The Denver Nuggets welcomed the All-Star break in a successful fashion by winning five of their last six games, including a thriller against the league’s second-best record Golden State Warriors. This Nugget team seems to be brimming with playoff aspirations at the moment, and those aspirations will soon form into expectations when the playoff seeding fully reveals itself. Currently, the Nuggets hold a 33-25 record which positions them at the 6th seed in the West and bordering a top ten team in the NBA.

On Monday, released their power rankings, and they have the Nuggets positioned as the 5th best team in the league. They are ranked higher than the Warriors, 76ers, Mavericks, Bulls, Jazz, and the Bucks. Certainly, that may evoke some argumentation for a 6th seeded Western Conference team to be graded higher than others with a better record. Not only a better record but currently better talent as well. What does this tell us? It indicates the Nuggets are garnering respect for their success without their second and third best player.

The respect is certainly welcomed but it cannot truly be earned until Denver conquers the rest of their schedule. They have 24 games left, 15 of which are at home and the remaining 9 on the road. At this juncture, their strength of schedule is not as difficult as it has been, but it blends with some of the tougher teams in the league.

They have three games against the Kings, two versus the Thunder, and one against Rockets, Pelicans, and Pacers. Denver has fared well against non-playoff opponents, but it is the more elite teams they struggle with. They have not won a game against Utah or Memphis, and they are 1-2 against Dallas and Minnesota. Denver holds a 4-8 record in their division and an 18-17 record within the Western Conference.

While they haven’t obtained the success they would like against Western Conference opponents, they have a chance to remedy their previous struggles. Over 70% of their remaining games will be against Western Conference opponents, but there are six particular games that are the most intriguing. In order for the Nuggets to claim home-court advantage in the first round, they need to capitalize against some of the tougher adversaries in the league.

Here are their six toughest tasks:

Golden State Warriors

Yes, the Nuggets won both their road games against the Warriors, but we know how dangerous this team is. They will also face Golden State twice in four days, so there will be a level of familiarity for both teams. The Warriors are likely to return their defensive anchor Draymond Green back into the fold prior to these matchups, and you can make a case for Green to be their most important player. They can finish a top 5 regular season team without him, but in my opinion, the Warriors do not sniff a championship without Draymond.

Furthermore, both these games will be played on the rear end of a back-to-to-back for Denver. The Nuggets are 3-7 on zero days rest this season. They average 107 PPG and allow 113.6 PPG under those circumstances. Hopefully, the All-Star break gave Denver the rest they need, but they cannot escape the intensity the Warriors will likely bring after their last matchup. Losing at the buzzer in their home arena can be a memory etched in Golden State’s mind every time they face Denver, so the Nuggets will have to be hyper-focused to continue their winning ways against this team.

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Philadelphia 76ers

For some media members, this might be the most important and intriguing game for the Nuggets. We have not seen this matchup in a while, but it is expected two of the best bigs in the league will face off on March 14th. Mano a mano, one v one, Jokic and Embiid will compete in one of the most anticipated matchups of the season to make their MVP case. It also evokes an East vs West rivalry. Although the two teams are not rivals, the regions are. Some Western fans believe Eastern fans do not give their teams the respect they deserve, and some Eastern folks believe the West whine too much.

Wherever you land on that spectrum, it is undeniable the intrigue this matchup presents. Over their last six games, both teams have a 3-3 record against one another. In 11 games against the 76ers, Jokic averages 22 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 7.3 assists on 52.7% shooting. In 6 games versus the Nuggets, Embiid averages 19.2 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.8 assists on 37% shooting. The two superstars have not battled each other since December of 2019, so this March matchup can be critical to examine their status amongst each other and also their MVP case this season.

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Boston Celtics

The Nuggets have struggled against the Celtics of late. They lost their last four games and scored under 100 points in four of their last five matchups. This is a great test for Denver because Boston is such a great defensive team and come playoff time, the Nuggets will need to find success against tougher defenses. The Celtics hold opponents to just 103.5 PPG this season ranking them 3rd in the NBA. This March 20th contest is at home for Denver but that is far from a relaxing notion. The Celtics are the best road defense in the NBA, keeping opponents to only 104 PPG.

