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Inside the Nuggets’ improbable playoff push

Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Nuggets were battered and bruised following their 114-110 loss in Toronto on March 27 — the sixth game of a season-long seven-game road trip. Denver’s narrow four-point loss to the Raptors was the Nuggets’ fourth defeat in 10 days, and after losses in Memphis, Miami and Philadelphia, Michael Malone was worried his players might start to check out with his team two games out of the playoff race.

So the Nuggets’ coach got confirmation from his players on two separate fronts.

“He brought us in and we all talked, and he just wanted to make sure we were all on the same page and guys still believed that we could get to the playoffs and still win games,” Will Barton said. “And everyone was on the same page. Everyone felt like we could still make it. We just had to get back on track.

“Nobody checked out, and now we’re in the position we’re in.”

After Denver’s loss to Toronto, the Nuggets reeled off a season-long five-game win streak. Denver wrapped up one of the longest road trips in the NBA this season (the Knicks also had a seven-game road trip) with a win a few nights later in Oklahoma City. Then Denver strung together four more victories over the next seven days against teams with winning records — the Bucks, Pacers, Timberwolves and Clippers — the latter of whom Denver eliminated from postseason contention on Saturday.

Amidst a less than ideal schedule, the Nuggets rattled off the longest win streak of the Michael Malone era to get back into postseason contention. Now, Denver controls its own destiny. Win out and the Nuggets break their four-year playoff drought. Drop two or even one of its remaining games and Denver likely goes back to the drawing board this summer.

“I think we’re playing our best overall basketball,” Paul Millsap said. “Not necessarily the best offense that we’ve played all year, not necessarily the best defense, but to be a really good team you’ve got to have good balance.”

Everything is clicking at the right time for Denver. Its free-flowing, equal-opportunity offense was operating at peak performance against the Clippers when the Nuggets put 134 points on Doc Rivers’ crew and made 62 percent of their field goals and 41 percent of their threes.

Nikola Jokic shot 9-14 from the field, went a perfect 4-4 from the restricted area and quietly recorded his ninth triple-double of the season. Barton added a game-high 31 points, and Denver recorded more assists (36) than rebounds (33) for the second time this season (Feb. 15 at Milwaukee).

“We still believe,” Malone said.

Malone’s gospel hasn’t fallen on deaf ears inside the Nuggets’ locker room. Denver raised its play to over the past two weeks. Most players say they stopped looking at the standings after the loss to the Raptors. Denver’s stretch run has been about self-belief, taking one game at a time and keeping their focus internal.

“That’s not how life is played,” Paul Millsap said when asked about relying on external factors during their late-season run. “You get out there, you do the best you can and whatever happens happens. You can’t look at another guy, you can’t look at the standings you can’t look at anything that you can’t control. We can’t control other teams winning or losing. We can control ourselves winning or losing.”

That belief is evident when speaking with players from Millsap and Barton, to Jokic and Jamal Murray and has come into play at countless points over Denver’s five-game winning streak. Down by 13 in the fourth quarter in Oklahoma City against Russell Westbrook and Co., the Nuggets mounted an impressive comeback to win in overtime. Down 17 in the fourth quarter versus the Bucks, the Nuggets again came all the way back to win in extra time.

 “We can’t worry about what other teams are doing,” Chandler said. “We have to keep winning, keep playing for one another and doing the right things.”

The Nuggets aren’t just winning games with their offense as they’ve done for the majority of the season either. Earlier last week versus the Pacers and Timberwolves, it was the Nuggets’ defense that stepped up when the game hung in the balance. Denver held Minnesota to just three points over the final 2:47 of regulation.

“Especially coming down the stretch, we have a good balance. Offense and defense. That’s what we need. We can’t just be one-sided,” Millsap said.

A final component to Denver’s improbable late-season playoff push? Eliminating the pressures of making the postseason. Ask anyone within the Nuggets’ organization, and they’ll say missing the postseason for a fourth consecutive year would be a massive disappointment. But Malone and the front office have been in lockstep with one another from the beginning of the season until now that they didn’t enter this year with a playoffs-or-bust mentality.

The pressure Denver put on themselves to make the playoffs last season was a central component that derailed its previous postseason push.

“We’re not playing with pressure,” Malone said “… We can’t play like it’s life and death because we’re going to die a lot. The way we play, how free we play, we’re going to turn the ball over a ton, we’re going to make mistakes, we’re young. I want our guys to play free, to enjoy and embrace the moment and what we’re involved in right now. I think a lot of other teams are playing tight with pressure on them. Not us.”

“There’s no point in playing with pressure,” Barton added. “We’ve got a good team. When you have a good team you all trust each other. We all know we’ve got a lot of guys that can make plays.”

On the back of Jokic, who’s posted All-NBA numbers over the past month and was just named Western Conference Player of the Week for the second time this season, the Nuggets played themselves back into playoff contention. Denver overcame a brutal late-season road trip and injuries to marquee free agent signing Paul Millsap, who missed 44 games with a left wrist injury that required surgery. Starting shooting guard Gary Harris has missed the Nuggets’ last 11 games with a right knee injury but could return Monday against Portland.

Denver has persevered through injuries, a brutal schedule and shown a resiliency to close the year that has changed the tone of their season regardless of if it makes the postseason or not.

Just a few obstacles remain.