It's going to take a considerable run or slide for either the Los Angeles Clippers or Denver Nuggets to alter their standing in the Western Conference before the end of the season, and only one of the two is desperate to do so.
The Clippers seem firmly planted in the No. 4 seed and content with home-court advantage, while the 10th-place Nuggets have a huge task ahead to get into the top eight. But heading into Sunday's meeting in Los Angeles, it's the visitors having won three of four while the Clippers have done the opposite.
The Nuggets (31-42) are seeking a Staples Center sweep after a 116-105 win over the Lakers on Friday in which their bench scored a road season-high 71 points on 57.4 percent shooting. The team also posted a season-high 31 assists with nine turnovers.
It's the brand of basketball coach Mike Malone wants to see over the final nine games, regardless of what kind of run they're able to make at the postseason.
“We talked pregame. This 30 wins, this 31 wins – are we playing the right way?” said Malone, whose team needs to be practically flawless down the stretch to compete with Utah, Dallas and Houston. “And I loved how we played tonight.
“I think our defense was pretty good for the most part. We had some lapses, and then I really like the fact that we're playing for each other, and that's so important going into these last nine – playing for each other on both ends of the floor. It was just another good road win for us, and we have another tough one here on Easter Sunday.”
Malone said it could come with Kenneth Faried returning from a five-game absence due to lower-back soreness.
D.J. Augustin scored a team-high 20 points, while fellow reserve Jusuf Nurkic had a career-high 18. Augustin, who's played 19 games with the Nuggets after his trade last month from Oklahoma City, has averaged 15.0 points in his last eight on 47.5 percent shooting overall and 42.9 from 3-point range.
His fourth game with Denver was an 87-81 road win over the Clippers to even the season series at a game apiece, but it was the Nuggets' first win in the last five meetings and ended a six-game road skid in the series.
The Clippers (44-27), meanwhile, seem to be treading water – even sinking – until the playoffs or the return of Blake Griffin. He was medically cleared Sunday after being sidelined by a quadriceps injury and immediately began serving a four-game suspension for punching a team staff member.
Things started extremely well without him all the way back in December with nine straight wins, but the Clippers have since gone 18-14 with Thursday's 96-94 home win over Portland ending a three-game skid.
Their 1-4 span might have more to do with perimeter scoring than the absence of Griffin. Los Angeles has shot 29.3 percent from long range after going 4 of 19 against the Trail Blazers.
Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford each scored 25 points in a win that was needed more on the mental side than it was in the standings.
“It's all about confidence,” Paul said. “I think our spirit was right again today, like yesterday, but they were hitting some tough shots. You just need to know what it feels like to win again.”
The next goal might be correcting things at home to make the most of likely having home-court advantage in the first round. Los Angeles' road point differential of plus-1.3 ranks eighth, while its home mark of 5.2 is 12th a season after being fifth at 8.0. The Clippers were 30-11 at home last season and are 23-12 entering this game.
“I think we've had a nice year on the road,” coach Doc Rivers said, “but I don't think we've had a nice year at home.”