The Denver Nuggets are hoping their strong surge in the past three weeks will lead them to the Northwest Division title, but they are already all but certain that it will take them back to the playoffs.
A win Tuesday night against the visiting New York Knicks would clinch a sixth straight postseason berth for Denver, which also is trying to fend off a pair of division contenders with its fourth straight victory.
A well-oiled offense has helped Denver win eight of its last nine games as the team tries to emerge near the top of a crowded Western Conference field.
The Nuggets (48-26) are just one-half game behind second-place San Antonio in the standings, but their lead on Utah and Portland in the Northwest is a mere 1 1/2 games.
While the Los Angeles Lakers have clinched the top seed, six other teams in the West still have a realistic chance at home-court advantage in the first round—a key goal for the Nuggets as they try to avoid a sixth consecutive opening-round exit.
Still, they have a chance Tuesday to make sure they’ll at least be playing another first-round series. They lead ninth-place Phoenix by eight games with eight to play.
Denver is coming off a 129-116 home win over Golden State as coach George Karl’s club opened a four-game homestand on a positive note after earning key wins in the final two games of its road trip at New Orleans and Dallas.
“We didn’t want to take two steps forward and three steps back with a loss like this at home,” Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups said, “especially considering the week we had.”
The Nuggets feel the same way about their matchup with the Knicks, who’ve lost eight of their last nine to fall out of contention in the East.
New York’s fast-paced style and woeful defense doesn’t seem likely to slow down Denver’s red-hot offense. The Nuggets have scored at least 100 points in each of their last nine, averaging 112.8 points and shooting 49.1 percent over that span.
Against Golden State, another up-tempo opponent that doesn’t focus on defense, Denver shot 55.1 percent as seven players scored in double figures, led by Carmelo Anthony’s 31 points.
“When Carmelo gets it going like that it’s tough,” Warriors guard Jamal Crawford said. “Then you’ve got Chauncey running the show. He’s up there with the elite point guards, and then it’s almost pick your poison.”
Crawford was a member of the Knicks (29-45) at the start of the season, but New York has revamped its roster under first-year coach Mike D’Antoni as the team begins to rebuild.
That hasn’t helped its results in the short term, as D’Antoni’s club is 8-20 since the beginning of February. The Knicks have dropped the first two games of their three-game trip, including Monday night’s 112-104 defeat at Utah.
The Knicks erased a 24-point deficit and briefly took a fourth-quarter lead against the Jazz, but they still fell to 1-16 in road games against teams currently over .500.
“We had a terrific half, showed a lot of character and played extremely well in the second half,” New York’s Al Harrington said.
It may be tougher playing a second straight night at high altitude. The Knicks lost 115-83 in their last visit to Denver on Nov. 17, 2007, and the Nuggets won 117-110 at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 28.