The Denver Nuggets’ fear of falling into the Western Conference play-in tournament is becoming very real.
Now 40-28 after Saturday’s home loss to the Toronto Raptors, the Nuggets are only two losses up on the seventh-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves.
The top six finishers in each conference avoid the play-in tourney, which features teams 7 through 10.
That makes for some interesting Colorado NBA betting angles down the stretch.
With the play-in tourney a possibility, the Nuggets are looking to get back on track when they head out on the road for what will be their final true road trip of the regular season.
They will play three games — against the Philadelphia 76ers, Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers — with a rest day in between each for their final sprint away from Denver. The Nuggets still have one last two-game trip away from Ball Arena later in the season.
So what will Denver need to do in order to bounce back from its two-game losing streak?
Let’s dive in.
At Philadelphia, Monday
This will be a monster showdown with the possibility the NBA’s MVP award hanging in the balance.
Online sportsbooks in Colorado are ready for action.
76ers center Joel Embiid has the best odds to win MVP at per DraftKings Colorado Sportsbook. However, Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic is right behind him with odds to win the award.
Jokic and Embiid are nearly impossible to differentiate statistically:
- Jokic is averaging 26.1 points (ninth), 13.8 rebounds (second) and 8.1 assists (seventh) per game. He has posted a league-most 18 triple-doubles on the season.
- Embiid counters with averages of 29.8 points (first), 11.3 rebounds (eighth) and 4.4 assists (44th). He has a pair of triple-doubles so far.
- Jokic also is ranked in the top 10 in field goal percentage (eighth at 57.3) while Embiid is 10th in blocked shots (1.4).
- In the player efficiency rating metric, Jokic is tops in the league at 32.58 while Embiid is third at 31.33.
The Nuggets (40-28) and Sixers (41-25) have won at virtually the same level. Both teams have been elite with their respective MVP candidates on the floor.
So what could separate these two incredible seasons?
Statement wins and head-to-head battles.
Embiid and Jokic have torn through the league and have put up never-been-done stat lines on more than one occasion.
Simply put, there is no stopping — or even slowing down — either of these behemoths who control every aspect of the game when they are on the floor.
So whatever happens Monday when they go up against one another could swing what is sure to be a narrow vote for the 2021-22 NBA MVP.
Philadelphia is currently positioned to take on the surging Boston Celtics in the first round. It’s a situation no team in the Eastern Conference would want.
So the 76ers have incentive to beat the Nuggets on Monday to reach the second seed in order to avoid the Celtics. There, in the No. 2 spot, Philly more than likely would take on the younger and injury-riddled Cavaliers.
But more on Cleveland later.
For the Nuggets, they are looking to stay out of the play-in tournament at all costs. And a win Monday in Philadelphia would give them more breathing space ahead of the fast-closing Timberwolves.
At Washington, Wednesday
Somehow, someway, the Washington Wizards have a sliver of hope that they can grab the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference from the Atlanta Hawks. That would earn the Wizards a spot in the play-in tournament.
The Wizards trail Atlanta by three losses in the standings. So when the Nuggets head into Washington to take on former Denver assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr.’s new team, they will have a battle on their hands.
That being said, Washington standout Bradley Beal has opted for season-ending wrist surgery, giving the Nuggets the edge in overall talent by a wide margin.
Still, the Nuggets were rested when they hosted Toronto on Saturday. It also was a Raptors team without the injured Fred Van Vleet and OG Anunoby on the second night of a back-to-back.
And, yet, the Nuggers still managed to lose.
If they do not take this matchup seriously, there are players in Washington who can steal this win.
Kyle Kuzma is having a career year so far for the Wizards. He is averaging 17.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game while shooting 45.8% from the field and 34.1% from 3-point range on 5.6 attempts per game.
If not kept in check, Kuzma can put up points in a hurry.
Additionally, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also can score in bunches if left open from beyond the arc. He hit five 3-pointers against Portland on his way to 26 points on Saturday night.
Denver has to take an inferior opponent serious or they could end up paying the price in the standings.
At Cleveland, Friday
The Cavaliers are decimated by injuries. When they took on the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night, they were without Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, Colin Sexton and Lauri Markkanen.
Markkanen could be back, but it does not seem likely anyone else on the injury report will be able to return by Friday.
So there is an opportunity for Denver to steal a win on the road against a team set to make the playoffs.
In order to do so, the Nuggets will need to overcome the odds-on-favorite for Rookie of the Year in Evan Mobley and one of the league’s Most Improved Player candidates in Darius Garland.
Both are having fantastic seasons.
Mobley might be the best rookie defender in the past decade while Garland has shown he can do almost anything on the offensive end of the court.
Together, they create one of the league’s best young tandems.
Mobley is in the top eight for all major statistics among rookies with 14.9 points (fifth), 8.3 rebounds (firdst), and three assists (eighth) per game.
He also has played his way into the conversation to make the league’s all-defensive team despite his lack of experience.
Mobley is the overwhelming favorite (-600) to win NBA Rookie of the Year honors, according to DraftKings. No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham of the Detroit Pistons is a distant second at +500.
It won’t be easy, but the Nuggets should beat the Cavaliers in addition to the Wizards on this road trip.