• 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)

    PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP: Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic

    INJURIES, ABSENCES: Gary Harris (knee – questionable), Tyler Lydon (knee surgery – out)

    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.

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