The 2021-2022 season is all about rejuvenation for the Denver Nuggets. They were devasted by injuries last year and taken out of title contention because of it. Although they will be without their second star in Jamal Murray, this is a chance for the role players to step into impact player status throughout the regular season.
This is a prove-it year for several Nuggets players. This might be Michael Porter’s year to begin his All-Star campaign. Aaron Gordon needs to prove he is the championship piece the Nuggets think he is. Will Barton will have a huge role on this team to maintain scoring consistency throughout the season. Bones Hyland will look to prove he was slept on in the draft, and PJ Dozier will be called upon to produce in key moments.
After a shortened 72 game schedule last year, the NBA returns with its normal 82 game format. It is not a sprint but a marathon where each team is tested through trials and tribulations. Individually, each game is not as important as the stretch it is scheduled on. The Nuggets need to make sure during a 5-10 game period they hold a winning record throughout to keep pace in the very talented western conference.
Everyone holds their own opinion on which game is a must-win, and in a season where the Nuggets look to finally capitalize on their championship window, there might be a lot of must-wins. So in this piece, I compiled a list of the top 5 most important games of the season. Some of them are stretches of games I believe are essential to keep pace in the west, while others are individual contests where the Nuggets need to show they’re the dominant team. With that being said, here is my list of the most important matchups during the regular season.
5) January’s 6 game homestand
This is a crucial stretch for the Nuggets to gain confidence and traction down the stretch. These six games include Portland, Lakers, Utah, Clippers, Memphis, and Detroit. The last two are very winnable games but those can be the toughest at times, especially considering they come at the end of the six-game stretch. The first four games are the true test to Denver.
Divisional games are usually difficult and when you consider a playoff rematch along with Dame coming back to town it gets even tougher. They are out for blood to prove they are an underrated team and what better way to prove it than a win in Denver. Then you have the Lakers, Jazz, and Clippers coming to town to test Denver’s home-court advantage.
The Nuggets desperately need to prove they can outlast the Lakers, especially at home. If they want to be a great team, they need to win all three. If they want to maintain their “good not great status,” they win two, but winning just one of the three gives national media folks the same old representation of the Nuggets they are used to.
A 4-2 record over this stretch will be pleasing considering its difficulty, but a 5-1 or even a 6-0 record will have folks sit up in their seat to watch this team the rest of the season.
4) December’s 6 game road trip
This is a brutal stretch and maybe the toughest all season. Individually, the teams are not the best, but they start on the east coast and finish in San Antonio which poses a difficult travel routine. It will be a character test for this group, but if they view themselves as a top team in the league they need to capitalize.
The trip begins in Orlando followed by New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and a back-to-back in San Antonio. Orlando has never been the toughest task, but Gary Harris and RJ Hampton will want to prove they were the most valuable pieces in the Aaron Gordon trade.
New York and Chicago are two improved teams that could pose trouble for Denver. The Knicks are a hard-nosed, physical defensive group, so Denver will need to bring the hammer in that matchup. Chicago may have improved their lineup as well as anyone in the league. They added Lonzo, DeRozen, and Caruso to go along with their two stars in Lavine and Vucevic. There could be a lot of offense in that matchup, so Denver will need to bring their shooting prowess to Chicago.
Then we get to the back-to-back in San Antonio. Let’s not forget, before their playoff matchup a couple of years ago, Denver hadn’t won in San Antonio for what felt like 10 years. It was an absurd stretch of games where Denver could never figure out how to take down Pop and the Spurs. They are never an easy out and it is one of, if not the, toughest place for Denver to play their latter end of the road trip.
3) February 16th at Golden State
From now on, I can’t picture Golden State’s new home floor without seeing Jamal Murray grimace in pain. Not only could it be perceived as a revenge game for Denver, but it comes just before the All-Star break, so they will want great confidence heading into their off time.
Golden State is a much-improved team, and there’s no doubt about it, they could be in title contention this year. They return all their stars including the great Klay Thompson, but they also added two great pieces in the draft with Kuminga and Moody. Kuminga is a player I think can make an immediate impact for that team as he looked great in summer league. On the other hand, Moses Moody was considered the premier 3 and D guy in this year’s draft.
I haven't even mentioned Steph Curry yet. We all know what he is capable of and we also know there isn’t one or even a group of people that can guard him. Forget defense in this game because Denver’s D isn’t good enough to contain this group. Denver will need to put up at least 115 points to win this game.
2) Home against the Clippers in March
This is a game where the great Nuggets announcer Chris Marlowe would say “It’s nervous time at Pepsi Center folks.” It will be nervous time at Ball Arena when the Clippers come to town because following this game, Denver will only have nine games left to move within the standings.
After the win in L.A. last year, that is when Michael Malone said and thought his team was championship bound. This game mirrors that same test. We used to think the Clippers were a bit of a soft bunch because of their blown playoffs leads, but they proved they are as resilient as any, beating the league’s number one seed without Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs.
This game comes within an area of Jamal Murray’s potential return. If he comes back around this time, it will take him several games to get acclimated back into things and return to game shape. This is a different Clipper team and I would venture to say it’s a more confident team. They are well-coached and bring a great balance of defense and offense to the table. If Murray does come back, this will be a fun and fantastic challenge for Denver.
1) Both Lakers games in April
When will we ever get over the hump? I’ve been watching the Nuggets ever since I can remember, and I cannot remember a time where we put the Lakers in the rearview mirror—because we never have.
The odds are stacked against the Nuggets but again they always are. The Lakers will be more healthy and improved along with the addition of Hall of Famer Russell Westbrook. The two teams will face off in L.A. on the 3rd and then again in Denver on the 10th to wrap up the regular season. If there’s one thing you don’t want to see it’s LeBron and more specifically, LeBron towards the end of the season. That’s when he and Westbrook will be completely engaged, ready to prove they have what it takes to finish the season with a championship.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nuggets lose both, but it would be a very dejecting feeling for the team and city and if they lose these two heading into the playoffs. But maybe—just maybe, this is a new Denver team. Do I say that every year? Hell yes I do because I always believe in this team. Will we see a championship group this year out of Denver? Wait until April and we might see what this team is all about as they begin their playoff journey.