a heavy burden. His consistency as the driver of Denver’s offense is noted, but most assume that to be as a playmaker. Jokić has been carrying Denver all season as a scorer too, and that gets exhausting real quick:

Jokić has been that dude for the Nuggets for the entire season. He’s second in the NBA in total minutes, and he carries the heaviest burden offensively in the entire NBA. Need a shot created? Jokić. Need an important rebound? Jokić. Need a wide open shot created for someone else? Jokić. Need two important free throws? Jokić. Even if Jokić isn’t the one scoring or assisting, that means he’s probably setting a screen to free up a teammate for a shot anyway. It’s why he’s the MVP of the season, and it’s also why the Nuggets should do their best to give him some off time before the end of the season. He has certainly earned it.

The Nuggets have very little left to play for in their final four games of the season other than manipulating the playoff bracket. They need either one more win or one more Dallas Mavericks loss to clinch home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The difference in value between the third seed and the fourth seed appears negligible to the Nuggets at this stage. In reality, staying at the fourth seed and further away from the Los Angeles Lakers appears the prudent measure, meaning that winning more games might not be the best course of action for the Nuggets down the stretch. They would probably prefer to play the Mavericks or the Portland Trail Blazers to another date with the devil—LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers without the aid of Jamal Murray.

With that in mind, the Nuggets, after clinching home court, may decide to rest Jokić a bit in these final few games. Michael Porter Jr. could also use significant rest, as he has suddenly played 1,839 minutes in just 58 total games, 31.7 minutes per contest. He hasn’t missed a game outside of a 10-game absence related to COVID health and safety protocols that finished up on January 19th. Aaron Gordon could certainly use some minutes off. He sat out against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he sits out another game or two. Even Facundo Campazzo could use a rest. He has played 62 of Denver’s 68 games, and he has averaged 28.5 minutes per game since Aaron Gordon was acquired back in late March.

Here’s what the schedule looks like for Denver in their final four games:

  1. Tuesday, May 11th @ Charlotte Hornets; This game comes following two days off, and Denver will likely play all of their healthy players in this one. The earlier they can ensure clinching home court advantage, the easier the remaining rest decisions become. Expect everyone healthy (or mostly healthy) to play.
  2. Thursday, May 13th @ Minnesota Timberwolves; A division game with Karl-Anthony Towns likely to play. The Nuggets haven’t faced Towns all season, Jokić might want to go out there and face a rival big man; however, it wouldn’t be surprising if Jokić or Porter rested here.
  3. Friday, May 14th @ Detroit Pistons; Another reunion with Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant. The Nuggets already saw the Pistons earlier in the season, so any bad blood is likely out of Denver’s system at this point. If Denver has already clinched home court advantage at this point, I would be SHOCKED if Jokić and/or Porter was playing.
  4. Sunday, May 16th @ Portland Trail Blazers; Let’s talk more about this one in-depth.

Let’s say the Nuggets have clinched home court advantage by the final game of the season and are locked into the fourth seed. This is the most likely scenario given Denver’s likelihood to rest players and the easy schedule the Los Angeles Clippers have the rest of the way. There are a number of ways the Nuggets could manipulate the bottom of the playoff standings if they so chose.

Let’s say the Mavericks are locked into the five seed, the most likely scenario given the remaining schedules of the Blazers and the Lakers. The Nuggets could try to beat the Blazers and give the Lakers an opportunity to overtake them in the standings for the six seed, forcing the Blazers into the play-in game and the Lakers into the other side of the playoff bracket against the Clippers. the Nuggets could also tank the final game by resting everybody, let the Blazers win, and force the Lakers into the play-in games with the hope that two teams knock them out entirely.

If the Mavericks are NOT locked into the five seed and the Blazers have a chance to overtake them, the Nuggets could intentionally lose to the Blazers to help them climb up to the five seed to have another Nuggets-Blazers playoff series. The drama!

There are many ways the Nuggets can operate during this final stretch, and it’s important to acknowledge that, after Jamal Murray’s injury, the Nuggets deserve every bit of leeway they can possibly acquire. This team will probably need a little bit of help advancing through the playoffs without their important co-star, so the seeding shenanigans the Nuggets were criticized for a couple seasons ago? They’re fair game now. No questions asked in my opinion.

Whether the Nuggets will truly engage in the game within the game remains to be seen. The most important factor is this: the Nuggets need to be as healthy as possible prior to the playoffs this year. They will only advance if they have as many options as they possibly can. Murray’s injury is painful, and the Nuggets have been forced to pivot. Giving Jokić and Michael Malone as many options as possible to navigate the playoffs should ultimately help them out.

We will soon see how much it matters.