That was before Saturday in Memphis, when the Nuggets had the single-worst loss of the NBA season. Denver never led and fell, 101-94, to a Grizzlies team that is actively participating in the Great Tank Race of 2018 — and had lost its previous 19 games, a streak going all the way back to a win over the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 29. With the loss, Denver fell to 10th in the crowded Western Conference playoff standings.
“Our starting group did an awful job of starting the game with any real sense of urgency, and we built ourselves a 21-point hole on the road,” Denver Nuggets Coach Mike Malone told reporters after Saturday’s loss.
“If we’re coaching effort at this time of year, we have a big, big problem.”
Now, as the Nuggets wake up Monday in Miami for a game against the Heat, they find themselves staring at a schedule of six consecutive road games — five of which will come against playoff teams — that will determine their postseason fate. And to make matters worse, the Nuggets will have to do so without Harris, who Malone told reporters Saturday will be out “three or four games” with a knee injury.
So if Denver hopes to make the playoffs, it will have to do so by winning away from home — something it has spent all season failing to do — and with one of its key players hobbled.
The Nuggets have more than lived up to their preseason expectations while playing in Denver, where they are 27-10 this season. But when they leave the Mile High City, they don’t just become ordinary — they are downright awful.
Denver’s 11-22 record in road games this season is easily the worst of any playoff hopeful in either conference. The Nuggets are being outscored by 4.9 points per 100 possessions away from home (20th best in the NBA) and have the league’s 26th ranked defense.
It’s hard to see any of those numbers improving as Denver moves into a closing stretch that has eight of its final 12 games coming on the road — with seven of those coming against teams with winning records. The home games won’t be gimmes either, as all four are with opponents — the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers — that will be where Denver hopes to be: in the playoffs.
So how did Denver end up here? Some will point to the loss of Millsap for three months with a torn ligament in his wrist that required surgery. But the Nuggets have actually taken a step back in the 10 games since Millsap returned to the lineup, going 5-5 – including catastrophic road losses to the Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers, games in which Millsap combined to shoot 8 for 24 and missed all six of his three-point attempts.
But it would be hard to place blame on any individual for the Nuggets having a 10-point swing between their performance at home and while on the road, the biggest discrepancy in the NBA by far this season.
What does it mean going forward? There was plenty of pressure in Denver for this to be a breakthrough season. The Nuggets had slowly rebuilt after George Karl was fired and Masai Ujiri left to run the Toronto Raptors in 2013 following that year’s 57-win team was bounced in the first round by the Golden State Warriors.
Pressure in these kinds of situations tends to lead to job changes if expectations aren’t met — which means Malone could find himself out of a job. The fact Denver traded away the 13th pick to the Utah Jazz — who then selected Donovan Mitchell, the potential rookie of the year who has led Utah on a huge late-season winning streak to surge into the playoffs (and past Denver) — won’t reflect well on the front office either.
As recently as a month ago, these were not the kinds of conversations Denver expected to be having. The Nuggets had remained on solid footing in the playoff race all season long and looked like they would achieve what they had set out to this year.
But in a Western Conference playoff picture where a bad week can change everything, those recent losses to the Lakers, Mavericks and Grizzlies could prove costly. Had Denver just won those three games, it would be sitting in fifth place in the West and would have a much better chance of surviving it’s rough late-season schedule.
Now, the Nuggets have no margin for error, leaving them in a situation where they have to do something they haven’t been able to much — win on the road — to have any chance of doing what they want: making the playoffs.