The Nuggets only have nine games left in the regular season but still have a chance to make a statement to the rest of the league over their next two games. The Bucks come to Denver Saturday and the 76ers play the Nuggets at a Mile High Monday night. What can Denver prove in those two matchups and down the stretch of the season? DNVR Nuggets discusses.
Nuggets-Bucks on Saturday in Denver, what do you have your eye on?
Adam Mares: Jamal Murray vs. Jrue Holiday. Holiday might be the best perimeter defender in the NBA so this provides a great opportunity for Murray to showcase that he is ready for the toughest defenses that he’ll see in the playoffs. Murray went through a bit of a slump over the last few weeks but appears to be rounding back to form. If he’s back, he’ll at least go toe-to-toe with Holiday in this game and Denver will likely pick up a statement win.
Harrison Wind: Do the Nuggets get up for this game, or are they still in “chill mode”? That’s what will determine if this game actually ends up meaning something or not. The Nuggets are back at home for the first time in two weeks and there’s going to be great energy in the building Saturday night for Giannis and the Bucks. And I think that inspires Denver to take this game seriously. How do the Nuggets look against a legit championship contender? Denver hasn’t faced a contender like this in a while…probably since the Memphis game on March 3 (although the Grizzlies’ stock has really fallen since). Offensively, defensively, and everything else in between the lines — it could tell us a lot about where the Nuggets stand at this moment in time.
Brendan Vogt: I’m keyed in on their defensive engagement. I have trust in the offense come playoff time, and the last two third quarters have helped restore faith that they can still separate. But they have to be better defensively, and being more engaged against a contender would be an encouraging sign heading into the playoffs. Should this game see clutch time, that’s another area where Denver could stand to rediscover their form. They’ve got to play through Jokić in those minutes.
What are your expectations for the Nuggets’ defense in the playoffs?
Mares: I think it will mirror the regular season. There will be moments, maybe even games, where they look championship calier on the defensive end. And there will be games and quarters where they look totally incompetent. That inconsistency seems wired into their DNA. I’m not sure that is a recipe for a championship, but what evidence do we have that things will be different?
Wind: I think it will fluctuate from awful to elite, just as it has in the regular season. There will be times when the Nuggets look disgusting defensively, just as they did at points during this season, and there will be other times when Denver locks down and looks elite. I think that’s just the nature of who this Nuggets team is and it could be matchup dependent. Denver could shut down an offense like the Clippers, but the Nuggets could get worked by Steph Curry again. But in the end, I do trust the Nuggets’ defense to ultimately show up when it matters. They have time and time again throughout this season.
Vogt: We’ve seen a ceiling that’s good enough and a floor that’s nowhere near good enough for playoff-level basketball. We’ll see a bit of everything. Denver likely won’t hold anyone under 100 points, but I won’t be shocked to see the clutch-time defense rear its head and secure some wins. I have more confidence that Malone has the pieces to assemble defensive-oriented lineups than years prior. And I expect everyone to raise their effort level. Their worst losses this postseason will come when the bottom drops out defensively. I’m sure we’ll see some dreadful possessions, too. Perhaps the biggest x-factors in this regard are Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić. To what extent will they raise their baseline effort in the postseason?
Who do the Nuggets need to find rest during this final stretch of the season?
Mares: All of the starters. And it doesn’t have to be an extended rest. The Nuggets will naturally get a rest during the play-in tournament. But Denver can add an extra two or three days of rest to end the season to that list if they take care of business early and secure the 1-seed heading into the final week of the season.
Wind: At the top of that list has to be Aaron Gordon. He hasn’t looked himself in a while and Denver needs him to be a physical interior presence in the postseason, especially if he’s logging minutes at the backup 5. Gordon has battled through a rib and shoulder injury so far this season and something still seems like it’s bothering him. Jamal Murray would be next on my ranking. Finally, Nikola Jokic. Once Denver has the No. 1 seed locked up, I don’t want to see Jokic or Murray on the court until the playoffs.
Vogt: Aaron Gordon might be healthy, but at the very least, he doesn’t look healthy. He’s laboring out there — wincing on dunks, losing collisions, and struggling to rebound. So much of his game is predicated on being physical and relentless. There’s an argument to make that his health and freshness are more important than being in rhythm entering the postseason. If that’s the case, he could use some games off.