April 9, 2018, 2:09 pm
OPPONENT: Denver Nuggets
RECORD: 45-35 (30-10 at home, 7-3 last 10 games)
MEASUREABLES: 109.9 offensive rating (sixth), 109.1 defensive rating (27th), +0.8 net rating (15th)
WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 9:00 EST, Pepsi Center (Denver), NBC Sports Northwest/Altitude Sports
The Denver Nuggets are already in the playoffs. Well, not quite.
Michael Malone’s team has yet to clinch a postseason berth, and at 45-35 is tied with the Minnesota Timberwolves for eighth in the Western Conference – the same squad it will face on Wednesday, the final night of the regular season. Minnesota hosts the tanking Memphis Grizzlies before meeting Denver; a win for Jimmy Butler and company isn’t a foregone conclusion, but can certainly be expected. The Timberwolves hold the tiebreaker over the Nuggets if the teams finish with the same record, too.
“Must-win game” is a tired trope in sports, but it actually applies to Denver against the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night. The Nuggets would have already been eliminated from the playoffs if not for the quietly dominant play of Nikola Jokic. Since failing to reach double-digits in three straight games to tip off March, Jokic has averaged 23.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists on a true shooting percentage of 65.2. Denver is 10-6 over that timeframe, and has won five straight games – four of which were decided by four points or less – to garner the opportunity of living up to management’s expectations of the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 2013.
The Nuggets’ play of late has been especially impressive considering Gary Harris has been sidelined with a right knee sprain dating back to March 15. He was upgraded to questionable against the Blazers Monday morning, less than 24 hours after being upgraded from out to doubtful. After Harris went through individual on-court work prior to Denver’s key win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, Malone told Gina Mizell of the Denver Post he isn’t hopeful his team’s second-leading scorer and top perimeter defender would return before the playoffs.
“Right now, I’m not expecting Gary Harris back,” Malone said. “We have to continue to find ways to win games and compete at a high level with the players that are available, and Gary’s not on that list right now. He’s working very hard and if that changes, then we’ll be ready to adjust.”
Will Barton will play a key role in Monday’s game regardless. Pressed into action as a starter due to Harris’ absence over the past three weeks, Barton, still a leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, has averaged 18.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. He’s hoisting six 3-point attempts per game in that stretch, too, barely less than sharpshooting lead guard Jamal Murray, whose basic playing profile reminds of Damian Lillard‘s – including early-career problems on defense. He had 38 points on 14-of-19 shooting during Portland’s 104-101 loss at Pepsi Center on January 22, feasting in ball-screen action with Jokic via stop-and-pop jumpers and floating finishes.
It would be remiss to not mention Paul Millsap, whose return to the lineup in late February after missing the previous three months with a broken left wrist both complicated Denver’s emerging offensive comfort and raised its overall ceiling. He’s settled in recently following a relatively rough initial acclimation, scoring 36 points and 26 points, respectively, in narrow victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Milwaukee Bucks on either side of the month. Al-Farouq Aminu will have his hands full with Millsap, especially if he connects on a couple early triples; that potential wrinkle only further opens the floor for Barton, Murray and Jokic to attack.
Jusuf Nurkic could loom larger to his team’s chances of home-court, which the Blazers would clinch with a win in either of their final two games, than any of his teammates. Jokic is among the most difficult covers in basketball for opposing centers, a lumbering, efficient scorer on the block who doubles as one of the game’s most singular playmakers and an ace 3-point shooter. Detractors point to his glaring deficiencies on the other side of the ball, though, where he’s ineffective as a paint-protector, unable to recover with the necessary quickness defending in space and routinely subject to defense-offense substitutions with former Portland big man Mason Plumlee in specific circumstances of time and score.
If Nurkic, who’s maintained his high level of play during the Blazers’ recent struggles, wins his individual matchup with Jokic, the Nuggets will be in trouble. He’ll have help from Ed Davis, a potential x-factor on Monday after missing the previous four games with an ankle sprain; Denver’s defensive rebounding percentage plummets to 74.8 when Jokic is on the bench, per NBA.com/stats.
A win over the Nuggets would go a long way toward mitigating any lingering effects of Portland’s general malaise over the past two weeks, but certainly won’t come easy. Denver is playing arguably its best basketball of the season at its most crucial point, and hasn’t lost at home since February. The Blazers face another tough test, with major playoff implications again on the line. Here’s hoping Portland fares better under that scrutiny than its played of late.
April 23, 2019, 1:30 amChris Paul - G - Houston Rockets
Chris Paul had a great Game 4 in Monday's 91-107 loss to the Jazz with 23 points on 8-of-19 shooting with eight rebounds, seven assists, five steals, two blocks and two 3-pointers.
Paul had a nice breakaway dunk late in the fourth, showing that he's still got the hops and his defense throughout tonight was also solid. He brought back some of his vintage layup package, but the Rockets as a whole went cold from deep late in the game and couldn't stop Donovan Mitchell's barrage in the fourth quarter.
