A How-to for a Denver Playoff Push

With only six games left, and all but one of them coming against teams with a .500 record or better, it’s really time for the Nuggets to kick things into gear.

The Nuggets currently find themselves in the seventh seed after having beat Houston Sunday night. That could very easily change however, with the schedule finishing out with Houston, Clippers, Phoenix, Orlando, Oklahoma City and Minnesota.

Since George Karl has mishandled the team the entire season (Hire Nate McMillan!), here is a day-by-day plan of how to be in the best situation heading into the playoffs.

Monday, April 16

The Nuggets have only won back-to-back games once since March 7, and a win against the current eight seed would put two games between Houston and Denver.

Denver won Sunday night by keeping the Rockets out of the paint, giving up only 26 points inside the high-percentage area of the floor. Sealing off the rim against crafty forward Luis Scola and penetrating guards Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic were key to the Nuggets, and they definitely succeeded there in the previous game.

Denver can win this game, despite it being on the road. If they can show the same energy that was present in the third quarter Sunday for a full 48 minutes, the game will be a blowout, and give a huge boost to the team’s confidence as they prepare for a game against Oklahoma City.

Tuesday, April 17

An off-day before facing the LA Clippers, the Nuggets need this day to get Wilson Chandler healthy and work on defensive schemes with JaVale McGee. Chandler is still struggling, and played bad in his first game back from his hip injury. McGee has been playing well, but his tendency to gamble for steals close to the rim needs addressing – especially because Koufos is starting to do it as well.

Wednesday, April 18

Lob City meets, um, the ‘Enver Nuggets (because there is no D. Nothing? It was lame to start with.) The Clippers will be coming off a big game against the Thunder, and have an off day Tuesday as well.

The two teams haven’t faced each other since February, before the Clippers added Kenyon Martin, Nick Young, and Reggie Evans. The game will be a homecoming for Martin, and it will be interesting to see the crowd’s reaction to the former Nugget.

If the Clippers lose to the Thunder, I think the Nuggets lose this game, as Chris Paul will likely come out furious that they lost a chance to catch up to the Lakers. If the Clippers beat the Thunder, Chris Paul will want to continue pressing for that three seed that the Lakers have. Either way, Chris Paul is going to assault Andre Miller and Ty Lawson, and the Nuggets will likely lose this game.

For the Nuggets to win, they need to follow a similar strategy that they practiced against Houston: clog the paint, and make the other team beat them from the three-point line. The Clippers rank 11th in the NBA in the last 10 games in three-point shooting, but if shooters like Caron Butler, Mo Williams, Nick Young, and Randy Foye are off their game, the Clippers are very beatable.

Thursday, April 19 

Practice, practice, practice.

Let Gallinari and Chandler get healthy, and then figure out a rotation for the next four games.

Also, cheer on New Orleans while they play host to Houston.

Friday, April 20

Basically the same as Thursday. Run drills with the playoff rotation to prepare for round one – hopefully against Oklahoma City. They should tune in for the Golden State/Dallas game, and cheer on the Warriors. (Golden State is tanking bad – I hope karma serves them right)

Saturday, April 21

A big game on ESPN, on the road, against a Phoenix team trying to make the playoffs.

A win here basically guarantees a playoff berth, albeit only in the seventh or eighth seed.

These two teams are similar in that the real edge comes when the teams put their second unit in. Michael Redd has been en fuego as of late, and if Corey Brewer can check him off the bench, then the Nuggets should win. The Suns are going to beat teams from behind the arc, and that is an area where Denver struggles. The defense will be the factor that wins the game for Denver. Gambling too often for steals and failing to rotate onto shooters on the wings and in the corner will lead to a Phoenix victory.

Sunday, April 22

A quick flight back to Denver, as the Nuggets prepare to face Orlando. If the Nuggets are lucky, they will be facing a toothless Magic squad with Dwight Howard sidelined with a herniated disk. The Nuggets thumped the Magic earlier with Howard out, and will likely do so again, especially at home. Honestly, besides Howard, who else on that team scares teams? Ryan Anderson, who without Dwight Howard will have a defender stuck to him at all times?

