The Denver Nuggets rested three of their top players on Sunday in Portland. The unconfirmed strategy is to push the Houston Rockets to the fourth seed.
Here’s how that works: The Denver Nuggets now need to win against the Utah Jazz on Tuesday in Salt Lake City and then on Wednesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves at home. Good news on that front, with the Jazz loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, they are locked into the fifth seed and are rumored to be considering rest for stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. If the Nuggets win out, they are the second seed.
So, Nuggets Win Out. Check.
Next, Portland has to win it’s remaining two games. That’s home on Tuesday against the Lakers and in Sacramento against the Kings. If Portland is focused, the Lakers shouldn’t pose much of a threat. The Kings, however, have the guns to play spoiler for the Blazers, it’s going to be a tough win if Portland can pull it off. If the Blazers win out, and the Nuggets win out, the Blazers are tied for the third seed.
Blazers Win Out. Check.
The toughest part of the equation is that the Houston Rockets must lose to the OKC Thunder on Tuesday night. With both teams having something to play for, it’s a tough ask for the Thunder who are 26-14 at home but there’s a twist. OKC would also need to rely on the Blazers to win out if they beat the Rockets or they are destined to face Houston, on the road in the first round of the playoffs. Lose and they may get the Denver Nuggets as the third seed. Even though the Nuggets hold a 4-0 edge over the Thunder this season, the playoffs are a world OKC is intricately familiar with and would be a daunting first-round matchup. If the Thunder are in the business of jockeying to avoid the Rockets, as the Nuggets look to be, they may rest Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Steven Adams or any combination of the three. If the Rockets beat the Thunder, they are the third seed. If they lose, they are tied with Portland for the second seed. If Portland then beats Sacramento, Portland is the third seed and Houston is the fourth.
Rockets Lose to Thunder. Check.
Still with me?
Now, where this gets significant is in second-round matchups. Let’s suppose the top four seeds are the Golden State Warriors at 1, The Nuggets 2, Blazers 3 and Rockets 4 and all win their first round series: That sets up a Warriors-Rockets second round matchup with a Nuggets-Trailblazers series on the other side. Flip the third and fourth seeds and now Denver has Houston in the second round with the Nuggets opening at home.
If Denver loses either of the last two and the Rockets beat OKC, Denver is the third seed. That would set up a second round series with the Rockets but with Houston holding the home court advantage.
If the Rockets lose to OKC, Denver can split the final 2 games and stay at the second seed.
So, the prospects are a second-round matchup with the Blazers or a second round matchup with the Rockets. Man presume that Denver holding home court will matter against Houston but it will not. The only way the Nuggets beat the Rockets THIS YEAR in the playoffs is in the Western Conference Finals with the Nuggets holding the home court. A Nuggets team that’s been through two rounds of playoffs, with home court and welcoming a Houston team fresh off what we assume will be a war with the Warriors can beat the Rockets.
This is what Michael Malone knows. This is the only path to a championship THIS SEASON for the Nuggets, so they rolled the dice in Portland and tanked a game to see if the gods had any love for these baby Nuggets. It’s a sound strategy and considering that there’s hardly any downside, one that is fitting with the Denver Nuggets style. There is literally nothing to lose by trying to push the Blazers to the third seed. Denver is already playing on borrowed money according to national press and they are far and away ahead of expectations for this season.
Good for them for having the courage to roll the dice.