The NBA’s stretch run begins Thursday after the All-Star Game, and for the Denver Nuggets, this means securing the Western Conference’s top seed for the first time in franchise history.
With 23 games remaining, Denver holds a five-game lead over the West, including four in the loss column. On Thursday night, the host Cleveland Cavaliers play the first of those 23 games.
Before losing by six points to Philadelphia on Feb. 15, Cleveland had won seven consecutive games. Donovan Mitchell, the team’s All-Star starter and leading scorer with 27.3 points per game, has been on fire recently, averaging 33.3 points over the last four games.
Although Mitchell did not play in the Nuggets’ 121-108 victory over the Denver Nuggets on January 6, he is ready for the rematch against a team he saw frequently while playing for the Utah Jazz.
After five seasons with the Jazz, Mitchell’s Cleveland Cavaliers are fourth in the Eastern Conference and are chasing the Milwaukee Bucks in the Central Division.
Since 1997-98, Cleveland hasn’t made the playoffs without LeBron James on the team, but Mitchell says they could get homecourt advantage in the first round. Many didn’t know the Cavaliers could make the end of the season games, and presently arriving at the subsequent round is a reasonable objective. They have the Eastern Conference’s second-best home winning percentage (.806).
While Nikola Jokic is vying for his third straight MVP award, the Nuggets have a real chance of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in their history. Jokic is averaging 24.7 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 10.1 assists per game, making him the third player in NBA history to do so if his pace continues.
He would also become the first player since Larry Bird, who won three MVPs in a row from 1984 to 1986.
Denver is poised for a deep run after two short playoff runs made possible in part by Jamal Murray’s absence. Jokic is more focused on winning. After missing six games because of inflammation in his right knee, Murray is expected to play again, but Aaron Gordon, who has a left rib contusion, is expected to miss the fourth straight game.
Even though the Nuggets have their doubters, they are confident in their system thanks to the additions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown in the offseason and the signing of Reggie Jackson last week as Murray’s backup.