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Sixth Man: Denver’s path back to the WCF is not as implausible as some may think

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Analyzing potential playoff matchups for Denver, remaining schedule, play-in bracket, and more.

Denver Nuggets v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Following their victory against Charlotte, Denver remains comfortable in the 4th seed but still lurks behind the Clippers for hopes of the 3rd seed. With only three games remaining, numerous possibilities exist for playoff positioning. The 2nd seed is still not completely out of reach for the Nuggets and Clippers thanks to Phoenix’s loss to Golden State last night. The Suns are two games ahead of the Clippers, three ahead of Denver but the Nuggets hold the tiebreaker.

The higher Denver climbs in the standings the better because they should have supreme confidence to beat every team in the playoffs except for the Lakers. Here is how the last three games of the season work out for the top-7 west teams.

The two most likely first-round matchups for Denver are Portland and Dallas right now. Portland crept into the 5th seed with Dallas’s loss versus Memphis last night. In my opinion, both teams are not dream scenarios for Denver because they carry high-powered offenses, but if I had to choose one to face it would be Dallas. Below are explanations:

Dallas: Over the last couple of years, the Nuggets have had very competitive games against the Mavericks. They are a very well-coached team. Rick Carlisle is and has been one of the best coaches in the league. No team can truly stop Nikola Jokic, but it is the teams with great coaches that often pose creative challenges in ways to double-team him that can hinder his greatness.

Luka Doncic will not only produce individually every night, but he will set up his teammates with frequent open shots. Denver’s help defenders must exercise effective rotations and disciplined closeouts because if they fall for the pump fake it will be a very long series.

The true X-factor for Dallas is Kristaps Porzingis. He is a 7’3”, 240 lbs. center that can pose enormous problems for defenses, but his mentality tempers expectations. He likes to act as a wing player, hence his nickname “The unicorn,” but his tendency to shoot jumpers obstructs his tremendous potential in the paint. Physical play will be essential to mitigate his abilities.

Although this might be the best matchup for Denver, they own a 1-2 record against them this season and have not held them under 113 for any game. That being said, defense might win Denver one or two games, but it will be consistent offense that wins the series if that is the case.

Portland: Here is another potent offense group that might have the best offensive threesome of guards in the league. We know what Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum can do; it is not worth recapping their dominance in the 2019 playoffs against Denver. Their addition of Normal Powell is an overlooked one. He is a veteran, sharpshooting presence that can drop 40 on you if you are not careful.

They also have very effective bigs. Although it hasn’t been his best season due in part to injury, Jusuf Nurkić is a skilled, physical aspect to their team. Pair that with possibly the best offensive rebounder of his generation in Enes Kanter you have a frontcourt that must be game-planned for.

What you don’t have with that group is any defense at all. They are 29th in the league in defensive rating at 115.3, so they struggle more than any on that end of the court. The Nuggets can get whatever they want offensively, but they will have to capitalize on open looks because Portland certainly will.


Denver’s path back to the Western Conference Finals is not a bleak as some might think. Of course, we do not know the final seeding, but Denver should find comfort in the fact their most likely matchups are Dallas, Portland, and Utah if they make it to the second round. The Nuggets have also demonstrated continuous success against the Clippers and established prosperity against every other team in the playoff bracket.

Utah proved they were the best team in the league all season long, but Denver has beaten them too many times to dread that matchup. Portland might be the toughest first-round matchup because it is a division series and both teams know each other well, but Denver is itching at the chance for revenge of the 2019 playoffs.

Here is an updated play-in bracket:

Following the play-in tournament, the winner of the 1/8 matchup plays the victor of 4/5, and the winner of 3/6 plays the winner of 2/7. If Denver can overcome the first round, they will most likely play the Jazz next, and that is about as favorable of a matchup with a one seed as Denver could hope for.

The Lakers pose the largest issue because they possess the best tandem in the league, and they are the best defensively. Along with the best coach nobody talks about in Frank Vogel, they are stacked with physical perimeter and paint defenders. The mid-season signing of Andre Drummond bolstered their rebounding prowess but surprisingly has handicapped their defense as he has looked horrific at times so far this season.

If the Lakers were to remain in the play-in position that would be the best-case scenario for Denver and every other team in the league. A potential matchup with Golden State in a win or go home contest would be an excellent script. Arguably the greatest of all-time LeBron James facing the greatest shooter ever in Steph Curry would see national ratings skyrocket. With the leadership and production of Curry, the Warriors have enough offense to battle and possibly eliminate the Lakers.


Denver’s injuries could be a crucial factor in determining their success, but this team exhibits too much resilience to exclude them in regards to a deep playoff run. Monte Morris returned to action last night, and Will Barton keeps exuding assurance he will be back before the season ends.

The Murray injury devastated championship hopes, but the silver lining is the pairing of Jokic and Porter Jr. appear to be menacing to opposing defenses. MPJ must enhance his play when the physicality heats up because it will in the playoffs, but he is making 25 points a game look simple and routine.

The future is bright for this group but so is the present. Denver thrives in the underdog role and will once again be underestimated and overshadowed by the superstars in this year's playoffs.

For everything they endured this season, Nugget fans should be extremely proud of this group. They displayed a tenacity and self-confidence about themselves that mirrors the backbone of this state. Now it’s time to deliver that message on a national stage—again. I cannot wait.