We are just one month away from the 2017-2018 NBA regular season being over, and I am on pins and needles as the Western Conference standings are shaping up. Just a few games separate seed numbers 3-10 so every win counts, and every loss is detrimental.

Back in October, I discussed a game where the Nuggets lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was a preseason game, and the general thoughts floating around about that loss was that it didn’t really matter. No, that game didn’t impact their standings in the West, and no it didn’t cost them a playoff appearance. However, my point about having the mindset that every game counts is what helps teams get and keep a playoff position through the long and grueling regular season schedule.

In that article I said, “Just half a game could be the make or break for a playoff appearance so it always matters.” Unfortunately, this is the spot where the Nuggets currently sit, and if Friday’s (3/9/18) standings were used to create the playoff schedule the Nuggets would sit out yet again this year.

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Although it’s frustrating to see our guys on the brink of missing out once again, I’m actually pretty interested to see how they respond to the pressure of the situation. There have been many points in the season where I think they hit a new level of maturity, and this final test as the season winds down will help us see if they’re really ready to move to the next level.

Early on, the Nuggets struggled to find their chemistry with the off-season roster changes, and then they hit a stride with Paul Millsap providing guidance and pace on defense. Once he was injured, they again struggled to find their footing, but the Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris trio struck a nice balance complemented by Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, Trey Lyles, and even Mason Plumlee.

After that, the Nuggets showed growth in their ability to close close games. Whereas before, the Nuggets struggled to beat a team they didn’t blow out, they now have (imperfectly) honed the skill of taking a good team to the buzzer and closing on the win.

Now, they face the daunting challenge of buckling down and making a serious push in the final four weeks of the season to earn their post-season spot. In these last weeks there are three things I will be interested to see.

Who will take it upon themselves to lead the charge?

A leader isn’t solely defined by position. Leadership expert John Maxwell calls positional leadership the lowest form of leadership. Meaning, the accepted leader is simply the oldest, the manager, the boss, or most experienced. Unfortunately, the positional leader isn’t always the actual leader of the team. Actually, the true leader of the team isn’t even always the best player on the team.

The leader is the one who will increase their individual output under pressure, and shoulder the burden of working to motivate their teammates to increase their output as well. A perfect example of this would be Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors aren’t the fierce competitors they are now without Green. He is the team’s heartbeat, and identity.

The Nuggets have many positional leaders, and other leaders who have been crucial at certain points of the season. But, I believe this final stretch will solidify the team’s number one leader of leaders who will step up to help them get to where they need to be. If no one steps up, then perhaps the Nuggets still have some missing pieces to go after in the off season. Both situations, the latter being the less desirable, will help the Nuggets’ growth in the long haul.

How will the team respond to pressure?

Situations of intense pressure can be make or break for any relationship—professional or personal. The pressure for the Nuggets to make the playoffs will either reveal critical flaws, or highlight strengths the team can use to navigate down the road. Let’s face it, if the Nuggets do make it to the playoffs this year they will probably get to learn a whole lot from the team they face (Rockets or Warriors), but they will likely make a first round exit.

They will need to take how they respond to pressure, and fix the problems that arise while expanding upon their areas of strength so that hopefully in years to come they will be able to continue moving farther and farther up the playoff ladder.

Will anyone give up?

Sometimes a challenge you’re facing can seem insurmountable. For the Nuggets, looking at multiple other viable teams to compete with for a playoff spot when you’ve been out of the race for so long is probably pretty intimidating. The competitive-natured person will evaluate their opponents and strategize ways to overcome obstacles. Others may decide that the challenge is too great, and fold. The latter type of competitor is good to identify so that the Nuggets can get those players on their radar for off-season trades.

The sad truth is that if a player doesn’t have a competitive drive to buckle down in moments like these, they probably won’t work out long term if the plan is to make any impact against the better teams in the league.

Whereas a few weeks ago I was certain the Nuggets would see their first playoff appearance in years, I’ve now downgraded to cautious optimism. They need to prove to their fans that they have what it takes to go the distance. Nuggets, it’s time to go to work.