At 18 years old (which is strangely just three years ago), I underwent the single most important race of my life during my senior year of high school: college applications. I was a smart kid, and the one aspect of school that came pretty naturally to me was standardized testing, especially any and all math sections. During the early part of my senior year, I took the SAT for the first time, scoring a perfect 800 on the math section and a 640 on the reading section, good for a solid 1,440. I felt pretty confident about that number, hoping it would help me into a number of schools, from my first option of University of South Carolina to my dad’s alma mater at Rice University.

I was accepted to U of SC, a big deal coming from someone based in the Colorado area, but I was denied entry at Rice. As it turns out, the median (average) requirement on an SAT score to be in real consideration for the Houston school is around 1,510, an extremely competitive mark. The school boasts around a 16% acceptance rate, and I certainly wasn’t surprised that I missed the final cut. I tried to be as competitive as possible during this process, but in the end, a couple of slip-ups did me in.

From a 16% to a 75% acceptance rate, the Western Conference playoff race, though it looks more forgiving from that perspective, is not so easily navigated. The Nuggets are 12-5 since January 22nd, on a day they started 9th in the West and 0.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers. Today? After winning 12 of their last 17 games, the Nuggets are in 8th, having moved a half game ahead of the Clippers in the standings.

That’s right, a 12-5 stretch from a team previously at .500 moved them up just one slot in the playoff picture. That’s how crazy the West is.

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Many players around the Western Conference playoff picture are currently balling out, putting on some of the best performances of their careers. Among the 26 players averaging 20 points per game since February 1st, 13 belong to the eight teams above, including Denver’s very own Gary Harris at 20.2 points per game. Nikola Jokic and Will Barton aren’t far behind, posting 19.7 and 19.5 points per game respectively during that span.

So many players and teams have raised their games in past weeks, including the two teams directly behind Denver in the standings: the Jazz and the Clippers.

The Utah Jazz are 8-2 in their last 10 games and 14-2 in their last 16. They have roared back into the playoff picture as well, now just 1.5 games back of the Nuggets with an easier schedule to go. The Jazz play five of their next eight games against teams attempting to tank their way to better draft position. They play more games against tanking teams than anyone else. They also play two games against the Golden State Warriors and four games against the other seven West competitors on the road.

The Los Angeles Clippers play 12 games against top five teams and the West competitors, tied for most among the group. Combine that with four more back-to-backs and 10 more road games, and it’s possible that the Clippers will fade down the stretch as the schedule gets tougher. Of their last nine wins, six have come against the tanking group. There are only three tanking teams left on the schedule for them the rest of the year.

Still, both teams are hot on Denver’s tail for entry into the playoff picture, and as Denver currently sits in the 8 seed, they are on the chopping block once again. One erroneous slip up, and they will miss the playoffs. Even if they lose the same number of games as the Clippers and tie at the end of the year, Doc Rivers’ team holds the tiebreaker after Denver’s collapse on National TV last week. If they are the only two teams tied by record at the end of the year, the Clippers would edge out Denver.

Here’s what the records and schedules look like right now, with Denver highlighted in red:

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As it stands, the Nuggets have one of the easier schedules remaining of the West competitors. Although they have 11 away games remaining, seven of them come on a road trip during the second half of March. The schedule can essentially be divided into three sections now:

  • Six games: two tankers, Cleveland on a back-to-back, Detroit, and two Lakers contests
  • Seven game road trip: start easy with Memphis, Miami, and Chicago, then finish with Washington (previous loss), Philadelphia (previous loss), Toronto on a back-to-back (best team in the East), and Oklahoma City (West competitor)
  • Six games: two home games versus East playoff teams, then four monster contests in a row against West competitors that will shape the entire playoff picture

As can be seen at the bottom, I predicted the Nuggets to finish 46-36. Because they are currently 35-28, that means they must go 11-8 during the rest of the season to reach that benchmark. Is it likely? Not sure. Impossible? Absolutely not. It’s conceivable that Denver could go 6-0 during the next six games, but even if they don’t, 4-2 seems to be a solid floor.

After that, the road trip will be a difficult one toward the end, but Denver has a real shot to win the first three games of that stretch, especially if they drop one they shouldn’t during the next six contests. In the final four games on the road trip, Denver doesn’t have to try for 4-0, but stealing one or two (especially the OKC contest) would be extremely helpful.

Finally, in the last six games, Denver should be favored in the four home contests while having a reasonable shot to steal one or both of the away games. Still, all of those teams will be fighting for playoff seeding, and asking Denver to win them all would be crazy. Going .500 during that stretch though? That should be the floor.

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If you’re keeping track at home, going 4-2 in the first stretch, 3-4 on the road trip, and 3-3 in the final six would equal 10-9 and 45-37 on the season. In my opinion, that won’t be enough to guarantee a postseason appearance. Winning an extra game to bring the number to 46 would be much safer, and as long as Denver picks up more tiebreakers to close the year, they should be in good shape. Winning two extra games? That puts them at 47 wins and pushing for a chance to NOT play the Rockets or Warriors in the first round. At this point, I think Denver steals one game, maybe two, and gives away one they should have won, leading to 46-36.

Given my initial record predictions for each team though, the margin for error is razor thin. If Denver loses the final four games of the year, they are all but guaranteed to be on the outside looking in on the playoff race, regardless of what they do now. If they drop both games against the Lakers in the next eight days, they may have to go 5-1 or 6-0 during their final six games to get in. If they lose any game against a tanking team, the margin for error lessens.

At this point though, Denver must take things one step at a time. Starting with Dallas tonight, the team must be methodical down the stretch. Paying attention to the details, finishing possessions, finishing quarters, rotating on defense, and making open shots. These are the keys to a successful playoff run, a true defining moment for the team’s young talent early in their careers. How will Nikola Jokic continue to respond to adversity? Will he rise to the challenge when the pressure is on? Will Jamal Murray continue his excellent run during the new year, or will he come back down to earth? Is the Gary Harris of the last three games the one Denver can expect for the last 19 contests? How will Paul Millsap fit back into this offense?

Denver has questions to answer, and they don’t have a lot of time. The wins must come in bunches and be relative consistent. If they don’t jobs may be on the line affter the season concludes.

No pressure though.