As the 2016-17 season winds down, the race for the 8 seed in the playoffs continues to heat up.

The Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers are the heavy favorites right now, but the race is truly down to four teams: Denver, Portland, the Dallas Mavericks, and the New Orleans Pelicans. Here’s the current playoff picture as of Wednesday morning:

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The Nuggets are currently the leaders, and their magic number to make the playoffs is 12. A magic number consists of the combined number of wins by Denver and the losses by the next closest team, in this case Portland. With just 12 games to go, Denver could win every game and automatically clinch a playoff birth, but that is unlikely, so they will need Portland to lose some games as well.

In order to clinch a playoff birth, Denver will likely have to win a variety of games in which they are considered underdogs. They lost both contests to the Houston Rockets, but the close nature of both games was encouraging. That won’t fly for the rest of the year though, and against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver will need to bring that effort and then some. LeBron James is still hungry, and with an elite supporting cast, the Nuggets will need to perform over their heads to win this one.

The Basics:

Who: Denver Nuggets (33-36) v.s. Cleveland Cavaliers (46-23)

When: 7:00 PM MST

Where: Pepsi Center, Denver, CO

How to watch: Altitude TV

Rival Blog: Fear the Sword

Position Nuggets Cavaliers Advantage
PG Jameer Nelson Kyrie Irving Cavaliers
SG Gary Harris Iman Shumpert Nuggets
SF Juancho Hernangomez LeBron James Good Luck Rook
PF Mason Plumlee Kevin Love Cavaliers
C Nikola Jokic Tristan Thompson Nuggets
Bench Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Kenneth Faried,
maybe Emmanuel Mudiay
Deron Williams, J.R. Smith, Richard Jefferson,
Channing Frye

Injury Report: Wilson Chandler – questionable (groin), Danilo Gallinari – doubtful (knee bone bruise), Darrell Arthur – questionable (knee soreness), Deron Williams – questionable (thumb), Tristan Thompson – questionable (mouth)

Matchup to watch – Juancho Hernangomez vs LeBron James


Three Key Questions

How will the Nuggets defend LeBron James if Wilson Chandler cannot suit up?

Wilson Chandler is Denver’s best chance at putting an athletic body strong enough to at least force James to miss a couple baskets here or there. I love Juancho, but he’s going to need the performance of a lifetime defensively if he wants to successfully check the most unguardable player in the NBA (when he wants to be). James will fade in and out of aggressiveness to the rim, but when he is aggressive, how will the Nuggets provide help with so many other dangerous options on the floor?

Can Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris carry Denver to success?

The last five games, Gary Harris is averaging 20.2 points, 4.0 assists, and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 38.5% from behind the three point line. Nikola Jokic is averaging 18.6 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 5.6 assists in his last five games. Both players have done an excellent job of assuming the scoring burden while Gallinari and Chandler have been sidelined. Can they perform at a high level yet again? Others have played well, but Harris and Jokic have been the unquestioned best players of late for Denver, and they need to continue being a strength. Jokic needs to shoot better from beyond the arc though, as he’s shooting just 21.4% (3/14) from behind the three point line in the month of March.

Will good Jameer Nelson, Jamal Murray, and Will Barton show up?

Nelson has failed to score in double digits in seven of the nine games in March he’s played in, even though he’s played 28 minutes or more in all but one of those contests. Murray has four assists TOTAL in his last six games, even though he’s continuing to find his role as a scorer. Barton is as hot and cold as can be in the month of March, but three of his last four games have been great offensive performances.

How will each of these three players perform against the defending champion Cavs? The defensive quality in the backcourt for Cleveland is lacking, so each of the above three has an opportunity to put together a nice performance. The real test will be defensively. Will any of them be able to match defend their respective matchups? Assuming Harris guards Kyrie Irving, Denver will have to live with whatever performance the Duke guard puts on. What they can’t live with is if Deron Williams, Iman Shumpert, or J.R. Smith put up a wildly efficient display.

If they all perform well, I believe the Nuggets will win. If none of them perform well, then there’s pretty much no chance Denver pulls out a victory.