Denver Nuggets face tough test in fight for playoff spot

NBA.com Global on Feb 02, 2018 08:30 AM
Denver Nuggets face tough test in fight for playoff spot
DENVER, CO - JANUARY 3: Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets passes the ball against the Phoenix Suns on January 3, 2018 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com

The Denver Nuggets seem to be a big beneficiary of the Blake Griffin trade this week. At the time of the deal, the LA Clippers were just one game behind the Nuggets for the final playoff spot in the West. And if the Clippers were going to fade after trading their best player, the Nuggets' chances of ending a four-year playoff drought were going to increase dramatically.

But the Clips are still hanging around, the Nuggets still have some work to do, and the work will be tough in February. Denver has one of the league's toughest February schedules, with seven of their 10 games against teams that are currently at or above .500. That includes six games against the Warriors, Rockets (x 2), Spurs (x 2) and Thunder. Denver has the league's toughest February schedule in regard to both opposing offenses and opposing defenses.

Through January, the Nuggets are 8-16 against the other 15 teams that are currently at or above .500, having allowed more than 110 points per 100 possessions over those 24 games. Ten of those 16 losses (including two to Boston and San Antonio in the last three days) were games that were within five points in the last five minutes, though.

And there is good news with the Nuggets' February schedule. Seven of their 10 games are at home, where they're 19-7 (6-5 against other teams that are currently at or above .500) and where they've been 10.9 possessions better than they've been on the road. Only Utah (13.4) and New York (11.9) have bigger home-road NetRtg differentials.

The Nuggets also have just one February back-to-back, and the second game is in Phoenix. They have three games this month with a rest advantage (where their opponent played the night before but they did not).

The Utah Jazz, coming off wins over Toronto and Golden State, could be Denver's biggest threat in regard to that last playoff spot. The Nuggets and Jazz have already finished their season series, with each team winning its two home games. But if the Clippers are still hanging around in a few weeks, the Nuggets' most important February game could be their last, when they host LA on Feb. 27 (Feb. 28, PHL time).

Note: Every team has at least seven full days off for the All-Star break. Two teams - Dallas and San Antonio - have the longest All-Star breaks: nine days off between games.

Rest advantage / Rest disadvantage: Games in which one team (at a disadvantage) played the day before and the other (at an advantage) did not. Teams are currently 120-82 (.594) with a rest advantage, 98-49 (.667) at home and 22-33 (.400) on the road.

Here's a breakdown of every Western Conference team's February schedule...

More Western Conference notes...

- James Harden just scored 60 points against the league's 27th ranked defense and will get more bad defenses to pick on in February. The Rockets visit the second-ranked defense (San Antonio) on Thursday and will spend most of the month on the road, but they play a league-high seven February games against bottom-10 defenses.

- With the All-Star Game in L.A., the Clippers and Lakers have the league's most road-heavy February schedules. Both will play seven of their 10 February games away from Staples Center.

- The Timberwolves, with the league's third-ranked offense, are the only team that doesn't have any February games against teams that currently rank in the top 10 defensively.

- The Thunder are one of four teams that doesn't play any February games against opponents on the second game of a back-to-back. But they have five games (only the Lakers have more) against the eight teams that are currently 14 or more games below .500.

- The Spurs will play a league-low nine games this month, but that includes a league-high six games against the league's top 10 offenses, as well as the annual rodeo road trip, which is split by the All-Star break. After hosting the Rockets and Jazz this week, the Spurs will have a three-game trip going into the break and then another three-game trip coming out of it. But no team has a longer All-Star break (nine full days off between games). Their last game before their break and their first game before the break are both in Denver.

- After visiting the Raptors and Celtics this weekend, the Blazers will play seven of their final eight February games against teams that are currently under .500. But their road trip concludes with a visit to Detroit on Monday (Tuesday, PHL time) and they'll have two important games against the 10th-place (and improving) Jazz.

- The Jazz are coming off wins over the Raptors and Warriors, and have a chance to climb back into the playoff picture, with three games against two teams - New Orleans and Portland (x 2) - they're chasing in the West. Two of those games are on the road, where the Jazz will be for five of their first six February games. Utah won in Toronto last week, but as noted above, the Jazz have the league's biggest home-road NetRtg differential. They've been 13.4 points per 100 possessions better at home than on the road. They will play their last two pre-break games at Vivint Smart Home Arena, and they'll begin their post-break schedule with a four-game homestand.    

Eastern Conference

The Washington Wizards have not lived up to expectations this season, unable build off a trip to Game 7 of the conference semifinals last May. They're in fifth place in the East, but their bad losses (11 to teams that are currently at least six games under .500) have overshadowed their quality wins (they're 5-5 against teams with the league's eight best records).

Now, the Wizards are dealing with an extended absence for John Wall, who had knee surgery on Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time). Things could certainly come together for the Wizards if Wall returns healthier and stronger in April and May (they won't have to play the Nets or Mavs in the playoffs), but as they look to stay in the mix for a top four seed in the East, they'll have a difficult schedule to navigate without one of their All-Stars.

Seven of the Wizards' 12 February games are against the other seven teams in playoff position in the East. That includes four games against the three teams - Indiana, Milwaukee and Philadelphia (x 2) - behind them and within two games in the loss column in the standings.

Three of the Wizards' other five games are on the road. And they'll finish the month of February by hosting the Warriors on the second night of a road-home back-to-back (with the Warriors not playing the day before). But it doesn't end there.

That Golden State game will be only the second game of 12 straight against teams that are currently over .500. The Wizards' March might be tougher than their February, and just staying in playoff position at all could be a challenge.

More Eastern Conference notes ...

- It's a big month for the Celtics and Sixers in regard to the Lakers' pick in this year's Draft. The Sixers get the pick if it lands at No. 1 or at No. 6 or higher, while the Celtics get it if it lands at Nos. 2-5. The Lakers currently have the league's ninth worst record, but the team with the fifth worst record (Phoenix) has just one fewer win. And L.A. will play six of its 10 February games against the eight teams currently below them in the combined standings. A bad month could have them slide into that range where the Celtics get the pick (while also increasing the Sixers' chances of getting the No. 1 pick).

- After hosting the Hawks on Friday (Saturday, PHL time), the Celtics will go into the All-Star break with six straight games against teams that are currently at or above .500. That includes big games against Toronto and Cleveland. And then they'll come out of the break with four straight games against teams with losing records, though that includes a visit to Detroit.

- The Hornets are the only team with four back-to-backs in February.

- The Pistons, with Blake Griffin set to make his debut on Thursday (Friday, PHL time), have the most home-heavy February schedule, with nine of their 12 games at Little Caesars Arena. And they'll have a rest advantage (with their opponent playing the second game of a back-to-back) in six of the nine home games, including each of their first four games this month.

- Entering the month, only two games in the loss column separate the fourth-place Heat from the eighth-place Sixers, and Philadelphia actually has the stronger point differential. To settle the record vs. point differential debate, those two teams will play each other three times in February. Two of those meetings (including a matchup on Friday) will be in Philadelphia, and the second of those (Feb. 14) will be a rest-advantage game for the Sixers. In total, the Sixers have five February games against opponents playing the second game of a back-to-back, with three of those being rest advantage games.

- The Bucks are one of four teams that doesn't play any February games against opponents on the second game of a back-to-back.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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