The Denver Nuggets’ schedule gets really real tonight. Their playoff hopes hinge on how they handle that.

Denver will play the Houston Rockets three times and the Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers once each in their final 15 games.

The Nuggets have 15 games remaining in their season. (Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today Sports)

The Nuggets have 15 games remaining in their season. (Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today Sports)

The Denver Nuggets are in position to become a playoff team for the first time in four years. Their 32-35 record has them two games ahead of the next-closest team, Portland, in the race for the Western Conference’s No. 8 playoff seed. But even with that cushion, qualifying for the postseason won’t be an easy task.

Tonight, the Nuggets embark on a brutal closing stretch of the season.

They play the Los Angeles Clippers at 7 p.m. at the Pepsi Center, which begins a stretch of 15 games in 28 days. Nine of the 15 come against teams that are above .500. Nine of the games are also on the road. Denver will play the Rockets three times and the Thunder and Cavaliers once.

Three teams pose a realistic threat of catching the Nuggets for the No. 8 seed: the Portland Trail Blazers (30-37), Dallas Mavericks (29-38) and Minnesota Timberwolves (28-39). All of them are playing above .500 basketball since the All-Star break.

The Trail Blazers have the easiest remaining schedule of that group. Only five of their final 15 games come against teams with winning records. The Timberwolves have six such games left, while the Mavericks have eight.

The Nuggets have the most efficient offense in the NBA since Nikola Jokic became the starting center Dec. 15. They’re averaging 113.7 points per 100 possessions. To put that in perspective, the Golden State Warriors averaged 112.5 points per 100 possessions when they won 73 games a season ago.

The Nuggets’ biggest problems have come on the defensive end. They’re the second-worst defensive team in basketball this season. However, since the All-Star break they’re at least defending at an average level. Denver is giving up 106.7 points per 100 possessions in those 11 games — good for 14th in the NBA. That’s helped it go 7-4 in that time.

“Our defense has really played well and has done so consistently for the first time all year,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “… I also think at the root of it our guys really understand to be a playoff team, defense has to be in the equation. You cannot be the No. 1 offensive team and last in defense and expect to be a playoff team.”

Maintaining that defensive improvement is critical if the Nuggets want to grab the West’s last playoff spot. Denver’s next four games come against some of the top offenses in the NBA. The Clippers rank seventh in offensive efficiency. The Rockets, who Denver plays a home and away against on Saturday and Monday, rank second. The Cavaliers, who are in town Wednesday, rank third.

“We’ve got some good teams coming in,” guard Will Barton said. “We’ve got to be up to the challenge to defend them. If we play good defense, it will put us in a position to win every game.”

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