Down the stretch we come of this shortened 66-game season, and the Denver Nuggets are barely holding on to their playoff lives.
With 13 games left on their schedule, the Nuggs (29-24) need to get lucky to make the postseason.
They can do it by playing beautiful basketball; team-first, high-energy with a killer instinct.
The Baby Blue and Gold are at their best when they run the court at break-neck speed, share the ball and run the score up on opponents—finding that effort in these important games is key for this team full of youngsters.
These new Nuggets, who have been reshaped for the third time in little over a year, have only three weeks to come together and find a way to win now or go home.
Here's a look at the key games they have down the stretch of this short season.
(Note: All team records are current as of 2 p.m. MT on April 4)
Suns' bigman Marcin Gortat.
Phoenix (27-26) comes into Denver Friday night needing wins of their own, currently sitting in the No. 10 spot in the West, two games back of Houston in eighth.
Marcin Gortat leads this aged Suns team in scoring (16.1) and rebounds (9.9), and he's a beast down low. Nuggets newbie JaVale McGee will have his hands full defending Gortat, and Karl will give Kosta Koufos, and possibly Timofey Mozgov, shots at him as well.
Of course, the ageless Steve Nash and Grant Hill still impact Phoenix in a great way, steering the ship with their leadership and team-oriented play.
No matter the experience the Suns have, though, the Nuggets should be able to handle this older team with ease by running them out of the Pepsi Center, doing exactly what Phoenix did in their heyday.
Denver scores nearly seven points per game more than the Suns, and if the Nuggets can find their offensive rhythm, they'll win.
Timberwolves MVP Kevin Love.
Denver hosts division foe Minnesota (25-30) in a game they should win if the Nuggs want to be legit playoff contenders.
The Timberwolves have overachieved all season, led by Kevin Love's incredible season with 26.5 points and 13.7 rebounds per game, and indeed, their playoff hopes took a drastic dive when Ricky Rubio went down with a torn ACL.
Again, McGee, Koufos and others will be important against the potent big man, but without Rubio, Ty Lawson has to be assertive and aggressive on the offensive end, whether it be pushing the break or getting to the rack for lay-ins.
Minnesota is a good, extremely young team, but they're just not on Denver's level, not yet at least.
The Nuggets must show the T'Wolves they are the better team now, just as they have been for years, but it won't be easy because the teams split their two meetings this season with one win apiece.
Kobe Bryant knows he must dish to teammates Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, and they know how to score when they get the rock down low.
The Lakers (34-20) have long been a rival of the Nuggets, with playoff matchups dating back to the 80s, including a Western Conference Finals over 30 years ago—and one much more recently—and LA seemingly always finding a way to better Denver.
Undoubtedly, the Lakers have been one of the greatest franchises in the history of the NBA, winning 11 titles, including five in the last dozen years.
Kobe Bryant is older, but he still possesses the ability to take over a game from a scoring perspective as one of the deadliest shooters in the NBA. He can drive and pull-up or just drain shots from deep, and Kobe often plays his best against Denver.
With Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum—even if he is currently pouting—the Lakers are one of the top teams in the league, making this game on Friday the 13th a scary matchup.
It will be a true test for the Nuggets; a win in LA would be a major confidence boost heading down the stretch of the regular season. It could be enough to propel the team into the postseason.
Denver's bigs will have to focus on rebounding well, out-muscling Bynum, Gasol and Metta World Peace for boards, as LA's 54.6 per game are second-best in the league.
The Nuggets can outscore the Lakers, but they'll have to be smart with the possessions they get; look to move the ball to open shooters and take the ball inside.
And if Denver can utilize their youth by running on the Lakers, it will bode well for their chances of stealing a game in LA.
Just like their big brothers they share the Staples Center with, the Clippers (32-21) are legit this season.
Adding Chris Paul in the offseason has transformed the team that has young talented big men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
While Griffin averages a double-double of 21 points and 11 rebounds, CP3 is close to his own with 19 points and 8.8 assists per game.
All together, the Clippers sport seven players that average double-digit points, meaning the Nuggets will have their hands full not only with their big two, but the entire team.
Even with all that firepower, Denver has more, scoring six points more per game on average.
While the Nuggets fast-break offense is usually an advantage over most teams, the Clippers run well too, and it could lead to a frenetic back-and-forth pace that will make watching this game exciting and entertaining.
Ty Lawson will be a focal point, and how well he plays against one of the best in the game—Chris Paul—could determine the outcome of this big-time game.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook celebrate.
The Nuggets' second-to-last game of the season comes against division foe and the best-in-the-West Thunder (40-13).
For Denver to beat the Thunder in Oklahoma City will be an extremely arduous task, especially considering Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are at the top of their respective games this year.
While Westbook's assist numbers have sagged slightly, his 24.4 points per contest are a career-high, as are his field goal and three-point percentages.
Just ahead of him in scoring is Durant, at 27.5 PPG, while his rebounding (8.2), assist (3.5) and steal (1.4) numbers are all career-highs.
Simply stated, Kevin Durant is the MVP of the NBA this season. He's not only pushed himself to improve as an all-around player; he's propelled the Thunder into prime position to make a run at an NBA Championship.
For the Nuggets, this is a difficult matchup to say the least, but their chance could be helped by Danilo Gallinari's return to action. He could come back as soon as April 19, making this game a real reality, especially if Denver is still fighting to hang onto a playoff spot.
Gallinari is the Nuggets' MVP and there's no doubt they need him back for the playoffs if they can make it in.
Gallo is a superb scorer, able to dribble drive or pull-up and knock down threes with ease, and he could certainly be an asset as a defender on Durant. While it's impossible to stop the Durantula, Gallinari's similar size would frustrate the prolific scorer.
And while the Nuggets easily outscore every other team on this list, the Thunder are right behind them in scoring (103.2), meaning this should be a high-scoring game, likely accompanied by a playoff-like atmosphere so late in the regular season.
Denver Nuggets coach George Karl.
If the Nuggets can somehow win four or all five of the key matchups described on the pages prior, it will certainly bode well for their playoff chances.
Denver has tough tests against proven playoff contenders; beating them would not only boost the Nuggets' confidence, but it will let this new-look Nuggets squad know where they sit among the best teams in the NBA.
What it all means is that this will be a fun three weeks of basketball for Nuggets fans, starting tonight as Denver faces the Hornets in New Orleans at 6 p.m. MT. If they can focus, George Karl's team will make the playoffs for the ninth straight season.
Rich Kurtzman is a freelance journalist actively seeking a career in journalism. Along with being your Denver Nuggets Featured Columnist, Rich is the Denver Broncos and CSU Rams Examiner, and Kurtzman also writes for Blake Street Bulletin, Stadium Journey and Mile High Hoops.
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