Boston’s combo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can be one of the lethal duos in the league, but they also added a talented guard in Derrick White. The two teams faced off about two weeks ago, and White introduced himself into the Celtic lineup well by scoring 15 points with three triples on 50% shooting. Both teams struggled shooting the basketball, but Boston’s defense dominated Denver late in the contest. The Nuggets turned it over 21 times resulting in 22 Boston points. Marcus Smart was a monster defensively, recording 7 steals along with 22 points. Although there might be more important games for Denver to win, this could be the toughest contest considering Boston’s suffocating defense.

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Phoenix Suns

You want to be the best, you have to beat the best, and the Suns are clearly the superior team in the West right now. They are 48-10 and have a 6.5 game cushion on first place. Dominant doesn't even begin to describe Phoenix this season. They have won 18 of their last 19 games. They recorded a stretch where they won 18 games in a row, and they own two occasions where they have won 11 straight. The Suns are a top-six offensive and defensive team in terms of scoring and holding opponents to score. They score 113.7 PPG while only allowing 105.6, and they have been ruling the West with a 28-7 record within the conference.

With that being said, their star point guard and floor general Chris Paul is reported to miss 6-8 weeks with a right thumb injury. That might hurt Phoenix a bit in the standings, but that timeline does place Paul in a fairly good position to return for this game against the Nuggets. Denver is 1-1 against the Suns this season. Both games have been on the road, but the Nuggets have lost their last three home games against Phoenix. This matchup comes towards the end of the season on March 24th, so that is when the Nuggets want to be playing their best basketball of the season. If they are able to do so and win one against the league’s best team, that momentum can lead them favorably into the playoffs.

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Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves are one of the most exciting teams to watch, but they are anything but exciting if you’re a Denver Nugget. The Wolves beat Denver twice this season and they averaged 127 points in those games. Minnesota currently owns the 5th best scoring offense in the league, scoring 113.2 PPG. This will be the last regular-season matchup between the two, and for Denver, it comes at home, but they have learned that Minnesota offense travels. They are the best scoring offense on the road with nearly 117 PPG, and that trio of Anthony-Towns, Edwards, and Russell is as explosive as it gets.

The Timberwolves are right on Denver’s heels in the standings. The Nuggets hold a 2.5 game advantage for the 6th seed, but Minnesota owns the tiebreaker for now. Both sides of the ball will need to execute in this one because the Wolves currently have more offensive firepower to win a shootout, but the Denver defense is better. The only game Denver defeated Minnesota was early in the season when they held the Wolves to just 91 points in their own building. That Timberwolves defense allows the 3rd worst opponent PPG on the road with 117.2 PPG, so if the defense can force uncomfortable shots, they are likely to find open looks at the other end. The Nuggets need to start asserting themselves against their division and this is their most important divisional game left.

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Memphis Grizzlies

This April 7th home game for Denver is ordered last on my list due to chronological order, but it very well could be at the top if ordered by significance. There is no secret, the Grizzlies have owned the Nuggets this season, defeating them in all three matchups. They are averaging 112 points and holding Denver to 107 points in those contests. Their most recent game was close, but Memphis stole a road victory 122-118 behind 38 points from Ja Morant.

Points in the paint could be a crucial factor to this one. The Grizzlies are the best scoring team in the paint this season. They average 57.3 points in that area which is 3.5 points above the second-best paint scoring team. They are monsters on the glass as well. Their 18.1 second-chance points per game are the best mark in the NBA, and they are the top offensive rebounding team and rebounding team overall in the league. This is a Grizzlies team who burst onto the scene this year, led by MVP candidate Ja Morant and a deep, talented roster of role players. They are coached well under Taylor Jenkins, but this is still a young team and the Nuggets will look to remind Memphis how good they are as well. If the Nuggets find themselves in a position to face the Grizzlies in the first round, a win on April 7th could give them the confidence they need to find success in that series.

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