Denver Nuggets reveal approach for regular season’s final 18 games
The Denver Nuggets are in the driver’s seat in the western conference and with the Toronto Raptors in town for a game Monday night, they have a commanding six-game lead over the downward-spiraling Memphis Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies collapsed in the second half to the Nuggets on Friday night, then did it again on Sunday in Los Angeles. This time Memphis was without Brandon Clarke, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tear in Denver and were missing Ja Morant for his assorted array of foolish and irresponsible behavior that includes displaying a handgun on his Instagram page. The second-place team is still without starting center Steven Adams, who has missed nearly a month and in Los Angeles they didn’t have stout defender Dillion Brooks, who was suspended for a technical foul he got the game before against the Nuggets.
Behind Memphis are the Kings and the Suns. Both are worth monitoring to see how the bracket plays out but at 7.5 and 9.5 games behind, it’s impossible to imagine either of those teams catching Denver.
The Nuggets have a bunch of games left vs sub .500 teams but they still have three more back-to-backs and a five-game east coast road trip ahead of them. As much as it’s tempting to put the pedal to the floor to try and secure the overall win title and homecourt throughout the NBA Finals—currently just a half game behind Milwaukee for the league’s best record—don’t expect head coach Michael Malone to go out of his way to take any unnecessary chances.
“For me our whole focus isn’t being the number one seed, ” Malone explained after a casual practice on Sunday afternoon. “The most important thing for us is with 18 to go is to continue to play at a high level, build the right habits, but to also stay healthy. If we just grind it and do everything to get that and have nothing left or players not available for the post-season. So, you don’t want to do that. Injuries can happen at any point; we all know that. But we’re focused on the western conference. If you are going to win a championship, you gotta win games on the road at some point against really good teams. It’s important, but not at the expense of risking our players health and availability.”
Cue the eye rolls of all the folks out there who will mention how Michael Jordan never took a game off. Make sure all the Larry Bird lovers have their seat belts on. Get ready for the “BACK IN MY DAY” folks to start yammering on about walking to and from school uphill both ways in blinding snowstorms when they were young to start bellowing from their Barcalounger. Like it or not, this is the NBA and Malone isn’t going to take any chances.
Instead, what you are much more likely to see is different combinations of players.
On Friday night, with Thomas Bryant rolling his ankle and Vlatko Cancar out, you saw for the first time Aaron Gordon playing a stint at the five. It’s been somewhat painful watching newly acquired Reggie Jackson take minutes away from brilliant rookie Christian Braun, but Malone has to figure out what he really has. At the end of the day, Malone knows how special this team is and the truth is the finish line is hardly the end of the regular season.
“You go back to the time we were fully healthy we went to the conference finals in the bubble,” Malone reflected. “The years after that you lose Jamal Murray for a year and a half. You miss Michael Porter Jr. for 73 games last year. So, to get those guys back and add the pieces that we added, you feel whole, and you feel like this is a team that has a realistic chance to win it. The best part about this group is you can sense the confidence that they have. It’s not cockiness. It’s not arrogance. It’s confidence. We let our play on the court do the talking and that’s all we are worried about. It’s really fun to see and be around a group that has the connectivity that they have, the belief that they have and the confidence that they have as we approach these last 18 and hopefully a long playoff run.”
Malone knows there is something special on the horizon and it has nothing to do with the final regular-season standings.