DENVER -- The Nuggets will need to wear their full mettle jackets for the final 11 games.
If the Nugs intend to be in the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, they must become Road Warriors.
Nuggets’ coach Michael Malone might have to channel Hannibal crossing the Alps with his Army on elephants.
The Nuggets are coming off their most impressive, and meaningful, victory in the post-George Karl Era. They put a beatdown on the defending NBA champions, the Cavaliers, that probably wouldn’t be believed by those who didn’t witness it.
The Nugs outscored the Cavs in the painted area 70-30 and totally turned King James and his mates into Court Jesters. LeBron James finished with only 18 points and six rebounds and looked flustered throughout. He and Kyrie Irving sat much of the fourth quarter when Cleveland was totally out of it.
On the winners’ side, seven of nine players who participated for more than one minute ended up in double figures. For instance, Kenneth Faried, returning from aggravating back problems, had 17 points and nine rebounds in 18 minutes.
The Joker wasn’t facing Batman, but he outdueled The King. The Joker went wild again with 16 points, ten rebounds and seven assists. And once, in the third quarter, when LeBron took him on, Nikola Jokic just kept backing him down, trading more than gentle nudges (and at least three defensive fouls), and ultimately scored over James. The Greatest Player in the World never recovered.
This was a signature triumph for the Nuggets in what has become a breakout season – after three goofy years of ineptness.
But, is that victory enough? Although I hope so, unfortunately, I don’t think so.
Those previous back-to-back, last-moment losses to the Rockets may have been the Nuggets’ undoing. They played extremely well against Houston, but were mastered by James Harden, who must be the MVP, and Mike D’Antoni should be the unanimous coach of the Year.
It might be forgotten here that D’Antoni was the Nuggets coach in 1998-99 for only 50 games (14-36) before being fired by his boss and replaced by his boss – Dan Issel.
That was a mistake.
Here’s what the Nuggets now are challenged by: eight of their remaining 11 games away from home.
The chasers, the Trail Blazers, behind by just one game, have eight of their last 11 at home.
The two schedules’ are reversed. The Nuggets are 13-20 on the road, and Portland is 18-15 at home. Although the Nuggets have maintained that eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference for months, ESPN this week projected the Trailblazers to wind up with one more victory than Denver.
I asked on Twitter two days ago which team would get the last position – and be rewarded by confronting the Warriors, who upset the Nuggets in Karl’s final season, four games to two. That playoff victory signaled the beginning of the emergence of Steph Curry and the Warriors. The next season, coach Mark Jackson was replaced by Steve Kerr, and, if you’re reading this, you know what happened. Karl was ousted by the Nuggets after a long, successful regular-season run (and disappointing postseasons, with the exception of one Western Conference Finals appearance – with Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups – against the Lakers.)
The Twitter world unscientifically gave the advantage to Portland, 56-44 percent.
The Nuggets play tonight (Friday) in Indianapolis. The Pacers and another George, Paul, are playoff bound. The Nuggets next have a game against the Pelicans – the first of three vs. New Orleans -- with Anthony Davis and Boogie Cousins, who are called Fire & Ice. The Pelicans are mostly Ice Cold since the trade.
They have five games to go: Portland on Tuesday, Charlotte, Miami, New Orleans and Houston again.
They play the Pelicans and Thunder at home, then go to Dallas and Oklahoma City to finish the season.
The Trail Blazers’ schedule includes two home games against the Timberwolves, that critical one vs. the Nuggets and others with Houston, Utah, Phoenix and San Antonio. The three road games are at Los Angeles (Lakers), Salt Lake City and Minnesota.
The Nuggets-Trail Blazers game should be the difference. One team likely will conclude at 39-43, the other at 38-44.
The Nuggets have to be spirited and resilient – a heavy mettle band.