The rope representing playoff aspirations this year is slowly slipping away from the Denver Nuggets. After committing heavily to a playoff push, the Nuggets have lost two in a row and four of their last six. Conversely, the Portland Trail Blazers are 13-3 in the month of March and have won five in a row, included impressive victories against the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, and these Nuggets on Tuesday. Denver will likely need a miracle to catch Portland at this point, and they still need to take care of business against their own schedule.

This defeated mentality has created two juxtaposing mindsets on how the Nuggets should handle their final eight games. On one hand, Denver can continue the status quo, pushing for a glimpse at the playoff picture with the best pieces they have. Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Will Barton, Jameer Nelson, and Mason Plumlee have ALL dealt with bumps and bruises that have put them on the injury report in recent weeks. All of them are committed to playing every game though, and they have fought hard through adversity to this point to have earned that right. Status quo would be playing these players normal minutes and fighting tooth and nail to win every basketball game.

On the other hand, with playoffs remaining unlikely, another school of thought is to turn over some minutes to the younger contributors on the team. Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris all contribute on heavy minutes, but Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Malik Beasley could reasonably see their roles increased in the final games in an opportunity to showcase what they bring to the table. With such turnover to the rotation, winning many games is unlikely, but the team has already lost four of their last six. How much of a difference would it actually make?

Both paths are completely possible for coach Michael Malone to explore as the season comes to a close. I have an idea of how that idea will go over at this point, but for now, I’m sure Malone’s focus is on winning the game in Charlotte, as it should be. The Hornets are in a similar position to the Nuggets; they are exactly three games back of the Indiana Pacers for the 8 seed in the East and desperately looking for a victory. In the battle of desperate teams, which team will scratch and claw their way to a win tonight?

The Basics:

Who: Denver Nuggets (35-39) vs Charlotte Hornets (34-41)

Where: Spectrum Center, Charlotte, NC

When: 5:00 PM MST

How to watch: Altitude

Rival Blog: At the Hive

Position Nuggets Hornets Advantage
PG Jameer Nelson Kemba Walker Hornets
SG Gary Harris Nicolas Batum Nuggets
SF Danilo Gallinari Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Nuggets
PF Wilson Chandler Marvin Williams Even
C Nikola Jokic Cody Zeller Nuggets
Bench Jamal Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay, Juancho Hernangomez, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee Jeremy Lamb, Marco Belinelli, Frank Kaminsky,
Brian Roberts, Briante Weber

INJURY REPORT: Will Barton – doubtful (foot), Darrell Arthur – out (knee), Mason Plumlee – available (abdominal), Brian Roberts – questionable (personal)

Three Key Storylines

How will the team respond to an emotional loss on Tuesday?

The Nuggets have had time to recover from the loss, but after seeing the Blazers win against the Houston Rockets, a team Denver lost to twice in a row just prior, it stands to reason the Nuggets may not be in a great state of mind. There is a hopeless feeling in being out of control, and between their recent losses and Portland going supernova on everyone in their path, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Nuggets were flat tonight. With Barton likely out, only Kenneth Faried and Jamal Murray can be construed as energy players on the roster. If the starters don’t perform well, it will come down to whether Faried and/or Murray can carry this team on their backs from the bench.

Will Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris be more aggressive tonight?

Last game against the Hornets, Jokic posted a stellar line of 31 points on 13/15 from the field, along with 14 rebounds and four assists. He truly was the only good thing about that game, but even then, he should have had more shot attempts, infinitely more value than Gallinari, Chandler, and Nelson combining to go 9/32. Gary Harris might have been an even larger culprit, disappearing completely with just one shot attempt. Both players will need to play better if the Nuggets want a chance at winning this game.

Will defense be played on Kemba Walker?

Jameer Nelson is many things, but a defender is not one of them. It’s not like the Nuggets match up well for this sort of game, as Nelson can’t simply defend the shooting guard. Nicolas Batum would torch him. He can’t defend Michael Kidd-Gilchrist either due to MKG’s strength, so Nelson will likely start on Nelson. How points will it take before Malone makes a change? And when that threshold is met, will the blame fall on Nikola Jokic’s poor defense, or the fact that Nelson was left out there? To be fair, it’s not al anyone’s fault, but if there was a game to play Emmanuel Mudiay or Malik Beasley, it would be this one, sliding Harris over to defend the stellar Charlotte point guard.

Final Thought:

Over/Under on combined minutes for Henangomez, Mudiay, and Beasley is 11.5…Over or under, folks?