Confidence was at an all-season high six days ago for the Denver Nuggets. They strengthened their playoff position with a win over the Cavaliers in Cleveland and were riding a four-game road winning streak.
Flash ahead less than a week and the Nuggets have fallen from solid to shaky ground in the Western Conference postseason picture. Denver has lost three home games in a row and two straight overall after falling in Dallas on Tuesday and letting the Cavaliers get revenge on national TV on Wednesday night.
The Nuggets (35-30) are ninth in the West and desperate for a win. It won’t get any easier when they play the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night. The postseason is a pipe dream for L.A. but after winning six of the last seven, the marquee franchise seems to have found some consistency in the stretch run of the season.
The Lakers (29-35) are coming off a 108-107 victory over Orlando on Wednesday. It came with some luck and controversy after L.A. blew a nine-point lead late but benefitted from a clock malfunction that cost the Magic a chance to win it in the final second.
Despite the confusion, the Lakers continued to surge and got another good game from rookie Lonzo Ball. Ball had 16 points, six rebounds and five assists while fellow rookie Kyle Kuzma had 20 points and 10 rebounds.
Ball was active throughout the game, drawing praise from coach Luke Walton.
“When he plays, he makes winning plays all over the court,” Walton told The Los Angeles Times. “To me that falls in the category of making little plays like that that end up being, in a one-point game, make the difference.”
The Nuggets will need to shake off the bitterness of missed chances to solidify their chase for the postseason for the first time in five years. They’ve blown second-half leads in each of their last three losses, including 19-point edge against the Clippers last week.
The young Denver team might be guilty of ignoring the task in front of while thinking about the big picture.
“Everybody is talking playoff, playoff, playoff,” center Nikola Jokic said after Wednesday’s 113-108 loss to the Cavaliers. “But we need to think about the next game.”
The Nuggets might not have point guard Jamal Murray for Friday. Murray took a LeBron James knee to the head in the fourth quarter but coach Michael Malone said he doesn’t think Murray will go into the NBA concussion protocol.
With or without Murray, Denver needs Jokic to step up like he did against Cleveland. He scored 36 points on 12-of-14 shooting after scoring a total of 22 points in the previous three games. Jokic averaged less than seven shot attempts in the four games before Wednesday and was benched for the fourth quarter against Dallas.
Malone said the Nuggets need their best player to assert himself.
“Nikola can’t take seven shots a night for us,” Malone told reporters before Wednesday’s game. “Granted, he is unselfish, he makes the right play and I love all that. But Nikola needs to be aggressive. I want him taking 15 shots, 18 shots and (looking) to score in the post. Now, when he draws a double- and triple-team, then make the right play.”
Jokic took those words to heart against Cleveland and it has to carry over to the rest of the schedule. Things don’t get easier for Denver — 10 of its final 17 games are on the road. So winning Friday against the Lakers and Sunday against Sacramento becomes imperative to reach the playoffs.
“We can’t afford to drop two (in a row) anymore. I feel like every game’s a must-win,” guard Gary Harris said Wednesday night. “These last 17, we’ve got to be locked in.”