As we enter the final month of the 2018-19 NBA regular season, our ongoing search for the second-best team in the Western Conference seems to have come full circle. The Rockets are the hottest team in the league, owners of the NBA’s second-best record since Christmas and a nine-game winning streak that has included high-profile victories over the Warriors, Celtics, Raptors, and 76ers. James Harden’s historic scoring has finally cooled off a bit, but Houston has still soared on both ends of the court, boasting the West’s best net rating since Chris Paul returned to the lineup in late January.
As we swoon over Houston’s apparent reclamation of its role as Golden State’s most fearsome foil, though, it’s worth sparing a thought for the team that continues to actually sit in second place in the West. It’s mid-March, and the Nuggets still haven’t gone away, entering Tuesday’s game against the red-hot Karl-Anthony Towns and his Timberwolves 1.5 games back of the Warriors and two games ahead of the Rockets.
But FiveThirtyEight’s playoff projections give the Nuggets just a 3 percent chance of making the Finals, behind the Warriors, Rockets, and Thunder, and tied with the Jazz ... and that feels about right. Despite an impressive résumé and the presence of fringe MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, it still feels hard to fully buy into a team full of inexperienced young talent navigating such treacherous competition making Denver’s first deep playoff run in a decade.
Just what should we make of these Nuggets? Is this The Year Before The Year, or could Michael Malone’s team pose a real, immediate threat to the league’s more established powers?
Denver is the only Western team to rank in the top 10 in the NBA in offensive and defensive efficiency. Jokic has remained one of the league’s most dominant and singular forces, an inside-out pulverizer running an elite offense with a fluidity that we’ve literally never seen from a player his size. (He’s also ironed out one of his lone early-season offensive kinks, drilling 39.5 percent of his 3-point tries over the past 15 games.) Vital second scorer/swagger minister Jamal Murray has been on fire from long distance for the better part of two months, drilling 44.9 percent of his 6.4 triple tries per game over his past 20 outings.
And despite skepticism of the staying power of their defensive improvements, the Nuggets have largely remained stout on defense, especially after getting Paul Millsap back into the lineup. Since the veteran power forward returned from a broken toe on his right foot last month, no team in the league has allowed fewer points per possession than Denver. The return of versatile guard Gary Harris has helped, too, giving Malone another quick, aggressive, capable defender to close out hard on the perimeter, contest 3-point looks, and help stall dribble penetration to keep drivers out of the paint. The full-strength Nuggets have a bunch of players capable of handling multiple assignments, knocking down outside shots, and playing their parts in orbit around Jokic.
Even so, though, a recent uneven run has made Denver’s position as a bona fide Western challenger feel a little shaky. The Nuggets have gone 6-7 over their past 13 games, while being dragged down, surprisingly enough, by a bottom-10 offense. Five of those seven losses came on the road, and six came to teams currently in playoff position, including a Friday night ass-kicking at the hands of the Warriors. They’ve also dropped two of three against Houston.
In the big picture, Denver has fared comparatively well against quality competition. The Nuggets have gone 18-15 against teams in line to make the postseason, and 12-9 against in-conference playoff foes, trailing only Oklahoma City for the best mark among Western teams. But Denver’s struggles to contain elite high-octane, high-volume scorers like Harden, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson loom large. Denver doesn’t have to pitch shutouts to win in the postseason, but it will have to keep opposing gunners from putting up crooked numbers. As good as they’ve looked defensively at times, the Nuggets’ reliance on a 7-footer as the heart of their offense poses problems when dealing with opposing attacks that can spread the floor and target plodding defenders in space.
The issues get more complicated when an opponent manages to minimize the damage Jokic can do offensively, like the Jazz did a couple of weeks back. On February 28, Rudy Gobert limited the Serbian star to 16 points on 5-for-15 shooting with five turnovers mitigating his seven assists. With Jokic quieted, Denver’s attack fizzled, and Utah went on to a 111-104 win.
Few players in the league have the combination of length, strength, and quickness to be able to clamp down on Jokic like Gobert did. But even without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year to deploy, postseason opponents could attempt to replicate that game plan—play Jokic one-on-one, try to fluster him with length and activity, and have your perimeter defenders sell out off the ball to take away his passing options—to try to force him to be a scorer first. Jokic can be successful looking for his own shot, but that would take Denver out of its well-established offensive rhythm and put more pressure on other Nuggets to create quality scoring chances for themselves and others.
That, in part, was the idea behind the Isaiah Thomas signing; things aren’t working out too hot on that front so far, though. Unless Thomas can rediscover something approximating his MVP-caliber form over the next four weeks, Denver will need somebody else to step up and create shots in the crucible of the postseason. There are options: Murray certainly doesn’t lack confidence that he’s up to the task, Malik Beasley has been an excellent source of complementary shooting and scoring, and before a recent downturn that coincided with being asked to share the backcourt with Thomas, Monte Morris was perhaps the league’s best backup offensive initiator. But those three have a combined zero career postseason buckets; you’d be forgiven for wanting to see them come through in those moments before you fully believe they’ll be able to do it.
That’s the heart of the matter, really: The Nuggets have the tools to make real postseason noise, but we don’t know yet whether they can use them to build something special. To make us believe, they’ll have to show that they believe in themselves. And that’s why the ups and downs of the past few weeks have been cause for concern.
“You’ve just got to play basketball,” the 34-year-old Millsap, who went through the postseason wringer with the Jazz and Hawks before coming to Denver, told reporters after a recent loss to the Anthony Davis–less Pelicans. “We’re in the first seed—or we were in the first seed—and I felt like tonight we felt like we were going to lose it. You can feel that. You can feel the pressure on guys. That’s not how we’re supposed to play basketball. That’s not how we’ve played basketball the whole year.”
Denver can’t afford to play that way down the stretch—not with nine of its final 17 games coming on the road, including dates with Boston, Indiana, Houston, Oklahoma City, Golden State, Portland, and Utah, in what amounts to the West’s third-toughest remaining slate.
“We have a great opportunity in front of us, but who do we want to be?” Malone said on Monday. “That was one of my questions to our team today. Do we want to just kind of just crawl into the playoffs and be thankful we made it? Do we want to fight for home-court advantage in the first round? We’re a game and a half behind Golden State. Do we want to really commit to trying to get that? I don’t know.”
We’re about to find out. The Nuggets have played with verve, joy, and a freewheeling, egalitarian nature that’s brought them eye to eye with the league’s very best teams. This is no time to blink.