For one night, the Nuggets looked like they had flipped the switch coming out of the All-Star break and were fully engaged entering the stretch run. That was Friday in Cleveland when the Denver went on the road, hung 122 points on the No. 1 ranked defense in the NBA, and got a signature 115-109 victory away from Ball Arena over the Cavs.

Then, reality set back in. Denver no-showed Saturday in Memphis. The Nuggets lost 112-94 in arguably their worst defeat of the season. Denver’s second unit got blitzed in the late-first, early-second portion of the first half and the Nuggets’ starters couldn’t recover. This game was over at halftime.

Every team has games like this. Every championship contender has games like this. It’s OK. There’s nothing to overreact to, right now. But with 21 games remaining, the Nuggets still have work to do this regular season.

Here’s what they need to accomplish.

Find out who you really trust off the bench for the playoffs

You need to play a minimum of three bench players in the playoffs. Right now, those three players for me would be Bruce Brown, Vlatko Cancar and Christian Braun. For Michael Malone, I think that’s Brown, Cancar and Jeff Green. It’s TBD on whether newcomers Reggie Jackson and Thomas Bryant work their way into that group. I’d have to think Zeke Nnaji’s, who’s injured right now, is currently on the outside looking in too.

Someone the Nuggets need more from right now is Brown. He was great defensively and a difference-maker on that end of the floor over the first half of the season, but I feel like his play on that end has fallen off. He’s given the Nuggets more overall offense, but I think less defense than they had hoped for. Still, he’s a lock for the playoff rotation and penciled in as the Nuggets’ sixth man. In the postseason, Denver needs him to be the ball-hawking defender that he was in November and December.

Establish the Jackson-Bryant pick-and-roll

So far, neither of the Nuggets’ post-trade deadline newcomers has looked comfortable. Thomas Bryant has played in four games. Reggie Jackson has played in two. It’s still very early and both are trying to find their footing. One way that the Nuggets’ bench and those two in particular should be able to find some success is with the Jackson-Bryant two-man game.

Bryant does most of his damage at the rim. 69% of his field goal attempts this season have come in the restricted area. He’s also scoring 1.35 points per possession as the roll man, which is in the 87th percentile league-wide, and shooting 65% in pick-and-roll situations. Thomas is a strong finisher in the paint, and he needs to be a big part of the Nuggets’ second-unit offense. It should be something (probably one of the few things) that the Nuggets’ bench can lean on when five bench players are logging minutes together. That’s what Michael Malone clearly wants to do right now.

Preserve your starters

The Nuggets are doing this right out of the All-Star break. That’s what Michael Malone’s five-man bench tells me, and I’m good with it. Preserving Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and making sure they’re as fresh as possible for the playoffs should be a top priority right now. If the Nuggets are going to win the championship this season, their unstoppable, unguardable starting five is why. They’ve got to stay healthy for the Nuggets to make a satisfying playoff run.

There will be up-and-down moments with a five-man bench of Jackson-Brown-Braun-Green/Cancar-Bryant. Let’s hope Saturday against the Grizzlies was as down of a moment as we see this season. But even if that group finishes with something around a -5 point differential on average per game, that’s good enough for Denver to win pretty much every night. The Nuggets’ starters outscore their opponent by an average of six points per game, for what it’s worth. That’s the best mark in the NBA.

Play Jack White in a couple of games

I’m intrigued by White and buying him as a Vlatko Cancar-type role player. I think he could one day play a similar jack-of-all-trades role like Cancar and bring a lot of the same qualities to the floor. Like Cancar, he doesn’t need to have the ball in his hands to make an impact.

White has had a solid year in the G League and averaging 15.3 points (57.8 FG%, 48.1 3P%), 8.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1 block in 32.1 minutes per game. He’s had some monster stat lines for Grand Rapids too: 21 points and 17 rebounds, 17 points, 15 rebounds, 18 points, 14 rebounds. Those are the types of games he puts up. White packs a lot of athleticism and has a high basketball IQ. He also profiles as a potentially elite shooter. Last offseason, White famously set a record in a Nuggets’ 3-point shooting drill when he made 83 out of 100 triples. The Nuggets think he can be a player.

Malone should find a couple of games over this last portion of the season to get White into the rotation and see what he can do. It would be great if the Nuggets could convert his two-way deal into a cheap multi-year contract this summer and count on him as one of their last guys off the bench next season. The Nuggets have a five-game Eastern Conference road trip coming up in March and could find a few games for White in that stretch.

Lock up the No. 1 seed

The Nuggets are so good at home this season and (like the rest of the league) so mediocre on the road that they need to do what’s necessary to lock in the No. 1 seed and ensure the Western Conference playoffs run through Denver. The Nuggets under Michael Malone have a tendency to play long playoff series. In the Jokic era, Denver has never won a playoff series in fewer than six games. There will probably be a Game 7 at some point in the playoffs and it would be huge if that game was played at a Mile High.

The Nuggets emerged from Saturday’s loss still five games up on the Grizzlies in the loss column. Barring a late-season collapse, Denver should cruise to the top spot in the West. The Nuggets should be able to get there while giving their key guys rest when they need to.

Take one of the Suns’ games seriously

Denver plays Kevin Durant and the Suns twice in its last 21 games: March 31st and April 6th and both of those games are in Phoenix. I’d love for the Nuggets to take one of those games seriously and test themselves against their top competition in the West. I don’t think that will be in the March 30th game, since the Nuggets are on a back-to-back and host the Pelicans the night before in Denver. April 6th when both the Nuggets and Suns are on regular rest seems more appropriate.

That’s also the third-to-last game of the season for both teams, so I wonder if that’s too late in the season to really go all-out. But if I’m the Nuggets I would love to get some data about how I match up with the new-look Suns ahead of a possible playoff series between Denver and Phoenix.


Harrison Wind is the Denver Nuggets beat reporter for DNVR Nuggets. Hear him every day on the DNVR Nuggets Podcast. Follow Harrison on Twitter - @HarrisonWind