After a Monday practice in Dallas, Nuggets coach Michael Malone could easily rattle off that, at the time, the San Antonio Spurs had lost eight of their last 10 games and the Minnesota Timberwolves had gone 4-6 over that same stretch.
“I haven’t looked at the standings, by the way,” Malone quipped. “I just know that.”
That’s the predicament facing Denver during this final push to try and clinch its first playoff berth since 2013. Malone and his players have consistently rolled out clichés such as taking things one game at a time and controlling what they can control. But they’re also aiming to practice the balance between understanding the magnitude of their situation — entering Saturday’s games percentage points outside the postseason picture — while not becoming obsessed with what other contenders are up to each night.
“It’s one of those things where you don’t want to pay attention to it, but you’ve got to know at the same time,” second-year point guard Jamal Murray said. “You don’t want to focus on it, but you want to know where you’re at and what you have to do with the games coming up. We’re playing for a playoff spot.”
After Friday’s home victory over the Lakers, the Nuggets (36-30) briefly jumped into that coveted eighth spot in the Western Conference — only to drop back to ninth after the Clippers topped Cleveland later that night. That’s the second time that type of situation has unfolded this week, as Denver fell from eighth to ninth after a stunning Tuesday loss at Dallas only to move back up to eighth after the Clippers lost to New Orleans. Denver is currently ahead of a 10th-place Utah team with an identical record because the Nuggets hold the edge in the division-record tiebreaker. The Clippers hosted Orlando late Saturday. A Clippers loss would drop them to 10th and Denver would be back in eighth.
That’s life in the crowded and dizzying West, where seeds three through 10 were separated by four games in the loss column entering Saturday’s games and every team in that range had a record of at least six games over .500.
How much individual players pay attention to the constant shifts depends on who is asked. Paul Millsap, a playoff veteran from his time in Atlanta, admits he still probably glances at his phone for updates “too much.” Nikola Jokic, the jovial young big man, said he does not keep track and, thus, does not feel pressure. Others fall somewhere in the middle.
“I check the standings. I can’t lie about that. I do,” said guard/forward Will Barton. “But at the end of the day, it’s about us. We can’t be banking on teams losing games. If we take care of our business, we’ll be fine.”
The Nuggets have put together some of their strongest performances against the West’s top teams except Houston, already picking up two wins apiece against Golden State, Portland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Utah. However, Denver has struggled at times against lesser competition, with Tuesday’s loss at Dallas serving as the most recent example during a season in which it has also lost at home to Phoenix and Atlanta and on the road at Sacramento.
Five of the Nuggets’ next six games are against teams currently out of the playoff picture, including Sunday afternoon’s home date with the Kings. Then, Denver plays its final 10 games against opponents that would be in the postseason if it began Saturday, highlighted by four contests against division rivals. The Nuggets will navigate that schedule while continuing to reintegrate Millsap, who is coming off his best performance since returning from wrist surgery with 21 points, six rebounds and three blocks against the Lakers.
The standings are likely to continue shifting by the day, forcing the Nuggets to balance understanding their position in the race without becoming preoccupied with their fellow postseason contenders.
Which is why Millsap realized that maybe it’s time for him to adopt a new approach.
“Stop looking at the standings,” he said, “and just win games.”