A win here puts them at five in a row, a number the Nuggets are paying attention to in great detail.

Monday, April 23

There is only one Western Conference game on this Monday, with Portland traveling to San Antonio, a game that the Spurs will easily take.

So the Nuggets should just take the day off. Seriously, a day with no practice might do this team best. Hopefully it means they won’t take a day off when they are supposed to be playing.

Tuesday, April 24

This is a big day for Utah and Phoenix, with the Jazz hosting the Suns. With the Jazz almost mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, a win keeps their chances alive. Phoenix is only half a game ahead of Utah, but a win in this game would give them the tiebreaker as well as basically package the Jazz out of the playoff picture.

For Denver, all they need to do is prepare like crazy for the biggest game of the regular season, and a possible playoff match-up.

Wednesday, April 25

Oklahoma City against Denver. I’m still enjoying the game they played February 19, when Durant and Westbrook combined for 91 points in a game so sweet, they played five extra minutes. If OKC is following the San Antonio pattern, they’ll be resting their key players, giving Denver a real shot at picking up a road win.

I don’t think Durant wants to lose another game ever again though. The Thunder won’t want to disappoint their fans in their final regular season game, and should use this game as a tune-up heading into the playoffs.

My prediction? Denver loses by double-digits, and Durant drops 45 to win the scoring title over Kobe in the last game of the season. Oh, and those 45 points? He only will take 25 shots. Disgusting.

Thursday, April 26

The last day of the regular season will be bittersweet for some teams. Phoenix and Utah could both be out of the playoffs by this point, and the playoff teams will have nothing to play for other than pride. A loss puts the Nuggets at 4-2 for the last six games – a mark that will earn them a playoff spot. A win could boost them in the standings, or they could replay 2011 and face the Thunder in round one; no big deal, it’s not like OKC has improved much this season (We need a sarcasm font).

Win, lose, it won’t likely matter against Minnesota. Having watched the Nuggets all season, they’ll probably lose this game. It fits to their character.

The Truth

Now the real competition is for a playoff seed. On April 16, the Nuggets were half a game behind Dallas and the six seed, while two games back of Memphis and the five seed. Could Denver win enough to earn the five seed? Here’s the bottom six teams and their schedules:

Minnesota Utah Houston Denver Portland Dallas
New Orleans Houston LA Clippers Dallas Oklahoma City Portland
Charlotte Golden State Phoenix New Orleans LA Clippers Orlando
Portland Chicago Orlando Golden State Denver Phoenix
Cleveland Atlanta Oklahoma City Miami Utah Portland
Orlando   Minnesota New Orleans San Antonio  

With the way the teams are situated right now, I think it is too difficult for Utah to make the playoffs. The loss against New Orleans was real tough, as well as the loss to Phoenix. Utah could win the final four games on the schedule, and they would still likely be out of the playoffs.
Phoenix has a terrible schedule, with the only “easy” games coming courtesy of Portland and an old San Antonio team that will likely be resting the starting unit. As competitive as they have been recently, they have about as much of a shot of winning as a computer programmer looking for dates at a Miss America pageant.

Houston has been blessed by the basketball gods with an easy schedule right when winning is most important. They can’t overlook New Orleans, who compete every game as the injuries continue to pile up.

Dallas only has five games left, and does Dirk and crew have enough to close out the season? They face two teams fighting for their playoff lives in Utah and Houston, must-win games for the other teams. They have a veteran edge, and will have to rely on their experience as they push through to the postseason.

Denver? I’d have to be blind if I said I saw them winning out. The risk of missing the playoffs is still a tangible concern, and the next three games are really important. If they can win the next three games, they can likely coast to the finish line.

Click on the image to see current playoff seedings

In my perfect dream world, here’s how I hope the Western Conference settles.

1) Oklahoma City vs 8 ) Dallas

2) San Antonio vs 7) Houston

3) LA Clippers vs 6) Denver

4) LA Lakers vs 5) Memphis

We’ll see how it all turns out! As the saying goes, that’s why they play the games. I’m looking forward to some really good basketball. The NBA playoffs are some of the best times of the year, and this year should be just as exciting.