The new year for many represents a time of reflection, change and self-improvement. For the Denver Nuggets, that will mean shaking off a terrible loss last Friday to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers and instead focusing on trying to keep themselves in play for the Western Conference playoffs, where the team is currently tied for eighth place with the Sacramento Kings. Unfortunately, Denver will have to make these changes fast as the first week of 2017 presents them with an absolutely brutal schedule, starting tonight against the Golden State Warriors.

In their previous match up on November 10, the Warriors tossed the Nuggets around like a rag doll 125-101 behind 33 points from Steph Curry. Golden State is starting to resemble a well-oiled machine at this point, winning nine of its last ten games and leading the league in points per game at 117. With an All-Star cast lineup and on the Warriors home floor of Oracle Arena, where the Nuggets haven’t won a game in two years, on paper this should be an easy win for Golden State. The Nuggets are a team that usually plays to its competition and actually stole a win against the historic Warriors almost a year ago. Will Denver come out competitive from the start, or will the Warriors turn tonight’s contest into a shootaround?

The Basics

Who: Denver Nuggets (14-19) at Golden State Warriors (29-5)

When: 8:30 PM MST

Where: Oracle Arena, Oakland CA

How to watch: Altitude

Position Nuggets Warriors Advantage
PG Emmanuel Mudiay Stephen Curry Warriors
SG Gary Harris Klay Thompson Warriors
SF Danilo Gallinari Kevin Durant Warriors
PF Wilson Chandler Draymond Green Warriors
C Nikola Jokic Zaza Pachulia Nuggets
Bench Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Kenneth Faried, Jusuf Nurkic Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Ian Clark, JaVale McGee Even

Injury Report: Jameer Nelson – questionable (abdominal strain); Darrell Arthur – questionable (knee)

What to watch for: Youth movement (maybe)

Coach Michael Malone said at practice yesterday that he won’t be resting anyone tonight, even with the biggest game of the year on the horizon tomorrow night against Sacramento. If the Nuggets can come out competitive and somehow steal a win it would no doubt be huge for this team, but if this game is a blowout early on look for guys like Jamal Murray, Jusuf Nurkic and Juancho Hernangomez to get lots of burn in place of Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic and Danilo Gallinari. With Jameer Nelson listed as questionable, it could be that Murray gets extended minutes anyways, but Juancho hasn’t seen the floor in a while and could use all the experience he can get. Either way, this would be a prime opportunity for the bench to get playing time against good competition.

Key to victory: Actually playing defense

Since shaking up the starting lineup on December 15, the Nuggets offense has been phenomenal. However, the defense, which hasn’t ever really been that good, has been particularly bad of late. Denver gave up 124 points to Philadelphia, a team averaging just 98 points on the year, letting guys like TJ McConnell and Robert Covington burn them for 48.5 percent three-point shooting. The Nuggets have struggled historically at closing out threes and containing guards from driving to the basket. Golden State is really good at these two things, so if Denver even wants a remote chance at this game it will have to improve on the defensive end of the floor.

Opening thought: Not ready to talk about playoffs, yet

Make no mistake, this is a fun team and it’s exciting to see guys like Jokic and Murray develop before our eyes. It’s also fun to be in the playoff race, although that probably says more about the rest of the conference than it does about the Denver Nuggets at this point. If the Nuggets do end up grabbing the eighth seed, their likely opponent would be Golden State. But I’m not entirely sure this team is playoff material just yet, at least not until it can win the games it’s supposed to. For every flash of brilliance, there has always been growing pains and meltdowns and inconsistency. I think this team is so close to being there, but there’s still a lot more work to do, especially on defense. The next few weeks will present a real challenge for Denver; if the Nuggets really are a playoff caliber team, this will be the time to earn it.