After having written a similar article to this one a mere 10 days ago, I did not expect the Denver Nuggets to hold sole possession of the third seed at this point in time.
The Nuggets have truly rallied in a major way after losing Jamal Murray, Monte Morris, and Will Barton to sequential injuries. Denver is 9-1 since Murray went down and 17-3 since trading for Aaron Gordon. They have made some major moves in the West, some unforeseen moves, and the playoff picture has become very interesting as a result.
Denver will never be a better team without Murray on the floor, but they have adapted in such a way that they have to be taken seriously by any opponent, including the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. The Nuggets remain formidable to the point where picking them to win multiple playoff series is no longer blasphemous.
Let’s pick up where we left off 10 days ago, starting with the West standings:
- The Phoenix Suns are technically the top seed in the Western Conference following an excellent string of games, including a win over the Utah Jazz last Friday night. If the standings hold, the Suns would play the second winner of the play-in tournament (which I will not be explaining) while the Jazz would face whoever initially won between the seventh and eighth seeds. Neither team is likely too focused on the top slot, though it’s excellent bragging rights to be clear.
- The Nuggets have officially leapfrogged the Los Angeles Clippers for the third seed in the West after Denver’s win on Saturday night. That win also gave the Nuggets a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Clippers, meaning that if the two teams tie in the standings at the end of the season, Denver will be the higher seed. This will be important to monitor as the rest of the West slides into playoff seeding.
- The Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, and Portland Trail Blazers are locked in a three-way tie at fifth, sixth, and seventh. That dance changes everything about the West playoff picture and the residual matchups. The fifth and sixth seeds will likely play either the Los Angeles Clippers or the Denver Nuggets, while the seventh seed drops to the play-in tournament. Clippers and Nuggets fans will be hoping the Lakers are the team to drop. They don’t want to face the Lakers in the first round when the alternatives are the Mavericks and Blazers.
Projected Records, courtesy of FiveThirtyEight season predictions:
- Utah, 52-20
- Phoenix, 51-21
- LA Clippers, 48-24
- Denver, 47-25
- Dallas, 41-31*
- LA Lakers, 41-31*
- Portland, 41-31*
- Golden State, 37-35**
- Memphis, 37-35**
- San Antonio, 34-38
*Denotes current results of a three-way tiebreaker
**Denotes current results of head-to-head tiebreaker
Updated Magic Number Scenarios for Denver:
- Clinch Top-6 Playoff Spot = 1 combined Nuggets win or Blazers loss
- Clinch Home Court Advantage = 2 combined Nuggets wins or Mavericks/Lakers losses
- Clinch Top-3 Playoff Spot = 7 combined Nuggets wins or Clippers losses
- Clinch Top-2 Playoff Spot = 11 combined Nuggets wins or Suns/Jazz losses
The Top-2 spot is unlikely given the current three-game margin between the Nuggets and the Suns/Jazz, but weirder things have happened before to Denver. If the Nuggets went 7-1 over their final eight games and the Jazz went 4-4, I wouldn’t be surprised. Denver has the tiebreaker as long as they win their head-to-head matchup with Utah on Friday. If Denver loses that game, they can likely kiss their Top-2 hopes goodbye.
Games to Watch this week from Monday to Thursday (all times MDT):
POR @ ATL, Monday @ 6:00pm — This is a sneaky important game for Denver. Portland has a tough schedule remaining, but if they can go into Atlanta and win this one, they can at least check one win off.
DEN @ LAL, Monday @ 8:00pm — Was there any doubt? If the Nuggets win this one, they push the Lakers into the seventh seed outright, offering up a chance for other teams to defeat them in a double elimination capacity. In addition, it’s simply a big psychological thing for Denver.
DAL @ MIA, Tuesday @ 6:00pm — The Mavericks lost in shambolic fashion to the Sacramento Kings on Sunday night (the Nuggets have been there) and they need to bounce back against a Miami Heat team that may or may not be good. If Luka Doncić is keen to avoid the play-in tournament, this is a must-win.
PHX @ ATL, Wednesday @ 5:30pm — This game for Phoenix is a back-to-back after having played the Cavaliers in Cleveland on Tuesday night. They might not struggle with that first game, but matching up with Trae Young and Clint Capela in Atlanta on short rest might be a difficult task. Could Denver pick up a game in the standings here?
NYK @ DEN, Wednesday @ 7:00pm — The Nuggets play again on Wednesday night against the Knicks. This was supposed to be the break between Denver’s difficult games this week, but then the Knicks became good.
LAL @ LAC, Thursday @ 8:00pm — The battle for LA. Both teams will want to win this matchup, and the Lakers may feel like they have to. The Clippers would likely do themselves a favor in the standings by winning this game, and the Nuggets surely wouldn’t mind.