Coming off one of the toughest losses of the season, the Nuggets have not only fallen to the ninth seed, but also lost their season matchup to the Clippers. It isn’t all bad in Denver though. Paul Millsap made his return to the lineup and the degree of difficulty of the March schedule isn’t looking bad. On top of that the Nuggets are coming off their first month in which they played 10 or more games and won at least 70% since March of their 57-win 2012-13 season.
However, with more than 20 games to go in the NBA season there’s still an element of uncertainty, with eight teams jockeying for six playoff spots with only 4.5 games between them. It’s going to take impressive effort and discipline for each of these teams to make the playoffs, and Denver is no exception.
Comparing the schedules of the eight competing teams, Denver seems to have the most favorable, outside of Utah. Rightfully, some Nuggets fans could see this as a trap given how the team fell short of expectations in January. January’s schedule was a different beast though. Most of the Nuggets games that month were back-to-back or third game in four night scenarios. In those games the Nuggets were 1-6 in January. While there are four of those games in March three out of four are against formidable Eastern Conference competitors that you would figure would be a tough matchup regardless (Raptors once and Cavaliers twice). The Nuggets will also have to come to terms with improving their road record. Of their last 21 games 13 are on the road. Additionally, the Nuggets play 13 playoff teams eight on the road and five at home.
Many of those playoff teams, especially from the West, will come in April. In March the Nuggets have a real opportunity to give themselves some breathing room heading into the stretch run. With five matchups in March against teams essentially confirmed to be tanking (please forgive me Commissioner Silver), and two more against the Lakers who walk that fine line, there are seven games that the Nuggets must take advantage of over the next couple weeks.
The Key Games
Some of the games are going to be labeled “must-win.” While it could be argued, with the race this close, they all are, there are certain games that jump off the page. Although there are eight games against Eastern Conference playoff teams, an even split of 4-4 wouldn’t hurt the Nuggets playoff or seeding chances that much. Anything over, probably would set the Nuggets up pretty comfortably, while under could really threaten their playoff chances. Still, the Western Conference games in April remain the most intriguing and important.
The first is at the Thunder. With a chance to win the season series, this game could have very important playoff seeding implications. The next is the rematch at the Clippers. Having blown two double-digit leads against the Clippers this season the Nuggets won’t have a chance to win the season series, but the game still will count as an ever important win or loss in a race that could come down to one game. Perhaps the most important game comes in Denver versus the Trail Blazers likely with the season series, playoff seeding, and even making the playoffs on the line.
The Magic Number
So, what exactly do the Nuggets need to do to reach the playoffs? What’s the magic number of wins? The way I see it, to make the playoffs in the Western Conference this season a team will need 46 wins. You can follow along with my logic below, yellow highlighted cells counting as wins.
The Timberwolves, even without Butler, look like the safest bet to run away with the three seed, but that could even be questionable. After that it figures to stay wild. Personally, I have the Nuggets making a big push and coming in at the four seed. Admittedly, I feel like I’m valuing them too high, but that’s just the way I see the schedule at this point. The crazy part about how this seeding is going to work is that even if the teams win the same amount of games that I’m predicting here, if you move around which games they win it will produce an entirely different result. Even if the Nuggets get the magic number of wins, I believe that any team that doesn’t rank higher than the six seed is doomed as far as playoff contention is concerned anyway, making the tie breakers all the more important.
The Tie Breakers
Fortunately, I don’t see the Clippers finding enough wins to sneak into the playoffs and give the Nuggets trouble as far as tie breakers are concerned. But even in my prediction model above there are several factors that will come into play. Beginning with the Nuggets-Thunder tie breaker, it all comes down to who wins that matchup in OKC on March 30th. The winner of that game likely to be the higher seed if they end up tied in the playoff race. That means that the Nuggets are potentially playing for the right to home court advantage that night.
#Nuggets' current tiebreakers:
DEN 2-1 OKC (1 game left)
DEN 2-2 SAS (0 games left)
DEN 0-2 MIN (2 games left)
DEN 2-1 POR (1 game left)
DEN 2-2 UTA (0 games left)
DEN 0-2 LAC (1 games left) ❌
DEN 2-1 NOP (0 games left) ✅
— T.J. McBride (@TJMcBrideNBA) February 28, 2018
If it’s not Nuggets-Thunder it very well could be Nuggets-Spurs. With their season series already in the books the NBA tie breaker order of operations would then default to division record. If the Spurs and Nuggets stay tied in division wins, as they are now with six, then conference record would be called upon. One game separates the two teams, with the Nuggets leading 21 to 20 in conference wins.
Perhaps it could even be Nuggets-Blazers. While I covered some of the implications of the game above, all of that changes if the Blazers win. The season series would finish in a 2-2 tie, with the tie breaker then replicating the Spurs situation, and, as you might have guessed, it doesn’t get any less close. With the Trail Blazers 5-6 division record the Nuggets and Blazers are only separated by one division game. However, with several division games to go, I would doubt the tie breaker would need to go to conference record.
If the Nuggets did lose to the Thunder or did end up in a tie with the Jazz (both series being tied 2-2) then both tie breakers would come down to division record as well. It’s worth noting that both teams already have eight division losses to the Nuggets six, making it much more difficult to see them beating out the Nuggets on that tie breaker front.
There is reason for Nuggets fans to start feeling optimistic about the playoff run to come, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to come easy as was proven in Tuesday’s loss. If the Nuggets don’t play up to the standard they set for themselves in February it’s possible that none of these factors even matter. The Nuggets must take care of business March and put themselves in a fighting position for not only playoff seeding, but potentially home court advantage.