A win tonight puts the Nuggets in a position where anything is possible
Four years ago, the Nuggets were heartbroken at the hands of the Timberwolves in the final game of the regular season. Minnesota outlasted Denver 112-106 in overtime to eliminate the Nuggets while clinching the final Western Conference playoff spot. The stakes aren’t quite as high Friday night at Ball Arena, but the stage is set for another big showdown between these teams with playoff implications.
The 2018 loss was a growing pain for a young Nuggets team and a team that fueled their fire and propelled them to the first of three consecutive playoff berths since. Denver is now an established team in the West with the next straight MVP and one of the brightest futures in basketball.
Minnesota, on the other hand, fell back from that playoff spot in 2018. Jimmy Butler demanded a trade the following season and Wolves hit rock bottom, while Denver won four playoffs over the next three seasons.
But this year is different in Minnesota. Former Nuggets assistant Chris Finch has resurrected Karl-Anthony Towns, and with some additional young talent, they have a top-10 offense in the league. They were 11-2 after the All-Star break before losing four of their last five games.
Minnesota comes to town Friday in seventh place in the West, trailing the Nuggets by three games with five remaining. Denver’s wins at Charlotte and Indiana this week, while Wolves suffered losses at Boston and Toronto, provided a small cushion against play-in panic. But now it’s time for the Nuggets to slam that door.
With a win, the Nuggets can feel safe to avoid the play-in and secure a top-six spot. A loss, however, would breathe life into Minnesota, with Wolves having just one road game in Houston and three home games remaining.
Denver’s final week of the regular season won’t be easy with a trip to Los Angeles followed by home games with San Antonio and Memphis before finishing with the Lakers for the second time in a week. At least three of those games will be against a desperate team playing for the final spot in the West play-in.
Winning Friday to avoid the seven-to-10 seed is the No. 1 goal, but there are a few other things the Nuggets can still accomplish over the next 10 days:
Win 50 matches
Reaching the standard of long-standing success in the NBA despite the absence of Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. would be a huge accomplishment and credit to organizational culture. The Nuggets would also finish with a record comparable to Philadelphia and Milwaukee in the East, and all but lock in a second consecutive MVP for Nikola Jokic.
Win the Northwest Division
Despite losing all four games to Utah this season, the Nuggets are tied with the Jazz for the top of the division standings. As late as the All-Star break, the Nuggets were a 20-1 long shot to overtake Utah. Due to the tiebreaker, Denver must finish one game ahead of Utah to secure another division crown and the fifth seed in the playoffs. They’ll need Utah to lose one more game than they did last week, but the way the Jazz have been out of tune in the last period, that’s certainly possible.
Jokic has been an ironman. Aaron Gordon played through injuries. Will Barton historically broke down late in the season. JaMychal Green has missed the last two games with a wrist injury. And the elephant in the room remains the possible returns of Murray and Porter. By finishing strong, avoiding play-ins and maybe even going high enough to secure a favorable first-round game with Golden State, the Nuggets are buying rest. It gives them a better chance of winning their first-round series and more time to see if Murray and/or Porter can come back.
Michael Malone has come under fire for not giving more details on Murray and Porter’s schedules all season, but he did provide some good information this week.
“It’s not a mile race where there are four laps and it’s over,” Malone said. “We have no idea where the finish line is. Until we have a better idea of that, let’s leave all the options on the table and see what happens day by day.
Sounds like a coach intent on making some noise in the playoffs. The Nuggets’ best chance to do that starts with making a compelling statement against the Timberwolves on Friday night.