Michael Malone wanted to make one thing very clear on Tuesday.
During a segment on Monday’s episode of “The Jump,” ESPN’s Rachel Nichols suggested that the Denver Nuggets may have lost to the Portland Trail Blazers on purpose on Sunday night. Malone, the fourth-year Nuggets’ head coach, rested his three best players — Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray — in Portland, but did have Gary Harris and Will Barton, the team’s other two starters, available.
But Malone decided not to re-insert Harris and Barton into the lineup late in the game when Denver had a chance to close out a win. The Nuggets held a 105-98 advantage with 4:33 to play, but Portland came roaring back to win 115-108, ending the game on a 17-3 run against Denver’s reserves. Harris and Barton were both held out for the entirety of the fourth quarter.
The Nuggets said all the right things about why they didn’t play their best players last night. But it sure *looked* like they were trying to give Portland an extra win in the hopes the Blazers will pass Houston & send the Rockets to the other side of the West playoff bracket pic.twitter.com/5AQD8SIasF
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) April 8, 2019
Nichols and others pondered if Denver thought it would be prudent to lose to Portland in order to get a more favorable playoff draw. Specifically, the Nuggets could possibly position themselves to avoid the Houston Rockets in the second round. Denver has really struggled against Houston this year, including a 112-85 loss on March 28.
When speaking with reporters Tuesday in Salt Lake City, Malone was adamant that they were not trying to avoid Houston.
“There’s this crazy story out there that we rested guys because we’re trying to avoid Houston. We’re not trying to avoid anybody. We’re not scared of anybody. We’re not trying to run from anybody,” Malone said via the Denver Post.
Instead, Malone pointed to the team’s arduous end-of-season schedule.
“We had six games in nine nights. It was unbelievably hard. All those guys were nursing injuries,” Malone said. “But for people in Houston and people in Denver to be thinking that we were resting people because we intentionally lost so we could avoid a matchup is very wrong.”
Nuggets still in position to grab No. 2 seed
Sunday night’s outcome means Portland still has a chance to leapfrog Houston and secure the No. 3 seed, pushing Houston down to No. 4. Portland has games against the Lakers and Kings left to play. Wins in both of those games, plus one Nuggets win and a Rockets loss to Oklahoma City on Tuesday night would set up a seemingly preferable scenario for Denver: No. 2 seed Nuggets, No. 3 seed Blazers and No. 4 seed Rockets.
Got all that?
If that all came to fruition, Denver would likely face Portland in the second round of the playoffs should both advance. Denver won the first three games between the teams before Sunday night’s outcome. By contrast, Denver is 1-3 against Houston this year and none of the three losses were particularly close games.
Malone, as he said after the game, was probably looking for a chance to rest two players (Barton and Harris) who are important to his team’s success. And if it came with the bonus of helping the Nuggets’ playoff draw, then why not?
But as Nichols noted on The Jump, this purported strategy could backfire. If things shake out in a certain way, the Rockets could move up to the No. 2 seed and potentially jeopardize home-court advantage for the Nuggets in the second round.
Oh, and if you were wondering, Malone said “all” of his players will be on the court Tuesday night against the Jazz.
“How much they play depends on how the game goes, but we’re embracing the playoffs and we’re not scared of anybody,” Malone said. “We’re looking forward to any challenges that come our way.”
More from Yahoo Sports: