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The Nuggets Have Been a Top-Two Seed All Season, but They’re Vulnerable

Denver has been buoyed by an incredible home record. But with a difficult six-game stretch to close out the regular season (and a surging Rockets team on their tail), it will have to fight to keep its home-court advantage through the playoffs.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

A red-faced and screaming Nikola Jokic was a fitting avatar for the Nuggets’ ugly, disappointing 95-90 loss to the Wizards on Sunday night. In the fourth quarter, with the game still in reach, Denver’s MVP was ejected after blowing up at a referee due to a foul call. Nothing was going the Nuggets’ way: The team shot 37.6 percent from the field and 19.4 percent from 3 on 36 attempts; they had a 10-point third quarter. Jokic was sent off the court, walking away from a gleeful Wizards bench that took extra joy in seeing him go. The scene felt indicative of how quickly things can go awry and how thin the margin for error is for a young team with outsize aspirations.

“[Jokic] can’t get tossed,” head coach Mike Malone said postgame. “I don’t care what they do to him, how bad the refereeing is.”

After beating the Thunder on Friday night and seeing the Warriors lose to the Timberwolves by a single point, Denver came into Sunday’s home game tied for the best record in the West, which would secure home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference postseason field. Edging out the Warriors for the 1-seed would be the cherry on top of a decadent season for a team that has already surpassed its preseason Vegas over/under of 47.5 wins with six games remaining. That they even have a shot at matching the Warriors in record is a testament to how quickly the Nuggets have grown up.

But Sunday’s struggle against the Wizards, which should have been an easy win for the Western squad with the best home record in the conference, presented all the troubling questions we’re waiting to see answered in the postseason: What happens if Jokic is struggling with pressure? What happens if Jamal Murray’s nagging ankle issues persist? What happens if the rest of the team forgets how to shoot? Sunday’s game won’t tell us how these issues might affect the team in a best-of-seven series, but it does tell us that the Nuggets are in for a tough final stretch of the season. Murray, the team’s second star, left the game in the third quarter after hurting his left ankle again (the same ankle that sidelined him for six games earlier this season). And with their loss, the Warriors have reclaimed the top spot after trouncing the Hornets on the same night.

Denver is one game back of the 1-seed, and now just two and a half games ahead of the Rockets. Five of the Nuggets’ six remaining games are against playoff teams, including a high-profile matchup against the Warriors on Tuesday. Golden State, meanwhile, faces four more non-playoff teams, and Houston has games against the Knicks, Suns, and Kings. Losing the 2-seed is now in play, which means playing the Warriors in the second round is, too.

The Nuggets have made a major leap this season after missing the playoffs by a game last year. Denver’s résumé speaks for itself: They have a top-six offense and a top-10 defense. They own the fifth-best net rating and the sixth-best point differential. It’s hard to argue with any of those numbers, but it’s easy to wonder how a team spearheaded by two 24-year-olds and a 22-year-old will adjust to the bigger stage, the slower games, and the higher stakes. Sunday’s worrisome performance doesn’t exactly inspire confidence from skeptics. The Nuggets have been lucky this season: They are 13-3 in games decided by three or fewer points, by far the best mark in the league; seven of those games were played at home, and they won six of them (including a two-point win over the Warriors in October). But it won’t get any easier in a playoff series where specific matchups can be homed in on. Eventually, the numbers catch up. Murray, for instance, despite his reputation, is shooting only 32.8 percent from the field in clutch situations this season.

One way to counter the downsides of youth and inexperience is to play on your own court as much as possible. Denver has won 31 games in its high-altitude home this season—the highest number of any team in the conference—and lost only seven, including Sunday night’s. Their record away from home is a mediocre 20-18.

The Nuggets’ rivals at the top of the Western summit have the opposite problems: Golden State is battling both fatigue (this is Year 5!) and the prospect of losing one of its two best players. Their familiarity gives them the benefit of the doubt in the same way that Denver’s greenness breeds skepticism. Both teams could use the advantage that comes with the top seeding, but one team needs it more than the other. Just a week ago Steve Kerr said that health was more important for Golden State than the 1-seed, but the Warriors also have the luxury of not caring whether or not they get it (and it shows, having dropped games to the Wolves, Mavericks, Magic, and Suns over the past month). And why should they? They know they can win a championship as a 2-seed; they’ve done it before.

That the Warriors may still sleepwalk to a top seed isn’t surprising. And in some ways, Denver’s inability to capitalize isn’t either. Should the Nuggets hold on to the 2-seed and make their way to a conference-final matchup against Golden State, the potential series would feel like a six-year cycle coming full circle. A youthful, up-and-coming Denver team is now similar to the Golden State team that upset the Nuggets in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. The Warriors were then the ascendant team, and the Nuggets the ones who would soon be rebuilding. Six years later, one team boasts a dynasty and the other is reaping the harvest of its successful rebuild. How successful this budding Nuggets juggernaut can be, exactly, remains to be seen.