Nuggets Clinch 2021 NBA Playoff Spot with Trail Blazers' Loss to Hawks

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistMay 4, 2021

Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, left, celebrates the team's win over the Los Angeles Clippers with center Nikola Jokic (15) and guard Jamal Murray (27) in an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

For the third straight season, the Denver Nuggets will be challenging for the NBA championship after clinching a playoff berth.

The Nuggets locked up a spot in the Western Conference playoffs with the Portland Trail Blazers' loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Monday.

Coming off an appearance in the Western Conference Finals last season, expectations were understandably high in Denver in the 2020-21 campaign. A 1-4 start did lead to some initial concerns, but head coach Michael Malone was able to quickly turn things around.

The main source of success for the Nuggets has been an MVP-caliber season from Nikola Jokic. The three-time All-Star is averaging career-highs with 26.2 points on 56.8 percent shooting (41.2 percent from three), 10.9 rebounds and 8.5 assists per game.

Beyond Jokic, though, the Nuggets have been able to assemble a deep and talented roster that plays perfectly alongside him.

Jamal Murray was fantastic before he was lost for the year to injury with 21.2 points per game. Michael Porter Jr. is one of the most efficient young scorers in the NBA. The 22-year-old ranks eighth in the league with a 44.3 three-point percentage on 6.1 attempts per game.

Denver general manager Calvin Booth also struck gold at the trade deadline. He acquired Aaron Gordon and Gary Clark from the Orlando Magic in exchange for Gary Harris, R.J. Hampton and a 2025 first-round draft pick.

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Gordon was the main piece of the deal for the Nuggets, and he's been fantastic in his brief stint with the organization, especially on the defensive end.

Denver has been steadily building up to becoming one of the best teams in the Western Conference. Its breakthrough season was 2018-19 when it won the Northwest Division with a 54-28 record before losing to the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the playoffs.

Last season saw the Nuggets become the first team in NBA history to erase two 3-1 series deficits in the same playoffs. They were ultimately sent home by the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the Western Conference Finals.

A few tweaks to the roster this season have the Nuggets squarely in the mix as one of the favorites to reach the NBA Finals. There will be plenty of competition along the way, but few teams can match Denver's upside and depth.