What will the Nuggets post-break, sprint to the finish look like?
The latest All-Star break in NBA history is over, and it’s time for the sprint to the playoffs. After a rollercoaster of injuries, health and safety protocols, and some head-scratching wins and losses through 58 games, there’s reason to be excited about the Nuggets final 24 games of the regular season and beyond.
Here’s what to watch for:
Denver will finish strong
The Nuggets have hit their stride riding a three-game win streak coming out of the break. The come-from-behind upset of Golden State before taking the week off was definitely on the shortlist of high points for the season so far. Next up, Denver will play Sacramento twice, along with Portland, Oklahoma City, Houston and New Orleans. The Nuggets will be favored in all six games and could potentially build a nine-game win streak. The friendly stretch is just part of the Nuggets having the NBA’s easiest remaining schedule – 15 home games and only nine on the road. Denver sits only three games behind Utah in the Northwest Division and a late push could make the race for the division title and the fourth seed in the playoffs very interesting in April.
Beware the Ides of March
The Nuggets play five games in eight days from March 12-20, all against Eastern Conference teams. Toronto will be looking for revenge at Ball Arena after the game Denver stole north of the border on Feb. 12, and then the Nuggets head out on their longest remaining road trip to Philly, Washington and Cleveland before coming home to face Boston. It will be a taxing eight days and every game will be difficult. The highlight of the week will be Monday night, March 14, in Philadelphia with Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid going head-to-head on an ESPN nationally televised game that will shape the MVP narrative with less than a month remaining in the regular season. Following that five-game stretch, the Nuggets will be favored in eight of their final ten games.
Michael Malone has 24 games left to hone in on his playoff rotations. Some answers may be evident as Davon Reed and Facu Campazzo have fallen out of the rotation already, but he and his staff still have a lot of questions to answer:
• Will DeMarcus Cousins be signed to the permanent roster and play a role in the postseason?
• What can Zeke Nnaji show over the final seven weeks to earn playoff minutes ahead of playoff-tested vet JaMychal Green?
• When Monte Morris moves to the bench, what does that mean for Bones Hyland?
• Can Will Barton be better than what he’s shown in the last 25 games, and will he finally be healthy enough for a full playoff run?
And that brings us to the elephant in the room – will the Nuggets be healthy before the playoffs? Denver has put an enormous weight on Jokic’s shoulders all season – how much does he have left in the tank? If Jokic is rested and ready for the playoffs no team in the NBA has an answer for the MVP.
Aaron Gordon was banged up heading into the break and needed some time to rest. Denver needs him to be closer to 100% the rest of the way. He’s just as big a piece of the playoff puzzle as the probable returns of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.
If you believe both Murray and Porter are going to return soon, then you might want to place a bet on the Nuggets at 14-1 to win the Western Conference or 35-1 to win the championship. I believe they’ll both be back sooner than later, but not I, nor anyone else who’s talking, knows for sure. Maybe the Nuggets do know, but they are playing it very close to the vest and not rushing either player by making any expectations public.
If Murray and/or Porter return after that Eastern road trip, say March 20 versus Boston to start a four-game homestand, that gives them 11 games to work themselves back into a rhythm before the postseason. That’s ample time for a healthy Nuggets roster to be ready and they would likely be expected to win against either Memphis or Dallas in a first-round series.
A Jokic-Gordon-Porter-Barton-Murray starting lineup with Morris leading a veteran bolstered bench is exactly what the Nuggets have tried to build for a playoff run. They might finally get to see it in action if all goes well over the next few weeks. The toughest part of the Nuggets season is behind them and they have momentum on their side. Buckle up – Denver’s most exciting basketball of the season is yet to come.