Game Preview: Nuggets Gear Up for Frantic Stretch Run

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider

Gary Harris just didn’t need to hear the rest of the question. Last year? Sooo last year. This year? The Nuggets, he said, are much more ready to take on the mental and physical grind of a true playoff run.

“We’re a totally different team,” Harris said. “We’re a lot more mature this year. And even this year we had some games that we let slip away, but I feel like we learn pretty fast and we’re becoming a better team each game.

“It was a little bit different last year. It feels a little bit different than last year. So, we just know it’s going to be a hard last 24 games but everybody is up for the challenge.”

Last season, the Nuggets were played into a playoff race by a Western Conference that struggled to sort itself out. This season, at 32-26, the Nuggets have played themselves into the race, and now it’s up to them to get themselves from the sixth spot at the end of February, to one of the top eight spots at the end of the season.

Are they ready?

“We’ll find out,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Last season, I thought we did a great job. It was a very exciting playoff push between us and Portland. It went down to the wire. We had some big wins, we had some disappointing losses. But the way we’ve been playing, going into the month of February – supposedly the toughest schedule in the Western Conference – and we’re 6-1 right now.”

The difficulty of the Nuggets’ remaining schedule, 24 games, breaks down like this: There are 16 games against teams with a winning record – 14 of those games are against teams currently in playoff spots in the West and the East. There are 13 games on the road. There is a 15-day road trip that encompasses the entire second half of the month of March. There are six games against teams that are just two games over or a maximum of three games under them in the playoff race.

But there is a less-publicized stretch of games that could help boost the Nuggets, or at least get them back on solid footing if things begin to slide. From March 9-21, the Nuggets have six of seven games against teams with losing records.

But after that stretch, the Nuggets play 10 straight games against teams with winning records to end the season. Contained within that are four games against Northwest Division opponents, and another against the Clippers; all important games for record and tiebreakers.

“It’s exciting, man,” center Mason Plumlee said. “Every couple of games will make a difference in the standings, and you’ve got to take every game serious from here on out. If you win you’ve got to get over it. If you lose, you’ve got to get over it and make the most of the next one.

“I think back to last year and like they beat Golden State, and then I joined the team and we lost to Minnesota. Like, those games are equal. We beat a couple of teams, but then we had a big lead on Oklahoma City and they come all the way back and Russ (Westbrook) hits the three. Those are the games that kill you. And then obviously the loss at Portland killed us. So, just understanding the schedule, understanding the importance of each game and each matchup, too. We have some big games in the stretch – with Oklahoma City, with Portland as division games, and teams that we’re in the running with for playoff seeding.”

This journey begins on Friday night at home against San Antonio. It is the fourth and final time the two teams face each other this season.

“Towards the end of the season, this is playoff basketball right now,” said forward Paul Millsap, who will return to the lineup for the stretch run after missing three months due to injury. “These last 20-something games is going to be playoff atmosphere. It’s going to have teams fighting for positioning, and it’s going to be a grind. I know our guys are ready for the challenge, though.”

Christopher Dempsey: and @chrisadempsey on Twitter