The Denver Nuggets accomplished two things with a win at Detroit on Thursday night when they snapped a season-long four-game skid and officially clinched a playoff spot.
Next up on the to-do list is securing the top seed in the Western Conference, which went from a near lock to somewhat tenuous with the recent losing streak. Denver leads the Sacramento Kings by 4 1/2 games and has 12 games remaining to finish atop the conference for the first time in NBA franchise history.
The quest continues with a matinee game at the New York Knicks on Saturday.
The Nuggets (47-23) seemed to find their defense in the second half of the win over the Pistons. Denver held them to 36 points in the second half, which came two days after allowing Toronto to score 49 points in the first quarter.
It has been a struggle on defense; the Nuggets allowed 123 points per game in the losing streak but held Detroit to 100 while becoming the first team to clinch a division and the second to secure a playoff spot.
“We’re not having a party, but you have to enjoy the moments,” coach Michael Malone said. “If you don’t, I don’t know why you do this.”
Denver’s goal from the start of the season was winning the NBA title and it will take a few postseason road wins to achieve that. The Nuggets are 17-17 away from home and 30-6 at Ball Arena. One of those six losses came against New York on Nov. 16.
The Knicks (41-30) have a better road record than home mark but have won their last six at Madison Square Garden. They also have a small advantage for Saturday’s game — they haven’t played since wrapping up a four-game road trip with a win at Portland on Tuesday night.
New York has been one of the hotter teams in the NBA outside of Milwaukee, going 13-4 since early February to get in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Knicks are currently the fifth seed but are not far behind fourth-seed Cleveland.
They didn’t make a big splash at the trade deadline but they are 11-3 since acquiring Josh Hart from Portland. Hart has helped energize New York and he is confident in his new team’s ability to succeed in the postseason.
“Man, it’s great,” Hart said. “I think this team was trending upward when I got here, and I was able to kind of just fit right in and continue to help this team grow. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Saturday’s game will feature a battle of two of the best big men in the NBA. Denver’s Nikola Jokic is averaging a triple-double (24.7 points, 11.9 rebounds and 10 assists) and is on pace to win his third straight MVP while Julius Randle leads New York in points (25.2) and rebounds (10.3).
The Knicks could be without guard Jalen Brunson for the fourth straight game. Brunson, second on the team in scoring at 23.7 points a game, left the March 9 loss at Sacramento with a foot injury and hasn’t returned to the lineup.