“I never know which team is going to be out there from quarter to quarter.”

-Michael Malone

That surely doesn’t sound like the comments one might make about a 50-win club, does it? The close calls keep on coming for your Denver Nuggets this season, who have somehow parlayed those narrow margins into their 2018-19 calling card. Tuesday night’s three-point victory tacked onto an improbable stat for the year, giving Denver an 18-4 (.818) record in games decided by five points or less this season. What seems to have coach Malone pulling his stubble out is how many of those victories may not have needed to be that way.

It wasn’t just Malone bemoaning the lack of consistency, as Nuggets players shared in post-game opinions as well:

(A quick aside of gratitude and shameless plug: I’m always so damned grateful when the Nuggets play a home game, as those of us out-of-towners who watch the games on NBA League Pass, then also hope to watch the postgame show and interviews, and cannot seem to get the facacta Altitude Now app to work on any of the five devices they have downloaded it to… at least can count on Denver Stiffs to post the coach and player interviews on YouTube, which seems to be an anathema to the Altitude staff. Thanks, Stiffs!)

Consistency is one of the keystones of playoff success for any NBA squad, and given the mood of the Nuggets about their lack of the same, you’d never believe they had surmounted the 50-win plateau in the victory against the Pistons. That is the first time they’d achieved the feat in six seasons, and only the ninth time the club has attained that mark in 43 NBA campaigns (including four years in a row, from ‘07-’08 to ‘10-’11 seasons).

Somehow, your Denver Nuggets actually have a better winning percentage in those close games (.818) than they do in their overall season (.685). How big a deal is their ability to grind out these narrow wins? If the Nuggets close-calls record were reversed (4-18), they’d be 36-37 on the season, in 10th place in the Western Conference, six games behind the eighth-place Spurs with only nine games left to go.

Instead, Denver has a not-yet-comfortable 3.5 game lead on the third-seeded Trail Blazers, and are only a half game out from the front-running Warriors. Though the Nuggets have clinched a playoff spot, a decision that came down to the wire in each of the past two seasons, there’s still a fine line in how the outcome of this season plays out depending on the last nine games. Here are the games left on the slate, with Denver seeking to capture the consistency that has maddeningly eluded them over all but a few of the first 73 games:

Game 74: @ Houston Rockets, Thursday, 3/28

The Rockets have proven to be Denver’s toughest “out” of the last few seasons, with the Nuggets dropping their first two contests to Houston this year before handing the Beard & Co. a decisive 14-point loss to kick off February at the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets will need to bring their best and most consistent effort to Houston, as the Rockets are still only four games back of Denver, and have won 14 of their last 17 games. Should the Nuggets be able to take one in Houston, they will improve their odds of hanging onto a top-two seed exponentially.

Game 75: @ Oklahoma City Thunder, Friday, 3/29

Things don’t get much easier on the second night of the pending back-to-back as the Nuggets head to OKC to see if they can complete a season sweep of Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder. While Denver has had OKC’s number so far this season, and the Thunder have lost five of their last six, the game has all of the earmarks of an uphill climb that will need the Nuggets to maintain 48 minutes of playoff-ready basketball to ensure a win.

Game 76: vs Washington Wizards, Sunday, 3/31

The Nuggets hadn’t seen the Wizards all season long until a week ago today, tacking a five-point win onto the totals discussed above. Inconsistency was still a hallmark of the game, with Denver building an eight-point lead in the first half that they promptly gave back entirely in the third quarter. While Washington has lost six of their last seven games, the game looks to be the most likely spot over the home stretch in which the Nugs might try to take a quick breather, a habit that has proven lethal to their success this year. Hopefully with the finish line a scant seven games away, Denver will find the wherewithal to put a win on the books. They could also have troubles with the Wizards if they are looking too far ahead to…

