POST­SEA­SON HOPES: NUGGETS MUST WIN AND GET HELP

Nuggets must win and get help in or­der to end post­sea­son drought

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Nick Kos­mider

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.

Dropped de­fense

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

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