The Nuggets begin what they hope will be a long playoff run this morning. They’ll tip off a best-of-seven series against the Jazz, the team they apparently wanted in the first round.
During the NBA’s eight-game restart in Orlando, Denver often looked unconcerned about winning. They sat their starters during the fourth quarter of losses to the Lakers and Clippers, while going almost entirely with reserves in their finale against the Raptors, which turned into a third-straight defeat.
Why? According to most, it’s because Michael Malone was trying to manipulate the playoff seedings. The Nuggets head coach wanted to finish third in the Western Conference rather than second, preferring a first-round matchup with Utah instead of Dallas.
On the surface, this makes sense. During the regular season, Malone’s team was 3-0 against the Jazz, but finished just 1-2 against the Mavericks. And since there is no true home-court advantage in the bubble, finishing behind the Clippers, who wound up with the No. 2 seed, won’t matter if both teams advance to the second round.
In those three games against Utah, Denver won by an average of 3.67 points. Every game was close. And in their final showdown, just nine days ago, the Nuggets needed two overtimes to finally dispatch of the Jazz.
So it’s not as though it’s a lopsided matchup. The two teams are pretty evenly matched.
YeS, Utah doesn’t have a star in the making on their roster like Luka Doncic. But they do have Donovan Mitchell, a player who earned his first All-Star invite this season, and Rudy Glbert, who has won the last two Defensive Player is the Year awards. Both will cause Malone’s team plenty of problems in the coming days.
But how the two rosters compare isn’t really the point. An argument can be made for either the Jazz or the Mavericks.
Rather, the problem lies in the fact that Denver was trying to duck anyone. That’s not exactly a confidence-inspiring move.
A team with legit championship aspirations wouldn’t be concerned about their first-round opponent. They wouldn’t be scared of a No. 7 seed.
The Clippers certainly weren’t. In their game against the Nuggets, where the winner would have the inside track to the No. 2 seed in the West, they played their stars down the stretch. While Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray sat, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were on the court.
The Nuggets better hope the Clippers take care of business in the first round. Otherwise, the big, bad Mavericks would look next for the Nuggets.
It may all work out for Malone. His team is favored to beat Utah, which became even more likely when it was announced that the Jazz would be without Mike Conley and Ed Davis during the series.
That outcome would suggest that the head coach played his cards right. But only a run to the Western Conference Finals or beyond would suggest that’s true.
Falling short of that for a second-consecutive season would be a disappointment. Some would blame the team’s injuries. Others would suggest that the unprecedented way in which the season concluded after a nearly five-month break would provide a legitimate excuse.
But the reality would be that the Nuggets aren’t good enough to beat anyone and everyone. Heck, their head coach doesn’t even believe they could take care of the Mavericks.
Here’s hoping that message didn’t get through to the players. Otherwise, the playoffs are going to be a disappointment, even without having to face Dallas.
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