The Denver Nuggets are fighting for their playoff lives, and the schedule leading up to the All-Star break isn’t really helping them.
Their just-completed three-game road trip was tough enough, but the first game back from going 1-2 against the Eastern Conference is a date with the best team in the league.
This after losing to the NBA champions on Saturday night.
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The Golden State Warriors (46-8) are in town Monday night, which means the Nuggets have consecutive games against the teams that faced off in the NBA Finals the past two seasons.
The Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers seem to be on a collision course for a third matchup in the playoffs and Denver gets a close-up look at both teams.
But it’s a different team that takes the court against Golden State. According to reports Sunday, the Nuggets dealt disgruntled center Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick to the Portland Trail Blazers for Mason Plumlee, cash and a 2018 second-round pick.
The deal ends two-plus seasons in which the 7-foot Nurkic went from the center of the future to out of the rotation with the emergence of Nikola Jokic.
Injuries and playing style also played a part in Nurkic’s recession in Denver. When the Nuggets (24-30) acquired him — along with guard Gary Harris — in a draft-day deal with Chicago, he was 19 and thought to be a player to build around.
But a knee injury limited him to 32 games last season and Jokic blossomed in his absence. After an experiment of playing the two together failed to start this year, coach Michael Malone inserted Jokic as the starting center and Nurkic was the odd-man out.
He expressed a desire for more playing time, and now he’ll get the chance with the Trail Blazers while the Nuggets get a rim-protecting big man who can play center or power forward.
They might need Plumlee against the Warriors. The Nuggets played the trip short-handed and will likely be without Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and possibly Emmanuel Mudiay on Monday.
Gallinari has missed six games with a left groin strain, Mudiay has missed the last four with lower back soreness and Faried has missed two games with an ankle sprain.
Malone said Faried and Gallinari could be out until after the All-Star break.
“We’re not going to rush those guys back,” Malone told The Denver Post. “We have (two) more games prior to the break. If we have to use that entire time to get Gallo back for after the break to make a push, then we’ll do that. Whatever is in the best interest of the players.”
The Warriors are coming off two tough games, including Kevin Durant’s first game in Oklahoma City since signing with Golden State in the summer.
The Warriors’ 130-114 came in front of a hostile crowd, but Durant, who won the 2014 MVP as a Thunder, shook off the reunion to score 34 points and grab nine rebounds.
“It was a fun game,” Durant told reporters after the game. “I actually thought it would be a little louder. To be on the other side of it, to be able to calm all these guys down as they boo you is kind of fun. I’ve got to embrace it. That’s all I can do. And keep playing my game.”
While it seems the Warriors have struggled with weaving Durant into a team already loaded with talent, they have surged to the best record in the NBA.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, are trying to hold onto the eighth spot in the Western Conference, a spot they would be happy with come April even if it means a first-round matchup with Golden State.
Now they will chase their first playoff spot in four seasons without Nurkic. As long as Jokic, who scored a career-high 40 points in New York on Friday, is playing, they have a chance.
“He is a very special player,” Darrell Arthur told The Denver Post. “I saw it early last year. He’s a tough guard. I don’t know how anybody can guard him. He makes the offense 10 times better when he’s out on the court. He makes everyone better — and he’s still getting better. He’s only 21 years old.”