DENVER - The Nuggets are officially in win-or-go-home mode as a loss eliminates Denver from a possible playoff berth. To stay alive, they'll have to get through the Oklahoma City Thunder led by Russell Westbrook, who is hunting a record-setting 42nd triple-double of the season.
If Denver comes away with a victory, it will again be behind the young Nuggets' core. Without strong showings from Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Nikola Jokic there is really no conceivable possibility in which Denver is able to secure a win in their final home game of the 2016-17 regular season.
Regular season game No. 79 | Denver Nuggets (38-40) vs Oklahoma City (45-34)
Denver's remaining three games are now all absolute must-wins and that begins against Oklahoma City and Westbrook, who has officially secured the statistics needed to average a triple-double for the entire regular season. He currently is averaging 31.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game and did so without missing a single game up until this point.
But one accomplishment still remains for Westbrook to achieve. He currently stands at 41 triple-doubles on the season which leaves him tied with the great Oscar Robertson for the most in a single season. With just three games remaining before the playoffs Westbrook is without a doubt looking for No. 42.
While denying Westbrook a place in history is no small task, Denver also has to deal with an angry Westbrook. The Most Valuable Player Candidate came close to his record-setting triple-double in Phoenix on Friday but the Suns downed the Thunder 120-90 in embarrassing fashion. Westbrook was seemingly gunning for his 42nd triple-double but it never came to fruition as he finished 23 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists but was just 6-25 from the field.
Westbrook was so frustrated after the loss that he went straight to the Suns' practice court and was heard taking shots for 45 minutes until Thunder General Manager Sam Presti went in to chat with his superstar point guard.
That leaves Denver to prepare for not just a motivated Westbrook, but an angry Westbrook, who will be determined to bounce back in a big way. This is Denver's last stand.
This is Denver's last stand.
The Nuggets chances for the playoffs took a turn for the worse on Saturday night as the Portland Trail Blazers decimated the Utah Jazz in Portland behind a whopping 59 points from Damian Lillard, which is a franchise record for points scored in a single game. The Portland victory brings their magic number down to just one, meaning one Trail Blazers win or one Nuggets loss clinches the eighth seed in the West for Portland.
Portland still has to face a rested San Antonio Spurs team at home that is reportedly not going to rest because coach Gregg Popovich was so upset with the lack of physicality in their loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Denver, on the other hand, has home finale today against the Thunder before traveling to Dallas to take on Tony Romo and the Mavericks (yes, you read that right). The Nuggets then head to Oklahoma to play the Thunder, who could be resting now that they have locked into they sixth seed in the Western Conference.
To say the Nuggets playoff chances look grim would be a massive understatement. Denver did an admirable job making things interesting, and the Nuggets still have a mathematical chance to make the playoffs, but it would take a minor miracle for Denver to make the postseason at this point.
The one and only chance the Nuggets have of making the playoffs is if Portland loses their final two games against the Spurs and Pelicans and Denver wins their final three remaining games against the Thunder, Mavericks, and Thunder next Wednesday in Oklahoma City on the final day of the regular season.
Jameer Nelson (right calf strain) is out, meaning Jamal Murray will get another start at point guard. The Nuggets are 4-0 this season when Murray starts at the one.
Emmanuel Mudiay (right ankle sprain) hurt his ankle during the New Orleans win on Friday. Mudiay is the only other true point guard on the Nuggets' roster outside of Murray and Nelson which leaves Denver needing to find a creative fix if Mudiay is unable to go.
Barton has been upgraded to questionable and could see time at point guard if he is able to play and Mudiay is not. Barton's size theoretically could help Denver attempt to limit Westbrook.
If neither Barton or Mudiay can play, look for Denver to rely on Harris to shoulder some of the point guard responsibilities. Harris has shown that he has developed a better handle and has started to facilitate in the pick-and-roll more frequently since the All-Star break in February.
Harris had a career-high nine assists against the Pelicans on Friday and may need to do much of the same against Oklahoma City.