With three days left in the NBA regular season, the Western Conference playoff picture is as murky as a swamp. Five teams are battling for the last four seeds and the order after the top two is still uncertain.
Two of the teams, on different paths, clash Monday night in Denver. The Portland Trail Blazers (48-32) have clinched a spot and are clinging to the third seed but have lost three in a row. The Denver Nuggets (45-35) are sitting ninth but are streaking, having won five straight.
The game has big meaning for both teams. The Blazers are trying to hold off the Utah Jazz to stay in the third spot, but they have stumbled. Their postseason seed will likely be determined when they host the Jazz on Wednesday night, but they aren’t worried about their current losing streak.
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“We’re good,” guard CJ McCollum said after Saturday night’s loss in San Antonio. “If you had told me that we have 48 wins and have two games left and a chance to finish in third place, I would have told you I’ll take it.
“Considering where we’re at, there’s no excuses for injuries and stuff like that, but I feel like we’re heading in the right direction heading to the playoffs. We should be fully healthy or close to fully healthy and I think that will make a difference.”
Damian Lillard scored 33 points in the loss after missing one game with a sprained left ankle, and he’ll be ready to go against Denver on Monday night.
He’ll need to be the way the Nuggets have played of late. After escaping with two overtime victories last week, Denver has racked up three more solid wins. The 134-115 victory over the Clippers in Los Angeles on Saturday afternoon eliminated the Clippers and kept the Nuggets’ playoff hopes alive.
Denver probably must win its last two games — Monday and Wednesday in Minnesota — to make the postseason for the first time in five years, but they are a confident bunch.
“We’re playing get-it-done basketball,” Denver coach Michael Malone said after the win in L.A. “We’re finding ways to get the job done.”
The streak has been impressive because it has come without second leading scorer Gary Harris, who has missed 11 games with a sprained right knee. He isn’t expected back for the remaining two games of the regular season, but in his absence others have stepped up.
Lately it has been Will Barton, who had 31 points in Saturday’s win.
“I relish in those moments,” Barton said Saturday. “I’d rather have (Harris) there, of course, especially with what we’re trying to accomplish. But one man down, I just gotta take it upon myself to be better.”
The Nuggets as a whole have been better, and it has put them on the brink of a playoff berth. It won’t be easy. The Trail Blazers are trying to get back on track before the start of the postseason, so both teams will have something big to play for.