The Denver Nuggets (33-36) hold a one-game lead over the Portland Trail Blazers (32-37) in the race for the Western Conference’s final playoff seed, but that doesn’t mean they are the favorites to earn a postseason appearance.
FiveThirtyEight updated its playoff odds Monday morning, and the statistics-heavy website is now giving Portland 71 percent odds to get a playoff spot while it’s giving Denver just a 26 percent chance. That’s a massive shift from one week ago when FiveThirtyEight gave the Nuggets a 57 percent chance to make the playoffs and the Trail Blazers received a 32 percent chance.
In one week, the Nuggets went from solid favorites to significant underdogs in the race for the West’s No. 8 seed. So what changed?
Well, the Trail Blazers ripped off three wins in a row against good teams — the Spurs, Hawks and Heat — and are now staring at an extremely favorable closing stretch of the season. Just four of their final 13 games come against teams with winning records.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets have also been playing some good basketball. They’ve won seven of their last 10 despite a litany of injuries. It’s just that the Nuggets’ closing stretch is significantly harder. Six of their final 13 games are against teams with winning records.
It’s looking increasingly likely that the Nuggets will be tied with or behind the Trail Blazers in the standings when the two teams meet March 28 in Portland. Just look at each team’s schedule between now and then…
- Portland’s next four games: vs. Milwaukee (34-35), vs. New York (27-42), vs. Minnesota (28-41), at Los Angeles Lakers (20-50)
- Denver’s next four games: at Houston (48-22), vs. Cleveland (46-23), at Indiana (35-34), vs. New Orleans (39-41)
One NBA.com analysis found that the Nuggets have the toughest remaining schedule of any Western Conference team. Even when they do make it past the Portland game, they still must play at Miami, at Houston and a home and away against Oklahoma City.
The Nuggets and Trail Blazers have both been among basketball’s best teams since the All-Star break. They respectively rank fifth and seventh in net rating since then, per NBA.com. Denver has done it with its usual offense and marginal improvement on the defensive end. Portland has found success by seeing its best player, Damian Lillard, go bonkers as well as bringing aboard Jusuf Nurkic.
What this race could come down to is scheduling. The Nuggets will have to fight an uphill battle as they try to earn a playoff spot for the first time since 2013.
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