The Denver Nuggets found a rhythm during their just-completed six-game homestand.
They have slowly begun to look like the offensive juggernaut so many expected them to be — injuries or not.
The Nuggets have had their best offensive stretch of the season recently. Their 118.3 offensive rating over the last nine games ranks third in the league over that span, trailing only the Brooklyn Nets and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
That 118.3 offensive rating mark would rank first in the league if drawn out over the course of the season.
Clearly, the Nuggets have found some badly needed answers. Their offensive onslaught now has become the catalyst, helping them to a 5-3 record over their last eight games.
Denver is now two losses ahead of the seventh-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves and only one loss behind the fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks. All things considered, being 24-21 after 45 games and in the sixth seed —- which would allow them to avoid the play-in tournament — is quite the accomplishment for a decimated team.
But if the Nuggets want to continue this encouraging trajectory, they will have to do so away from Ball Arena. They embark on a six-game road trip, starting Tuesday night in Detroit.
What a bizarre road trip this is going to be.
Off the top, six games with travel all over the country is no cakewalk for any team. But Denver has to face the Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz on the second night of back-to-backs during the stretch and also take on the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks as well as the Pistons, New Orleans Pelicans and Timberwolves.
With Nuggets betting in Colorado to consider, here’s a breakdown of the six-game, nine-day trip:
At Detroit, Tuesday; at Brooklyn, Wednesday
Tuesday’s visit to Detroit represents a trap game for the Nuggets.
Their matchup with the Pistons — owners of the league’s worst net rating and the second-worst record in the league — comes on the first night of a back-to-back with the formidable Nets looming Wednesday.
Additionally, it’s the first game after the six-game homestand. Having to leave home to play arguably the worst team in basketball the night before visiting Brooklyn sets the stage for the Nuggets to potentially get themselves into trouble.
That simply cannot happen. Denver needs every win it can get.
Meanwhile, the Nets are struggling as of late, and without the injured Kevin Durant they are vulnerable.
When the Nuggets visit Brooklyn, Kyrie Irving will be unable to play. That leaves the door ajar for the Nuggets to steal a big win on the road against an Eastern Conference contender.
Still, do the Nuggets have even the slightest chance of slowing James Harden with how badly they have defended at times this year? More than likely no, but Brooklyn without Durant is a beatable opponent.
Denver will lean heavily on the red-hot Nikola Jokic against the less-than-stellar front line of the Nets and hope the attention he attracts will open up shots for his teammates.
Denver can keep up with the Nets on offense. It also has the means to slow them enough on defense if everyone on the roster dedicates themselves to slowing Harden.
Denver’s biggest hurdle in Brooklyn will more than likely be itself.
At New Orleans, Friday
This is a game the Nuggets absolutely need to win.
It is not the most important game of the road trip. The battle is not against a division opponent, and it will not massively impact the standings.
Nor is it the most tantalizing matchup from a talent perspective.
But facing three high-caliber opponents — the Nets, Bucks and Jazz — on this trip, the Nuggets have to find a way to beat the Pelicans in New Orleans after an off day.
There is simply no excuse. The Nuggets are more talented on both ends of the floor, have the best basketball player on earth, and have plenty of talent around him to go into the Big Easy and leave with a road victory.
The Pelicans have the 23rd ranked defense, the 25th ranked offense and very little means to beat the Nuggets if they do not beat themselves.
At Milwaukee, Sunday
Of the three elite teams the Nuggets have to face, the most likely win — even if that likelihood is quite small — is against the reigning champs.
Yes, I know that sounds absurd on the surface. But the Nuggets have the size to match up with the Bucks’ starting unit and they will have a day off prior to rest and develop a game plan. This game will also serve as good Colorado NBA betting value for fans since the Nuggets will be the likely underdog. Keep that in mind.
That’s something neither matchup against the Nets nor Jazz provides.
Plus, Milwaukee has been far from a world-beater this season. The Bucks have had ups and downs all season long and are currently struggling with a 5-5 record over their last 10 games.
If Jokic can continue dominating the competition and the Nuggets shoot the ball well, they can hang with the Bucks despite everything working against them.
If there was a big win to steal, this is likely the one for the Nuggets.
It’s also another opportunity for Jokic to stake his claim for back-to-back NBA MVPs. His odds sit at to win the award again.
At Minnesota, Tuesday; at Utah, Wednesday
Just like the matchup with the Pistons, the Nuggets’ game with the Timberwolves is full of pitfalls.
The Nuggets will be battling Minnesota on the first night of a back-to-back with a divisional matchup with Utah waiting for them the following night.
While it’s easy to look at the Timberwolves as a team Denver can beat, it could not be further from the truth. Denver’s advanced statistics are eerily similar to the Timberwolves’, and Minnesota is just two losses behind the Nuggets.
If the Nuggets look ahead to the Jazz and lose to the Timberwolves, they will lose the cushion separating them from Minnesota in the standings. They also will sustain another divisional loss, hurting their ability to secure tiebreakers.
Going into Minnesota and taking care of the Timberwolves needs to be a priority for the Nuggets. And that’s even with a more enticing matchup the next night.
Winning at Utah would be the biggest win of the road trip for Denver.
In fact, upsetting the 30-16 Jazz in Utah on the second night of a road back-to-back not only would be a massive divisional win, but it would also provide a huge mental boost.
The Jazz have been one of the top teams in the league all season long. Beating them in such an adverse circumstance would be a statement victory for the Nuggets.
A 3-3 trip split would be a success
Expecting anything more of the Nuggets than a 3-3 split on this six-game jaunt back east is unfair.
Beating the Bucks with a day of rest in Milwaukee is tough enough, but beating the Jazz or Nets on the second night of separate back-to-backs is essentially a non-starter.
Those are the definition of scheduled losses, and the Nuggets have two of them during this stretch. That’s why it’s so important for Nuggets to beat the teams they’re simply better than — i.e. the Pistons, Pelicans and Timberwolves.
If Denver can find a way to go 3-3, it will be a successful road trip.
But if the Nuggets can manage to go 4-2 or better, that would be huge for their confidence and momentum as they continue fighting for playoff positioning.