DENVER — This is the absolute worst time to write this. It’s going to sound a little kooky and, even worse, might just jinx the Nuggets right out of the NBA's playoff picture. You’ve been forewarned.
But hear me out: what the Rockets did to the Nuggets on Sunday is an outlier. It’s a painful, uncomfortable — and accurate! — outlier, but it’s the exception not the rule. Yes, the familiar result should give Nuggets fans the heebie-jeebies — Houston 119, Nuggets 114 — and if we’re being real about the mismatch at Pepsi Center, nails have enjoyed better days hanging out with hammers.
The Rockets aren’t Kryptonite to the Nuggets. They’re more like Superman picked up the earth and flattened the Nuggets with it. The Beard, James Harden, is not only an awful matchup for Denver; the way he manipulates the officiating makes the Nuggets lose their marbles. It’s kind of like how your big sister knew which buttons to push on long car rides. Or maybe that was just me.
Anyway, here’s what I’m getting at: the Nuggets are going to be a playoff team. They won’t say it, since that's a real jinx. But we can! And that’s a fantastic development, because now we can speculate on which teams Denver should hope to encounter in the playoffs. Since you asked, here’s my order of preference among the likely candidates: 1. Portland 2. Minnesota (Jimmy Butler is hurt) 3. San Antonio (Kawhi Leonard is hurt) 4. Golden State 5. Houston.
And you know what? The Nuggets can win a series against the first three. If you get the Blazers or T-Wolves, it would actually be a bummer if they didn’t win the series outright. A big step in the right direction, sure, but a bummer.
But the Nuggets don’t want to see the Rockets again in 2018. They want to see the dentist before they see the Rockets. Give me a series against the world champion Warriors before you give me a series against these jump-shooting mercenaries from Houston. Harden starts shooting free throws the minute he steps foot in DIA. He shot 16 free throws in this game on his way to 41 points, an old-fashioned clinic. Chris Paul showed a negative plus-minus on Sunday, but he also had a hand in sticking the Nuggets’ two point guards with seven fouls by halftime. Thanks to a festive, sold-out crowd announced at 20,004 — and did they raise the decibel level on the soundsystem at Pepsi Center? — the Nuggets cut an 18-point deficit to four and made it interesting, at least.
“The first two times we played, the game wasn’t even close,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
The first two times they played, the Nuggets lost by 30 and 26.
See what I mean? The Rockets are 31-3 with Paul and Harden in the lineup. Yikes.
“I liked how hard we played. We just have to play a little smarter against the best team in the NBA,” Malone added.
He’s right, you know, and not solely because Houston (46-13) owns a better record than Golden State (46-14) by a nose hair. If Houston gets homecourt, make my pick the Rockets over the Warriors.
Point is, Denver must avoid both. That’s hardly breaking news, but it provides a baseline for what the Nuggets must accomplish over the final 22 games.
The magic number is 6. If the Nuggets can score a 6 seed or better, they'll have a shot to really get the Nikola Jokic era rolling and win a playoff series for the first time since 2009, when Jokic was still a chubby high school kid daydreaming of racing horses in Serbia.
The Nuggets fell to the 8 seed on Sunday, but the Western Conference is so much of a sardine can that only 2.5 games separate the 3 seed from the 8 seed. Every game is going to matter.
Yes, the Spurs are still scary in the way a triple-bogey is scary. No matter how well you’re playing, they find a way to ruin your day. But the Spurs without Kawhi Leonard are not the Spurs at all. And the Timberwolves with a less-than-healthy Jimmy Butler, who’s expected to return from knee surgery just as the postseason tips off, are not the Timberwolves at all. Plus, there’s an All-Star forward chillin' on the Nuggets' bench. Paul Millsap should return from a wrist injury in 1-2 weeks, Malone said Sunday.
“Oh, yeah,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said when asked if the Nuggets look like a playoff team.
“They get (Paul) Millsap back, they’re good,” he added.
This is where it gets a little kooky: the Nuggets must play exactly how they played Sunday night in order to land a top-six seed. Seriously. They must continue to sacrifice defense for offense. Giving up easier buckets on defense is OK, because the Nuggets are such an offensive force they’ll get two of their own. Over the previous 13 games — coinciding with Malone’s decision to call fewer plays, so the offense can freelance around Jokic and his wizardry — the Nuggets showed the third-best offensive rating in the entire league.
This robust offense came at a cost. With most of their focus on offense, the Nuggets on defense can’t stop a parked car.
But that’s OK. Because the only two teams with a better offense right now are the Warriors and, yes, Rockets.
Avoid those two juggernauts — with a 6 seed or better — and the Nuggets will be in position to not only reach the playoffs, but win a series. Easy, right?