POSTSEASON HOPES: NUGGETS MUST WIN AND GET HELP
Nuggets must win and get help in order to end postseason drought
portland, ore. » Inside the cramped, shoulder- to- shoulder confines of the visitor’s locker room at the Moda Center, it felt like the end of the Nuggets’ season here Tuesday night.
The Nuggets had just been trampled 122- 113 by the Portland Trail Blazers, a loss that seemingly took Denver’s fading postseason hopes out at the knees.
The loss put the Nuggets at a crossroads. And they knew it.
“We’ve got tomake decisions about who we’re going to be,” dejected Nuggets guard Will Barton said after the loss. “That’s everybody, from top to bottom. Everybody, the Denver Nuggets. We’ve got to choose who we want to be.”
The Nuggets declared early on this season they wanted to be a playoff team. When they entered the all- star break six weeks ago with a 1K- game lead for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, they planned to see the race through. So they benched promising- yet- inconsistent second- year guard Emmanuel Mudiay. They held onto their veterans at the trade deadline.
And, as recently as two weeks ago, when a four- game winning streak had created a two- game cushion, the all- in approach seemed to be working.
Then came two heartbreaking losses in three days to Houston, each suffered on the final possession. Therewas the perplexing and, in thewords of coach Michael Malone, “embarrassing” loss to New Orleans by 25 points at home Sunday. Then, on Tuesday night, with the game tied midway through the third quarter, the Nuggets watched the finish line fade out of view.
The Nuggets were ultimately unable to fixed fatal flaws in their defense — namely an absence of rim protection that has been a problem all season — and they offered little resistance when the Trail Blazers hit the gas in a 20- 10 defining run to end the third quarter.
“It’s what we’ve been all year: inconsistent,” Barton said. “Good in moments. Theywant---
ed it more, point blank. Fromtop to bottom, theywanted it more. Everything— the coaches, the players — they just wanted it more.”
The math is now pounding the Nuggets asTrail Blazers center JusufNurkic did Tuesday night, gleefully and forcefully bullying hisway to a career- high 33 points. With eight games to play for each team, the Nuggets ( 35- 39) are a game and a tiebreaker behind the Trail Blazers ( 36- 38). Even if Portland, which is 13- 5 since the all- star break, were to stumble to, say, a 4- 4 finish, theNuggets would have to finish 6- 2 over a closing stretch that features six road games.
The Nuggets have just a 7 percent chance of reaching the postseason, according to the website fivethirtyeight. com. With little time to change course, Denver is left to battle the odds.
The Nuggets won eight of their first 12 games out of the all- star break, but a stretch of four losses in six games has put Denver’s playoff hopes in serious jeopardy. Here is a look at how its defense played during those two key stretches: Period First 12 Last 6 Record 8- 4 2- 4 Pts./ g 106.0 116.8 Opp. FG% 47.1 49.4 Def. rating 107.7 116.2
“We’re going to see what we’re made of,” Barton said. “Two disappointing losses, back to back. You can quit now because things look a little murky, things look lost. But we’re going to see the character of the DenverNuggets as a whole— players, coaches, everybody— point blank.”
Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard drives to the basket on Nuggets guard Gary Harris on Tuesday night at theModa Center. Steve Dykes, The Associated Press
Nuggets forwardWilson Chandler shoots the ball over Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic, left, and forwardMaurice Harkless on Tuesday night at theModa Center. Steve Dykes, The Associated Press