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The Denver Nuggets should strike playoff gold

Nikola Jokic

When the NBA Playoffs arrive, so does higher viewership. Because of how long and tedious the regular season schedule can be, some fans wait until the spring to attentively watch. The excitement surrounding the opening weekend of the postseason is unmatched, as we get to see many hungry teams giving the top-seeded favorites their best shots.

With the Western Conference playoff race turning into a bloody war right now, the first-round matchups won’t be clear until the final night of the season.

If there’s one team in the bottom tier of the playoff hunt that would electrify fans, it’s the Denver Nuggets.

Sitting at 35-28 and directly behind the Cleveland Cavaliers in offensive rating, Denver plays the most enthralling style out of the eight teams with between 26 and 30 losses. Because of a wrist injury that sidelined Paul Millsap in November and ankle issues for Nikola Jokic, health hasn’t been on their side.

Entering Tuesday, the Nuggets are the eighth seed in the West, percentage points ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers. Every night is practically a must-win scenario for Denver, since the Clippers own the tiebreaker in head-to-head play. It’s remarkably close across the board for these two:  They both have a plus-1.1-point differential on the season and a 7-3 record in their last 10 games.

Since it’s truly a two-team race between Houston and Golden State, with none of these teams having a chance to knock them off, it appears we’ll have two toss-up series:  The 3-6 and 4-5 seeding matchup. For the first time in recent memory, the West’s three seed warrants zero confidence in winning a series. If they can climb up to sixth, the Nuggets’ offensive explosion gives them a solid opening to reach the second round.

Mike Malone hasn’t received the credit he deserves for implementing creative offensive sets. Of course, what makes Malone’s job seem easier is having the best passing center in the league along with two shooters defenders stick to. The Nuggets score 108.8 points per 100 possessions, higher than any fringe playoff team outside of Minnesota

Saturday, they showed a sense of urgency we’ve seen multiple times this year, blitzing Cleveland with one of their most efficient games of the season. Denver shot 19-of-35 (54.3 percent) from three-point range and walked all over the Cavaliers on the road. It was the same impressive effort from their wins over the Thunder and Warriors earlier in the season, as this unit can rise to the occasion in critical moments.

Despite the “undersized” label and playing with such a dexterous play maker in Jokic, it’s Gary Harris who remains the most underrated player in basketball. He has taken six three-pointers per game compared to his 4.5 last year and remains one of three guards shooting over 55 percent from two and 40 percent from three. One is the best point guard in the world, Stephen Curry, and the other is E’Twaun Moore of the New Orleans Pelicans.

Attacking the paint on drives or cuts, Harris is elite at finishing in the paint. He may be a smaller shooting guard, but the quick burst and ability to maneuver around big men has allowed him to succeed. He’s shooting 72.3 percent at the rim, which is a monster leap from his 65.6 percent last season. Oh, and he’s managed this with increased volume, too. For perspective, Giannis Antetokounmpo scores at a 75.7 percent rate near the rim, while Ben Simmons is finishing 73.9 percent of his attempts.

The chemistry Harris has developed with Jokic is what every guard-center duo should strive for. If it’s not a direct drive by Harris out of the pick-and-roll, he’s finding the perfect openings to catch backdoor passes from the Joker:

Transition is where the Nuggets’ offense does the most damage, with an effective field goal percentage of 62.2 this year. Only the Wizards, Rockets, and Warriors shoot better in fastbreak scenarios. Even though the playoffs usually bring a slower, halfcourt-based product, Denver has the young, speedy weapons to surprise a few teams if they force turnovers and increase the pace.

This is especially dangerous in Mile-High City, with the altitude always serving as the best homecourt advantage for a middling team.

Millsap has returned and looked aggressive in his first three games back. He was signed to help change the defense with this team, which lacked even the slightest presence. His injury caused Denver to slip to 26th in Defensive Rating, but they are still not as horrible as last season – it’s a full two points per 100 possessions better, which is progress for the young core.

Now with Millsap back in the starting lineup, they certainly have work to do before they are considered a playoff threat. But, what flew under the radar was how competent their starting five was before his injury. This season, 37 lineups have logged over 200 minutes together. The Murray-Harris-Chandler-Millsap-Jokic starting group still ranks 10th in Net Rating, which is point differential per 100 possessions.

Believe it or not, that’s neck-and-neck with Golden State’s starting unit with Zaza Pachulia, Toronto’s starters with OG Anunoby, and Oklahoma City’s starters when Andre Roberson was healthy. Defensively, the Nuggets’ starting lineup (with Millsap) is only allowing 101.9 points per 100 possessions. It’s the bench that completely gets stomped on. With only a month left in the season, they will need to have peak Millsap performances on the defensive end to hold off the Clippers and Jazz, and ultimately move up the standings.

The Nuggets have a moderate strength of schedule remaining – no more games versus Houston or Golden State. They get to host Cleveland this week, but they have always played the Cavs well at home.

However, it has the potential to get ugly in late March. They have the unfortunate luck of going on a seven-game road trip to end the month:  at Grizzlies, Heat, Bulls, Wizards, 76ers, Raptors, and Thunder. That isn’t fun or ideal.

They probably have to go at least 4-3 during that stretch to stay alive, and a total of 10-9 over their final 19 games.

It feels like a gift from the NBA gods that Denver’s last four games are against the Timberwolves (2x), Trail Blazers, and Clippers – all three teams fighting and clawing for playoff seeding. If the Nuggets choke in the final week and go 0-4, they will narrowly miss for the second straight year. An undefeated week likely gets them to fifth or sixth.

This roster is too exciting and loaded with offensive versatility to miss the playoffs. I expect them to settle into sixth and have a great chance to knock off the third seed with multiple games turning into shootouts.

Plus, playoff time is when stars are made, and confident players are put to the test. This would come at a perfect time for Jamal Murray, in his second year. Jokic would be forced to look more aggressively for his own offense.

This franchise is under real pressure to make the postseason after making the win-now move to bring in Millsap. The West just isn’t kind to anyone. For entertainment purposes, viewers should absolutely hope for the Nuggets to break their mini, four-year playoff drought.