Nuggets ready for an Eighth-Seed Showdown in Portland

Monday, March 27, 2017 | Denver Nuggets

By Christopher Dempsey, Altitude Sports

After the locker room had cleared out, media gone, many of the Nuggets players gone as well after Sunday night’s game, a few still lingered and chatted about what will be the biggest game of the season. A game that is, in fact, the biggest for the Nuggets’ franchise in nearly four seasons.

“This is what you play for,” said guard Will Barton.

If he could have played the game that night, he would have. The Nuggets face the Portland Trail Blazers at the Moda Center on Tuesday night for control of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. After occupying it for 50 days, the Nuggets lost their grip on it with the loss to New Orleans and Portland’s win over the L.A. Lakers on Sunday.

Tuesday, they can get it back. Or they can fall, in essence, two games back.

“It’s going to be a tough game,” forward Darrell Arthur said. “Both teams are trying to fight, trying to get in. So, it’s going to be a scrappy battle. We’ve got to go in and compete.”

The Nuggets and Blazers are tied with identical 35-38 records, but Portland owns the head-to-head tiebreaker at the moment with wins in two of the three games between the teams this season.

A Nuggets win is mandatory because they need their record to be better than Portland’s at the end of the season and a victory puts them on firmer ground to getting there. But even if the Nuggets win, that ties the season series at 2-2. The next tiebreaker is wins against teams in the division. Portland leads that. The Blazers are 8-3 against Northwest Division teams with five games left in-division, while the Nuggets are 5-8.

A loss would be damaging to the Nuggets playoff hopes, but not a knockout blow given that eight games remain to be played. But the burden on the Nuggets, in effect, would be to make up two games to finish with an outright better record. Doing that in such a short space of time would be difficult, particularly when six of those last eight games are on the road.

It behooves the Nuggets to take care of business on Tuesday night. But the team doesn’t want to go in too tight.

“We shouldn’t get over hyped-up or anything like that,” guard Jameer Nelson said. “We just gotta be who we are, and play our game.”

Portland, meanwhile, is living an opposite reality. Starting Tuesday against the Nuggets, seven of their last nine games are at home and few teams are as hot as Portland right now. The Blazers have won 11 of 14 games in March, keeping pace with the Nuggets, who were winning games at a torrid pace as well. When the Nuggets stumbled, Portland was there to pounce.

To get into the playoffs, the Nuggets are forced to do what Portland already recently accomplished – win on the road. Tuesday’s game is the start of a five-game road trip that takes the Nuggets from Rip City to Charlotte, Miami, New Orleans and Houston. The Trail Blazers had a five-game road trip from March 12-19 and won four of those games – Phoenix, San Antonio, Atlanta and Miami.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone deflected any talk of Tuesday’s game being bigger than any other game.

“It’s big because it’s the next game,” he said. “That’s the only reason why. We haven’t been looking at the standings the whole time and we’re not going to start looking at them now because it’s Portland.”

Regardless, after dropping a 115-90 decision to New Orleans on Sunday, the Nuggets are looking to get back to a lot of the things that made them successful.

“We are all men,” Nelson said. “We just have to bounce back; we are a good team. We believe in ourselves and we believe in each other. We have to hold ourselves and each other accountable like the coach said. We just have to do a better job. The good thing about it is we play (on Tuesday) and that’s the team that we are fighting with.”

Christopher Dempsey: or Twitter: @chrisadempsey