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Game Preview: What Pressure? Nuggets Playing Burden Free in Competitive Playoff Chase

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider
@chrisadempsey

After the Nuggets’ loss at Toronto on March 27, coach Michael Malone felt he needed to meet with his basketball team and take the temperature of the room.

“He brung us in and we all talked,” guard Will Barton said. “He just wanted to make sure that we were all on the same page, and that guys still believed that we can get to the playoffs and still win games.”

And?

“And, everyone was on the same page,” Barton said. “Everyone felt like we could still make it, and we just had to get back on track. But he just wanted to make sure that guys didn’t check out. Because it’s easy with six, seven games left in the season and…you see you’re three games behind and are like ‘we ain’t making it,’ and you could check out. But nobody checked out and now we’re in the position we’re in.”

That position, going into the most pivotal game yet in the Nuggets’ playoff chase – Thursday night against Northwest Division rival, Minnesota – is just a game out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference. The Nuggets have won three straight games since losing at Toronto, and this contest against the Timberwolves is especially important because a victory could potentially set up a playoff elimination contest in Minneapolis between the two teams in the last game of the season on April 11.

But that’s a week from now. The Nuggets have to continue to win, starting with tonight, to set all of that up. If they win tonight, they would pull into a tie with the Timberwolves record-wise, but would remain in ninth place due to not having any tiebreakers over Minnesota just yet. Still, getting this game is an important step in the process.

And you would think that brings tons of pressure to the participants. Not so, say the Nuggets.

In this ultra-competitive Western Conference playoff race, where teams Nos. 4-10 are all separated by just three games, Nuggets coach Michael Malone has been imploring his team to “have fun, embrace it.”

And he says they have.

“We’re not playing with pressure,” Malone said. “Hopefully, when you guys are watching us play right now, we’re not playing as a team that’s tight, that’s afraid to make a mistake. Because, I think if we come out and start playing like that – and it’s really a fine line because every possession does matter – but we can’t play like it’s life and death, because we’re going to die a lot. The way we play, how free we play, we’re going to turn the ball over at times. We’re going to make mistakes, we’re young. But I want our guys to play free, to enjoy and embrace the moment and what we’re involved in right now.”

The Nuggets’ current win streak is tied with Golden State for the longest in the conference. Many of the teams who were playing red-hot basketball at the end of February and into March, have cooled.

“I think a lot of other teams right now are playing tight, with pressure on them,” Malone said. “Not us. We’re just going out there playing and having fun. We’ve been great at home this year; our fans have been great, and hopefully that continues on Thursday night.”

Center Nikola Jokic, who has scored at least 30 points in two straight games, said he’s not feeling the burden of the moment.

“I don’t feel pressure,” Jokic said. “We’re just going to try to win the game. But I don’t feel any pressure, to be honest. We’re just going to go out there and try our best to win the game.”

The reason for the Nuggets’ pressure-free play is simple, said Barton.

“There’s no point in playing with pressure,” he said. “We’ve got a good team. We’ve got a good team. We all trust each other. We’ve got a lot of guys that can make plays. So, there’s no point in playing with pressure. We know what we’ve got to do.”

Christopher Dempsey: christopher.dempsey@altitude.tv and @chrisadempsey on Twitter