The 2016-17 NBA regular season, thankfully, is nearing an end. Though the tops and bottoms of the standings have all been straightened out since January or so, little has been made certain yet beyond the Golden State Warriors’ move to ensure home-court advantage through the Finals. Even with just a short run left, there is still plenty to figure out as the NBA takes to April.
Since we all need the reminders as to who is set to start the playoffs where, who needs a bump during awards season or with a statistical accomplishment, and who is doing their best work in losing in order to grab improved lottery ball odds, Ball Don’t Lie is set to look at what should be your game of that particular day between now and the end of the term on April 12.
Wednesday’s Game of the Night: Denver at Houston, 8:00 p.m. ET
The Denver Nuggets are fighting for their season, and it shows. The acknowledgement revealed itself recently in road wins over the Miami Heat and New Orleans Pelicans, two teams that are also fighting for their playoff lives in a season that has but a week left.
The problem for Denver is that this is the extent of their reach, at this point. The Heat and Pelicans (whom the Nuggets eliminated from playoff contention on Tuesday night) gave all in defeat, but these are still the Dion Waiters-less Heat and goofball Pelicans we’re talking about, even in their respective homes. It isn’t as if Denver has steadied its late-season swoon with a series of wins in San Antonio, Oakland, or Cleveland.
Houston would be close enough. (Though, admittedly, not geographically.)
The Rockets have been accurately viewed as the West’s great No. 3 for most of the season, since the emergence of both James Harden and Mike D’Antoni as leading MVP and Coach of the Year candidates in D’Antoni’s first season with the team. With the Rockets firmly ensconced in third position, eight games behind San Antonio and well ahead of the No. 4 Utah Jazz, one would think this would act as a test for the visiting Nuggies.
Even with the mitigating factors. Even though Harden missed 48 of 60 shots in three games against the Warriors, Trail Blazers, and Warriors again prior to sitting down to tend to his left wrist (and, officially, a bout with the flu) against Phoenix on Sunday. James should be back on Wednesday, but Ryan Anderson (bum ankle) could miss the contest, and Sam Dekker is scheduled to miss a month after a terribly timed fall on Sunday.
Houston is still a pro basketball team, working after a couple of nights off, that has won 52 games in 77 tries thus far. If the lousy-before-depletion New York Knicks can topple the (supposedly) playoff-starved Chicago Bulls at home, as they did on Tuesday, what’s to stop these Rockets?
That’s the challenge for Denver, especially on the bidness-end of a back-to-back. Things appear to be aligning wonderfully, but in this league, one can hardly tell. And with these legs (who knows how a point-center plays in his third game in four nights … can someone guide Nikola Jokic into the right choices at the pregame buffet on Wednesday?) a bit wobbly all the way here in April, just about anything can happen even if the Nuggets enter Texas with the right frame of mind.
Playoff teams win this game, though.
A night after giving up 131 points to a team from New Orleans that doesn’t know what the hell it is doing, the Nuggets will have to work on at least a few significant parts from Houston’s second-ranked offense. You can slip into the postseason’s backdoor, many teams have succeeded in accomplishing as much, but oftentimes these runs toward the playoffs are as inspiring and significant for character and developing mettle as the actual playoff trips themselves. “Trips” that feel like $5 wasted on blotter paper when the top seed inevitably knocks off the backdoor squad in a first-round sweep.
No, this is the part of the season that you build on: winning not only when it is expected, but when it is necessary for survival. Let’s see if the 2016-17 Denver Nuggets are a playoff team.
Also worth watching
Cleveland’s visit to Boston is just another game … The Hornets will host the Heat to also fight for their playoff lives – a defeat will leave them three losses behind Miami with five to play – and they wouldn’t want it any other way … The Pistons are but percentage points behind the Hornets in the race for the final few spots in the East, but even with Toronto visiting on the second night of the Raptors’ back-to-Lance-is-back, the Pistons seem somewhat doomed, if we’re going to speak like a Van Gundy honestly … The Grizzlies and Thunder should both be punchy while working on the grisly end of a back-to-back, but Memphis still has a chance to overtake OKC for the No. 6 seed in the West with a strong finish, and a win would certainly help (Oklahoma has won two of three over Memphis thus far).
Do not watch the Spurs play the Lakers, because this isn’t 2003, and the tanking Suns’ approach to the visiting Golden State Warriors could prove toxic, if entertaining … Dallas figures to play all out against the Clippers in Los Angeles, which should provide for a flighty affair given the Clippers’ season.
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