With just over three minutes left in Wednesday’s regular season finale against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the entire storyline of the game began to turn on its head for the Denver Nuggets. Unable to buy a defensive stop for most of the game, Denver watched as the Timberwolves started missing every shot they took. The Nuggets, with All-Star Nikola Jokic leading the way, began to make nearly every jumper, layup, and foul shot they threw at the basket.
When the final buzzer sounded three minutes later, the Nuggets had gone on a 15-0 run to secure a four-point win. Yes, they had clinched the Western Conference’s No. 2 playoff seed, which would have been in jeopardy had they lost. But more importantly, they had ended one of their worst stretches of the season on a high note—finishing with a 54-28 record, and heading into their first playoff appearance since 2013. Rather than limping into the postseason, the Nuggets will march into the first round against the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs, having won three of their last five games.
Still, the upstart Nuggets enter the playoffs as one of the NBA’s youngest and most untested teams, by far the highest seed of either conference to have made the postseason after missing out last year. While consistently challenging the vaunted Golden State Warriors for the conference’s top spot, they’ve succeeded less on star power—aside from Jokic—than on the combined effort of role-playing athletes.
Because of their sudden greatness this season, any forecast of their playoff success is cloudy. Here are a few things to watch for as playoff basketball returns to the Mile High City for the first time since the days of Andre Miller and Ty Lawson.
Series Mindset: Who Can Pick Up a Road Win?
The Spurs have one of the worst road records (16-25) among teams that made the playoffs, which works out just fine for the Nuggets, who have the NBA’s best record at home (34-7) and home court advantage. Fittingly, Denver won both of its home games against the Spurs this season, including a 28-point drubbing on April 3.
The Nuggets held San Antonio under 45 percent shooting in both of those home wins, and will need to limit the Spurs in a similar fashion in order to make the most of their home-court advantage. San Antonio has almost the same home-court strength that Denver does, and will be motivated to pounce if the Nuggets do squander a game at home. This series could come down to which team can pick up a win in hostile territory.
Scouting the Spurs: Shooting and Ball Control
The Spurs do two things extraordinarily well: shooting and taking care of the ball. Per Basketball-Reference, they’re first in the NBA in 3-point percentage, free throw percentage, and turnovers. None of that is great news for a Nuggets team whose defense looked lackadaisical toward the end of the season.
The good news is that, while the Spurs shoot extraordinarily well from 3-point territory, they put up the lowest number of 3-point attempts in the league. Unlike Denver’s potential opponents later in the playoffs, the Spurs likely won’t shoot the Nuggets out of the gym. Even if trailing, Denver should be able to stay within striking distance throughout the series.
Key Stat: Offensive Rebounding
The Nuggets’ Mason Plumlee might only average 7.8 points per game, but he’s a bigger factor for Denver than most realize. Watch his level of effort for just a few minutes—or check out his top-20 offensive rebounding percentage, and you’ll see the immense value he brings to the NBA’s second best offensive rebounding team. And that’s just on the offensive end. Plumlee and his frontcourt teammates provide key second-chance opportunities to a Nuggets group that aren’t outstanding shooters. They need to continue that high-energy performance for the Nuggets to advance deep into the playoffs.
Looking Ahead: Scouting Future Playoff Opponents
The final day of the regular season couldn’t have worked out better for the Nuggets. Not only did they lock up the second seed in the West, but the Trail Blazers mounted a 25-point comeback to win their final game and vault into the third seed. That pushed the Houston Rockets to the fourth spot and to the other side of the Western Conference bracket. As ESPN’s Rachel Nichols contended on “The Jump,” the Nuggets lost their most recent game to the Rockets by 27 and might even have “tanked” one of their final games so they would be less likely to meet Houston in the second round. Nichols’ point in short: The Rockets would have been a terrifying second-round opponent for Denver.
Instead, the Nuggets would get either Portland or Oklahoma City in the second round, against whom they’re a combined 7-1. The conference finals are another story, with the Nuggets being a combined 2-6 against its most likely opponents, Golden State or Houston.