Game 77: @ Golden State Warriors, Tuesday, 4/2

Well… at least it’s not being played on April Fools Day, right? There’s a lot riding on this game for the Nuggets, which could be a key in the outcome of who wins the West’s top seed. Should Denver be able to hang a loss on the Warriors, the season series will be tied 2-2, and Denver could find their way to best Golden State by season’s end. Denver took the first matchup of the season in Game 3, narrowly beating the Warriors by two. The next two contests were not nearly so close, with the Nuggets losing to the defending champs by 31 and 17 points respectively, and the Warriors crowing all the way through. This one will be a matter of pride for Denver, who won’t just need 48 minutes of great play to take it, but will have to shoot for their best ball for all 2,880 seconds. A lapse here would give the Nugs an “L” they’d desperately like to avoid.

Game 78: vs San Antonio Spurs, Wednesday, 4/3

It’s not just strength of schedule that proves brutal for the Nuggets late-season trek, but the teams they face in back-to-backs as the campaign winds down. The Spurs the eighth seed in the West as of this writing, winners of 10 of their last 13 games to climb back into the race. While those three losses came during their last four games, San Antonio will be working hard to keep pace in the playoff race. The Nuggets have already dropped two of the three games they’ve played against the Spurs this season, with their single win being a three-point squeaker at the Pepsi Center on December 28th. The narrow win was a similar tale to so many others this season, when Denver lost the third quarter of that game by 11, and kept it even in the fourth to steal away the win. A solid four quarters would do wonders for the Nuggets chances with only four games to go.

Game 79: vs Portland Trail Blazers, Friday, 4/5

The Nuggets cruise into the last weekend of the regular season with a home-and-away against the suddenly-smarting Trail Blazers, currently just behind Denver in the standings, 3.5 games back as of this writing. While Portland will be facing issues of their own after the horrible injury that befell Jusuf Nurkic, they are a proud and dynamic team who will be looking to slip as little as possible on the way out, and hang onto a home court advantage for the first round. The Blazers will be looking to capture at least one of these games, and Denver will need to be wary of dropping any division contests down the home stretch, as it’s been one of the better (and more consistent) aspects of their record all year. Oh, and… The Nuggets two wins against the Trail Blazers this season come by a combined four points.

Game 80: @ Portland Trail Blazers, Sunday, 4/7

Second verse, same as the first, but this time in a hostile environment.

Game 81, @ Utah Jazz, Tuesday, 4/9

While the Nuggets won the first matchup of the season against the Jazz rather handily, they lost the next two by six and seven points respectively. Hopefully seeds will be well set by the time this game rolls around, as Denver could use a split of the season series. Utah doesn’t look to be exiting the year quietly, as winners of seven of their last eight. In their most recent matchup, the Nuggets lost the second quarter by 18 points (33-15), with Jazz Center Rudy Gobert taking his All-Star game displacement to Nuggets MVP Nikola Jokic pretty personally. Even worse, this all went down at the Pepsi Center. Let’s hope the good guys can bring a little vengeance to the Salt Lake Basin in their penultimate game.

Game 82, vs Minnesota Timberwolves, Wednesday 4/10

That’s right, your Denver Nuggets have three back-to-back contests to wrap up their last nine games, all against Western Conference foes. While the Timberwolves have eliminated themselves from this year’s playoff race, neither team will probably forget their Game 82 matchup from last season. The basketball gods bring a do-over for both teams, one that the Nuggets hope will have next-to-no consequences on the standings. The best way to ensure that is the case is to play so consistently in the eight games leading up to it that they assure it themselves.

It’s all on the table this year, Nuggets Nation. Denver could improbably win eight of their last nine and capture their best regular season in team history. They could win four of their last nine and tie their second-best season record at 54, previously achieved twice. Lose many more than that, and the Nuggets could end one of their more entertaining seasons with a whimper instead of a bang, and theoretically even drop home court advantage on the way out. 36 quarters of basketball decide it all. Will the young team conquer their inconsistency by the time every last minute will count? That time may have already arrived.

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