There isn’t a single weak team in the Western Conference’s Northwest Division. Going into the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder was the favorite to finish at the top but most weren’t willing to count out any of the other four contenders: Denver, Portland, Minnesota and Utah.
The Thunder has struggled and through 30 games, OKC is just a .500 team. It is also just 2.5 games behind the division leader in Minnesota. Utah, despite all of its injury problems in the first third of the season, it only 4.5 back.
The top four teams in the division occupy the four through seven slots in the conference’s playoff standings and Utah is lurking at number nine.
On Monday night, Minnesota and Denver each played a division foe. The Timberwolves edged the Trail Blazers by a point at home, while the Nuggets just missed a rare road win with a one-point loss in Oklahoma City. Tonight, the Timberwolves go to Denver where the Nuggets have a chance to get within half a game of the division lead.
Denver managed to survive the last couple of weeks without Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets won one, lost one most of the way, taking care of the weak teams and dropping road games against teams better than average. They won in Detroit, Orlando and Sacramento, which doesn’t look impressive but is an improvement from where this team was, especially considering it was without its two best players.
Millsap is still out for another two months or so but Jokic returned two games ago for about 20 minutes off the bench. He came off the bench for a few more minutes in his last game. Perhaps this will be his first start as he nears closer to full-time minutes. Either way, he has been excellent coming off the bench in however many minutes Mike Malone sees fit and the rest of the team has to just be happy to have its best player back.
Garry Harris was the guy to take over Jokic’s go-to role in the offense when the big fella was out. He dropped 36 on 16-for-25 shooting in Boston a week ago and is averaging nearly 20 points per game on over 37 minutes per game this month. Those minutes may prove to have been too many, though. He took a fall in Monday’s game and landed hard on his elbow and back. Harris missed practice on Tuesday and is officially questionable for this game, though the Nuggets expect that he will play.
Denver’s last nine losses have all been away from home. It has won eight home games in a row, a streak that dates back to November 4 when the Warriors came to town. Seldom does this team lose at the Pepsi Center.
So should we expect the Timberwolves to come in and knock them off? I don’t. Thibs continues to drive his starters into the ground with his short rotation full of veterans. You need legs to handle the Nuggets in the altitude and the T’Wolves don’t have the numbers. Minnesota will wear down in the second half and the Nuggets will run past them for a win.
Free Pick: Denver -2