Denver’s next five games include being at home against the Clippers and Rockets, on the road for Houston, then back home for the Cavaliers before heading to Indiana to take on the Pacers for the Denver’s toughest remaining stretch of games. How many of those five games does Denver need to win and how many wins do you see them realistically getting?
An: I’ve always been optimistic (read: biased) with the team so I’m going to say the Nuggets go 3-2 on this stretch. Denver needs to win at least two out of the five games otherwise, they have no business being in the playoffs. Portland and Dallas have been playing very well, so the Nuggets will need to keep their foot on the gas and hope the other teams run out of fumes.
Dan: They "need" to win two of those five games, which is not an exciting answer, but makes sense when you consider this year's eighth seed will likely be several games below-.500. Unless Minnesota, Portland, or Dallas go on a four-game winning streak, the Nuggets should be able to weather this tough stretch. However, I do think they're going to win three of the next five. I see them splitting with Houston in a home-and-home that could eclipse 500 combined points. I don't think the Pacers are good, so the Nuggets should pick up a win in Indy and I like them to beat the Clippers at home.
Joel: Two, and two. Denver’s eighth seed competition has basically been whittled down to Portland, Dallas, and Minnesota. Despite all three of these teams losing on Saturday, their overall play has been trending up lately, and so if the Nuggets go 0-5 or even 1-4 in this five-game stretch, it could effectively stick a fork in their playoff hopes. Going 2-3, while not ideal, should at least keep Denver in the hunt, and fortunately, that goal is realistically within reach. Even on the road, the Pacers game is a should-win, and while the opposition will be heavily favored in all four of the other games, the Nuggets should be able to steal at least one, perhaps in a fast-paced offensive frenzy at home versus the Rockets.
Luke: I might be overly optimistic but it would not surprise me to see the Nuggets go 4-1 in this stretch. All of these games are winnable, even the one in Cleveland against the suddenly struggling Cavaliers. With that being said, I think Denver will go 3-2 in this stretch as they will win both home games and then steal a game on the road. Worst case scenario looks to be 2-3. Any of the above situations should prove to be more than enough to keep Denver in the driver’s seat for the eighth seed.
Who do you see as Denver’s biggest competition for the eighth seed in the Western Conference?
An: To me, it comes down to either Dallas or Portland and I’m under the belief that the Blazers scare Denver more. Not only do they have an easy stretch coming up, playing the Knicks, Suns, Pelicans and the Timberwolves (twice), but they scare me more from a narrative perspective. Nurkic being the difference-maker who helps them get to the playoffs is a realistic nightmare for Nuggets fans who watched him mope around and waste his talent while he was in Denver. That would be the most bitter ending to this season that I can think of.
Dan: Dallas. To adapt 'The Departed', Rick Carlisle is an artist. Give him a tuba (i.e. Yogi Ferrell, 39-year-old Dirk, the other Curry) he'll get you something out of it. Portland would be a tough pill for Nuggets fans to swallow since their theoretical run to the 8-seed would be propelled by the ever-more-lopsided-looking Nurkic for Plumlee swap. But Denver is still better than Portland and should be able to fend them off. The Timberwolves are rising, but they'll be more of a threat next season. Denver will be the eighth seed (probably), but always keep an eye on Dirk & Carlisle.
Joel: Themselves. The Nuggets currently hold the eighth spot with the Blazers two full games back, and therefore it is theirs to lose. It seems probable now that at least one or two teams among Portland, Dallas, and Minnesota will end up with win totals in the 38-40 range, which sets the threshold around there for the 8th position. To get 40 wins, the Nuggets need to finish 8-7, or .533, a trajectory just below the .548 mark of their 23-19 record since the December 15th Jokic lineup change. In other words, if they can simply avoid pulling an end-of-season version of their many late-game collapses, they should win enough games to hang on.
Luke: Portland will not quietly into the night. Without question, I think they will push the Nuggets to the very end for the West’s eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Besides the Trail Blazers, Minnesota looks to be a year away, although Friday night’s victory over Golden State could be the springboard for a late-season playoff push. All things considered, the Nuggets control their own destiny and I’m confident they will continue their 2017 resurgence by getting back to the playoffs this spring.
In your opinion, why does Denver make or not make the playoffs?
An: I think Denver makes the playoffs because they’re hitting their stride alongside Portland and Dallas and happen to have the current lead. The Nuggets are good enough to keep the competition at arm’s-length and are absolutely starving to get back into the playoff picture. The entire city is aching for the postseason and it could very well be the catalyst that gets more casual fans invested in the franchise once again. Especially once the Nuggets beat Golden State in the first round.
Dan: Nikola Jokic. It’s clearly The Joker’s team and Tim Connelly traded Nurkic to erase any lingering doubt. The defense across the board will need to be better in order to win tough games down the stretch. Good luck if you expect a miraculous reinvention on defense at this point but Jokic needs to continue to be the one to set the tone on the other end. At his best, he elevates the offensive games of Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, Jamal Murray and Danilo Gallinari. Can offense alone win you a playoff game against a 1-seed? No. But can it get you the 8-seed as a 40-win team? I’d wager yes, and the best bet is on "Big Honey" making his postseason debut.
Joel: Defense, or lack thereof. The recent win against the Celtics stands out as a bright, shining beacon of what this Nuggets team is capable of when they actually play with sufficient effort and focus on the defensive end of the court. This may sound trite, but the Nuggets don’t need to be world-beaters defensively, they just need to frustrate opponents’ efforts enough to give their own offensive juggernaut a chance to outscore them. The Boston game, too, was a perfect example of the kind of tough, hard-nosed basketball Denver will need to compete in the playoffs, and as such, that should be the template for the remainder of the season and beyond.
Luke: It would fall on the veteran core’s inability to take the next step. The youth movement injected life into this team but they ( and let’s face it - “they” is mainly Jokic) can only take this team so far without the old timers giving it their all. Guys like Chandler, Gallinari, Nelson and Faried will need to give the younger guys a finally push over these last sixteen games to avoid a collapse. Will the veterans prove they shouldn’t have been dealt at the timeline by holding the younger guys accountable and spearheading a strong finish to the regular season? The Nuggets front office thought they would, it’s now time for the veterans to prove themselves worthy of the trust placed upon them.