April 23, 2019, 1:30 amJae Crowder - F - Utah Jazz
Jae Crowder finally had a strong night offensively in Monday's Game 4 with 23 points on 8-of-13 shooting to go with four rebounds, an assist, two steals and three 3-pointers.
Crowder had 18 first half points which would have been the most he's scored in any game this series. He was on fire to start the first period and his energy levels were much higher tonight. The Jazz finally got a strong game out of Crowder on both ends of the floor and he'll have to keep nailing shots for the Jazz to drag out this series.
April 23, 2019, 1:29 amRudy Gobert - C - Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert logged 24 foul-plagued minutes in Monday's Game 4 and scored four points on 2-of-4 shooting with nine rebounds, two assists, a steal and three blocks.
Gobert was a net-positive whenever he was on the floor tonight and he's getting better at keeping up with Houston's guards on the perimeter. He's blocked several of James Harden's floaters over the past two games and has dominated the paint when he plays, but was limited due to fouls tonight. Derrick Favors (24 minutes, 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting with 11 rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block) more than carried his weight tonight as he kept the Rockets at bay with his suffocating defense inside the paint in the final period of action.
April 23, 2019, 1:24 amClint Capela - C - Houston Rockets
Clint Capela struggled in Monday's Game 4, scoring four points on 1-of-6 shooting with seven rebounds and two assists in 28 minutes.
Capela went 2-for-6 at the line and he was severely limited in tonight's game as he struggled with Utah's physicality. The normal lobs he received from James Harden were much more difficult to control tonight and he had trouble finishing around the rim. We expect him to be much better in the next game.
April 23, 2019, 1:24 amDonovan Mitchell - G - Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell carried the Jazz in their 107-91 win over the Rockets in Game 4 on Monday with 31 points on 11-of-26 shooting to go with seven rebounds, four assists, a steal and three 3-pointers.
Mitchell finally got some help from his teammates tonight as they helped carry the team's offensive burden throughout the first three periods. In the final quarter, Mitchell scored the Jazz's first 13 points and ended up with 19 fourth quarter points. He had a dazzling spin move, some deep triples and a freakishly athletic alley-oop dunk all in the span of 12 minutes and has kept the Jazz season alive for at least another game due to his heroic efforts. Although the team as a whole has struggled offensively, Mitchell showed his superstar potential tonight.
April 23, 2019, 1:17 amRicky Rubio - G - Utah Jazz
Ricky Rubio scored 18 points on 6-of-17 shooting while adding 11 assists, three rebounds, a steal, a block and a 3-pointer in Game 4 on Monday.
Rubio played much better defense on Houston's guards tonight but was still unable to stretch the floor with his shooting as he went 1-for-7 from deep. If he can make incremental improvements on his defensive assignment while hitting a couple more triples, the Jazz have a good shot at extending this series.
April 23, 2019, 1:15 amJames Harden - G - Houston Rockets
James Harden scored 30 points on 8-of-19 shooting with three rebounds, four assists, two steals and six 3-pointers in Game 4 on Monday.
Harden is facing one of the toughest defenses in the league so the shots he makes are difficult. The step-back 3s were on full display tonight, but Harden had difficulty penetrating the Jazz defense whenever Rudy Gobert was manning the paint. Although his shooting percentages were high, he committed eight turnovers as the mid-range territory is one of the hardest to navigate. Gobert is predicting his floaters and Clint Capela couldn't grab and finish the usual lob passes which hampered Harden's success tonight. He's slowly figuring out the Jazz defense and if Capela can return to form we can expect his assist numbers to spike.
April 23, 2019, 1:12 amEric Gordon - G - Houston Rockets
Eric Gordon scored 16 points on 5-of-12 shooting with five 3-pointers, a rebound, an assist and a block in Monday's Game 4.
Gordon started off hot and did all the stuff the Rockets expected him to do, but late in the game he was unable to hit timely shots for Houston. He'll get another crack at some open looks due to Utah's defensive scheme.
April 23, 2019, 12:21 amBlake Griffin - F - Detroit Pistons
Blake Griffin may have limped through 28 minutes in Monday night's 127-104 Game 4 loss to the Bucks, but he put up 22 points, five rebounds, six assists and four threes.
Griffin helped keep the Pistons' season alive for almost three quarters on a bad knee before fouling out in the fourth to a standing ovation. He was at significantly less than 100 percent during this series, but it was good to see him lay it all out there as a last-gasp effort for his team. Griffin had a great fantasy season and there should be more of the same as the 30-year-old hopefully returns healthy in 2019-20.
April 23, 2019, 12:10 amReggie Jackson - G - Detroit Pistons
Reggie Jackson scored a team-high 26 points (9-of-20 FGs, 5-of-9 threes, 3-of-3 FTs) with seven dimes, three boards and a steal in Monday's Game 4 loss to the Bucks.
Jackson looked great tonight while keeping the Pistons in front for the majority of the game. However, the Bucks went on a big run in the third and fourth quarters to complete the sweep. Jackson, at age 29, doesn't have a whole lot of upside left, but he's certainly capable of putting together games like this once or twice a month to swing a head-to-head matchup.