82597_los_angeles_clippers_v_denver_nuggets_medium_mediumFour Western Conference powers will be fighting until the very last game of the season to see who gets the right to lose to the Lakers in the conference finals. If the Nuggets want to repeat as the victor here, Carmelo Anthony needs to get to the line while Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith need to shoot straight from three.

By handily beating the Clippers last night, the Nuggets became the latest Western Conference team to join the 50-27 club. We may have gotten to the party last, but the Nuggets could end up staying the longest.

If you’re like me, by now you’ve probably memorized the remaining schedules for the four teams in question here: our Nuggets plus the Mavericks, Jazz and Suns. As someone who has long argued for schedule balancing in the NBA, I have to admit that all four teams remaining five game schedules are pretty even in terms of difficulty. While the Mavericks and Jazz technically have the easiest schedule by drawing two sub-.500 opponents apiece, those games have to be played on the road and we’re well aware of the Mavs and Jazz ability to drop layup games (just as our Nuggets have done).

Having gone through this just last year when the teams fighting for the two-spot were our Nuggets plus the Spurs, Trail Blazers and Rockets, I don’t know if my heart can handle it again. Sometimes you wish you could just wake up on April 15th (the day after the regular season ends) and know the damn playoff matchups already, because I don’t know if I can go through the daily stress of worrying about what four teams are doing. It takes up enough time just worrying about the Nuggets!

At last night’s Nuggets/Clippers game, I think I spent more time looking at score updates on my phone for the Thunder/Mavericks game (thank you, OKC!) and the Suns/Bucks game (thank you, Milwaukee!) than actually watching the Nuggets play. Which is probably a good thing because if I were paying attention, I’d have been furious that the Nuggets allowed the Clippers to up by 21 in the first half, that Carmelo Anthony only got to the free throw line once and that J.R. Smith and Chauncey Billups continue to shoot aimlessly from three-point range.

If the Nuggets are to run the tables over these final five games or, more realistically perhaps, win four of their remaining five contests, Melo has to get to the free throw line.  I know I've been saying this for three seasons in a row and sound like a broken record, but the case for Melo taking more free throws is squarely on my side.  

For the first half of the season, Melo admirably got to the line about five times a game (averaging 10 FT attempts a game) and the Nuggets had a semi-healthy lead over their conference competitors for that two-seed.  In his last 14 games, however, Melo has shot more than 10 free throws just twice, and has had games with three, two (twice) and zero free attempts during a spate of games that concluded with the Nuggets in a four-team tie for the two-seed. (Oddly enough, the Nuggets won the game in which Melo had zero attempts, but I digress…)

Beyond Melo's reluctance to get to the free throw line, J.R. and Chauncey must regain their lost long range touch.  Billups hasn't shot 50% from three-point range for 11 games and done so just once in 17 games.  In his last three games, Billups is 6-22 from behind the arc and J.R. hasn't been shooting much better.  In his last 16 games, he's shot over 50% from three just twice and in that spate of games has had shooting nights of 1-7 (twice), 2-10, 2-9, 0-5, 0-6 and 3-10 (twice).  

When you play at home against a weary Blazers team playing the second of a back-to-back or a lowly Clippers team that's ready lose before the referee tosses up the game-opening jump ball, you can get away with Melo hiding from the free throw line and Chauncey/J.R. shooting like I do.  But those types of efforts won't fly at Oklahoma City this upcoming Wednesday, followed by a back-to-back at home against the Lakers, a home date with the Spurs next Saturday and the very ugly home against Memphis/at Phoenix back-to-back to wrap up the regular season.

I guess only time will tell if the Nuggets can run the tables or not.  I'll be a mess for the next 10 days.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images: Garrett W. Ellwood