With eye on playoffs, Nuggets enduring grueling road trip

NBA.com Global on Mar 24, 2018 08:23 AM
With eye on playoffs, Nuggets enduring grueling road trip
FILE - DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 3: Paul Millsap #4 of the Denver Nuggets shoots a free throw to win the game against the Miami Heat on November 3, 2017 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Over the next week, forgive the members of the Denver Nuggets if they start sneering at each other the way Neal Page and Del Griffith did. Those two beauties only had to navigate their planes, trains and automobiles one way, New York to Chicago, for the start of a Thanksgiving weekend.

The Nuggets are in the midst of something entirely more grueling.

In one of the most challenging schedule quirks in recent NBA memory, Denver is enduring a seven-game, 15-day road trip in what typically is referred to as the “home” stretch of the season.

With their playoff hopes crammed into the overhead bins above their seats.

The Nuggets left Denver at 2 p.m. MT on Friday, March 16 (Mar. 17, PHL time) bound for Memphis. They’ll get back, barring any mechanical or weather delays, on Friday, March 30 (Mar. 31, PHL time), about an hour before midnight after playing that evening in Oklahoma City. In between, they’ll have logged enough miles and crossed enough time zones to qualify for their unofficial Phish roadie licenses.

It’s an apt analogy because the Nuggets at the moment are less an NBA team than a rock band or pop act, at risk of being strung out from the cities strung together on their behalf by the schedule-crafting computers in New York City.

It’s a crazy quilt of destinations – Memphis, Miami, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, Toronto, Oklahoma City – with a dip into and out of Canada. Their watches and phones are like a dieting foodie’s bathroom scale, losing or gaining the same hour four or five times.

Word is, the team’s management reached out to NBA HQ for some tweaks or adjustments, but got back only slight alterations to the schedule of 82 games, none for this particular trip.

What did Nuggets coach Mike Malone think when he first saw this booby trap looming so late in the regular season?

“‘Who’d we [tick] off?’” Malone said in Chicago Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time).

“I mean, I’ve been in the league a long time and to have a 15-day, seven-game road trip this late in the season, and going from Miami to Chicago to Toronto to Philly to D.C. to OKC and back, is a lot.”

Excuse Malone for not having all the cities or the right order. He didn’t have the Nuggets’ four-page itinerary for this trek in front of him. In addition to the flight times and hotels, it lists 14 breakfast or brunch meetings – at least this is no Donner party – five practices, six shootarounds and of course seven games. With two buses to and from every arena and airport.

In air miles, Denver will travel approximately 5,609. That’s the equivalent of flying twice across the United States – New York to Los Angeles and back – with a bonus flight from L.A. to Denver.

“You have to get past it," Malone said. “No one’s ever happy with their schedule. We have to embrace it and make the most of it.

“But all I know, for us, we’ve had a four-game road trip, a six-game road trip and a seven-game road trip. And there are two teams in our division whose longest road trips are three games. There is no competitive balance to that, in my opinion.”

It galls some in the Nuggets’ traveling party that the Minnesota Timberwolves and the OKC Thunder have not and will not take to the road for more than three consecutive games all season.

Denver already had trips of four and six games, going a combined 4-6. It is 1-2 so far on this one, with a humiliating loss at Memphis, a double-overtime setback at Miami and a cruise past the Bulls Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time).

The Nuggets are trying not think too much about their home Pepsi Center, which hasn’t been taken over by the Grammys, an NCAA regional, a rodeo or any other event overstaying its welcome. This is simply how the schedule broke.

After facing the Wizards Friday night (Saturday, PHL time) at Capital One Arena, the Nuggets hit the hurry-up-and-wait portion of the trip. They don’t play again until Monday night at Philadelphia, but that’s the front end of a back-to-back that has them rushing to face the Raptors Tuesday (Wednesday, PHL time). Then they have until Friday to get to OKC and deal with the Thunder.

“I think it’s part of the NBA changing what they want to do with the schedule,” said veteran forward Richard Jefferson, who in 16 previous NBA seasons couldn’t recall taking such a trip. “So instead of playing four games in five nights, you’re playing four games over 10 nights. The schedule gets spaced out completely. We were home for three weeks. Now we’re on the road for two.”

Jefferson said this travel pace is better than what teams faced before on multi-game trips. “You’re staying the night in a lot of cities,” he said. “You’re able to get more rest, you’re able to get better sleep.”

The touring version of the Nuggets haven’t gotten nearly the same reviews this season as the home show. Denver is 27-10 at the Pepsi Center, flexing its high-altitude advantage in the building where it enjoyed a six-game homestand early in the schedule and then played 14 of 19 from Dec. 30 to Feb. 5 (Dec. 31 to Feb. 6, PHL time).

Elsewhere, however, the Nuggets are just 12-23. They score nearly five points fewer per game than at home (107.3 to 112.2) and give up nearly five more (110.8 to 106.1) for a net swing in their point differential of minus-9.6. In all, they shoot worse, rebound less, pass the ball less adeptly, shoot fewer free throws and foul more when working out of a suitcase.

As unfair as this schedule grind might appear, the Nuggets had played five more games at home than on the road when this trip began. But they hadn’t used that for any cushion. They woke up Friday in ninth place in the West, same spot they were in before this trip began.

At 39-33, they were two games worse than Minnesota and Utah (both 41-31) for the final playoff spot. The Clippers, at 38-33, were breathing down the Nuggets’ necks a half-game back.

From this point, six of Denver’s final 10 games are on the road, including the four left on this trip. Then, after a pair at home against East playoff teams Milwaukee and Indiana next weekend, the Nuggets close against serious rivals: the Timberwolves, the Clippers, the Trail Blazers and the Wolves again.

Assuming there still is grist for those rivalries by then.

“With [10] games to go, not only is every game important but every quarter, every possession,” Malone said. “The magnitude of it all is huge right now and our players understand, there are no more wasted opportunities. If we’re going to lose, make it a loss like we had in Miami, where we leave everything on the floor. It can’t be a loss where you’re kicking yourself after the game saying, ‘We should have or could have played harder.’ That can never be in the discussion right now.”

Coaches and players have unsheathed all their best coping techniques for what must not become a death march. Malone said having the team stay over a night in Miami was a nod to bonding and stress-relief, same as sharing a team dinner or heading off to a movie as a group.

Forward Wilson Chandler stressed rest and nutrition. “Just try to get as much rest as possible,” he said. “Sleep on the plane, sleep on the bus. Try not to stay up too late. Make sure you get enough calories, and eating healthy too.”

Big man Nikola Jokic rattled off ways to stay mentally and physically sharp. “Do the small things. Do the treatments,” he said. “If it’s 40 minutes, 30 minutes, do something to keep your body fresh. Go to the gym, take some shots maybe. Or just keep a kind of normal routine going.”

Veteran Paul Millsap’s sage advice? “ ‘Survive.’ That’s my tip,” Millsap said. “Get out there and do the best you can. I think that’s been our team. We’ve had guys out, I’ve been out [44 games with a wrist injury]. So we’ve had to survive and do the best we can.

“We haven’t been in the playoffs for a while. So I think it’s a good test for us. Sink or swim. You’ve got to earn your right to get into the playoffs. I think we’re earnin’ our right.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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