Jameer Nelson lamented the timing of the Nuggets’ most lopsided home loss of the season before finding a silver lining.
“The good thing about it,” the veteran point guard said after his team suffered a 115-90 loss Sunday night to the Pelicans, “is we play in a couple days against the team that we’re fighting with.”
The Nuggets visit Portland on Tuesday night in a game that could very well determine who gets the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The stakes create added significance. Both teams enter the game 35-38. The Trail Blazers at season’s end likely will own a tiebreaker over the Nuggets, whether by virtue of head-to-head record (Denver trails the season series 2-1) or by Northwest Division record — an edge Portland would clinch with one win in its final five division games. That means a Nuggets loss Tuesday, in a practical sense as it pertains to the playoff chase, would put them two games behind the Trail Blazers with eight games left. And, Denver plays six of its final eight games on the road while Portland plays six of its last eight at home.
Any way you cut it, it’s hard to imagine a path to the playoffs for the Nuggets that doesn’t begin with a win inside the Moda Center on Tuesday night.
“It’s big because it’s the next game,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “That’s the only reason why. We haven’t looked at standings the whole time, and we’re not going to start looking at it now because it’s Portland.”
Before their perplexing, low-energy loss to the Pelicans, the Nuggets had been hot. Denver had won six of its previous eight games, with the two losses coming to MVP candidate James Harden and the Rockets on the final possession. Even after the debacle against New Orleans, the Nuggets are 10-7 since the all-star break.
That still hasn’t been good enough to hold off the red-hot Trail Blazers, who have won six of their last seven games and are 12-5 since the break — the third-best mark in the NBA.
Portland has resurrected its season with the help of Jusuf Nurkic, who was backing up Nikola Jokic at center for the Nuggets before he was traded to the Trail Blazers, along with a first-round pick, for Mason Plumlee in February. Nurkic has averaged 14 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.8 blocks in 18 games (17 starts) with Portland. The attention Nurkic has commanded inside has opened opportunities for Portland’s talented backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Lillard averaged 26 points on 43.8 percent shooting from the floor and 34.8 percent shooting from 3-point range in the 55 games before Nurkic’s arrival. In the 18 games he’s played with his new center, Lillard is averaging 29.1 points while shooting 47.4 percent overall and 42.8 percent behind the 3-point line.
Momentum belongs to the Trail Blazers, who have an 83 percent chance to capture the No. 8 seed, according to the website fivethirtyeight.com.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” Nuggets forward Darrell Arthur said. “It’s going to be a scrappy battle, so we’ve got to go in and compete and play a full 48 (minutes). We have to finish this season out strong.”
The road ahead
The battle for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference appears to be a two-team race between the Nuggets and Trail Blazers. Here is a look at the finishing schedule for both teams, beginning with Tuesday’s head-to-head matchup in Portland:
Denver (35-38) … Trail Blazers (35-38)*
Tuesday at Portland … Tuesday vs. Denver
Friday at Charlotte … Thursday vs. Houston
Sunday at Miami … Saturday vs. Phoenix
April 4 at New Orleans … April 3 at Minnesota
April 5 at Houston … April 4 at Utah
April 7 vs. New Orleans … April 6 vs. Minnesota
April 9 vs. Oklahoma City … April 8 vs. Utah
April 11 at Dallas … April 10 vs. San Antonio
April 12 at Oklahoma City … April 12 vs. New Orleans
*Portland currently owns head-to-head, division and conference tiebreakers
DENVER AT PORTLAND, 8 p.m, Tuesday, ALT, 950 AM
Spotlight on Jusuf Nurkic: The Nuggets will face for the first time the center they drafted — through a trade with Chicago — with the No. 16 overall selection in the 2014 draft. Nurkic showed strong flashes during a rookie season in which he averaged 6.9 points and 6.2 rebounds, but knee surgery cut his second season with Denver in half, limiting him to 33 games. Nurkic entered this season as Denver’s starting center, but he was relegated to the bench once the Nuggets went to Nikola Jokic at the starting spot in the middle of December. That move put the wheels of a trade in motion, and Nurkic appears to have found his footing with his new team. It’s hard to imagine Nurkic won’t be motivated to have a big game against the team that drafted him.
Nuggets: Denver has targeted improved bench scoring as a key priority in the final nine games of the season. The Nuggets jumped to a 24-15 lead against the Pelicans on Sunday, but they scored only four points over the next nine-plus minutes with reserves on the floor. “Our bench came into the game and was awful,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. The reserve unit also struggled in Friday’s win over Indiana. “We need Will Barton to create that offense,” Malone said. One positive for the Nuggets: their reserves have outscored Portland’s 116-73 in three games this season.
Trail Blazers: C.J. McCollum has scored 30 or more points in 13 games this season which is the number of 30-point games the guard had in the previous three years of his career … Portland is 6-4 in its last 10 home games. The Trail Blazers are 19-10 against the Nuggets at the Moda Center since the 2002-03 season. … Damian Lillard is averaging 36.3 points and 7.7 assists in three games against the Nuggets this season, and he’s scored at least 30 points in four of his last five games against Denver. … The Trail Blazers have limited Nuggets center Nikola Jokic to a combined 13 points and nine rebounds in the last two meetings between the teams this season.