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Nuggets poised to clinch top seed in playoffs


The race for the top spot in the Western Conference standings is going to dominate headlines as the 2023-24 NBA season comes to a close. The Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Minnesota Timberwolves have all taken their respective turns sitting above everyone else in the West over the last couple of weeks coming out of the All-Star break. However, only one of them will be able to have the playoffs go through them.

Winning home-court advantage is a big deal in the NBA. The Nuggets and Thunder rank first and second in record at home this season in the Western Conference, respectively. The Timberwolves currently rank fourth in this category. Come playoff time, it’s much easier to win games in the comfort of your own home. Just ask Denver about this, as they went on to go 10-1 in the postseason last year en route to their first championship in team history. Coincidentally enough, the Nuggets were the 1-seed in the West last season.

While it is not a given that you will make the NBA Finals as the 1-seed in the West, this spot tends to have a solid track record. Over the last ten seasons, seven of the teams that ended the year at the top of the Western Conference standings went on to make the NBA Finals. A total of five of those teams, including the Nuggets last season, went on to win a championship.

Once again, the Nuggets are in contention for the top spot in the conference, alongside two newcomers in the Thunder and Timberwolves. Although Denver’s competitors may be younger and less experienced, they have brought the fight to the defending champions all throughout the regular season.

Just a half-game separates the Nuggets from the Thunder, and a full game separates the Nuggets from the Timberwolves entering Thursday night. The standings in the Western Conference are always changing. With limited time remaining, the Nuggets find themselves in the best position to again claim the 1-seed in the West.

Here is a breakdown of what each team faces over their remaining 16 or 17 games this season.

Denver Nuggets

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) and guard Jamal Murray (27) react on the bench during the fourth quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies at Ball Arena.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 46-20 | 8 of remaining 16 games against .500 or better

Two teams currently share the longest active win streak in the league at four wins: the Nuggets and the Dallas Mavericks. Since the All-Star break, Denver has gone 10-1, with their lone loss coming in overtime on their home floor against Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns. In this span, the Nuggets have defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors, and Boston Celtics, who own the league’s best record at 51-14 overall.

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It is not shocking to anyone that the Nuggets find themselves at the top of the Western Conference standings with limited games remaining in the season. Whether or not they can maintain this position over the Thunder and Timberwolves is the key question everyone wants answers to.

Right now, Denver looks like the best team in the NBA. They won both meetings against Boston this season, whom many tend to believe they will see in the NBA Finals, and this team has been virtually impossible to stop in the Mile High City this season. The Nuggets have only lost six games on their home floor this season, with three of these losses coming by way of a single possession or overtime.

Recently, the Nuggets exhibited the fight it takes to possibly become back-to-back champions when they took down the Toronto Raptors 125-119 in Denver despite trailing by as many as 22 points. Head coach Michael Malone spoke about his team’s resilience after the game and how adversity is nothing new for the Nuggets.

“For our guys, I don’t think there is any doubt at all. I think that we know that we are always within striking distance when we defend as well as I know we can,” Malone said, via ClutchPoints’ Rachel Strand. “I think the confidence comes from experience. Whether it’s at Golden State, or any game you go back and look at, we’ve come back and won games before. There’s never any doubt, there’s never any quit.”

When evaluating who the Nuggets have remaining on their schedule in quest of claiming the 1-seed in the Western Conference again, three matchups with the Timberwolves are what stand out. Earlier this season, Denver fell 110-89 on the road against Minnesota in their only other meeting so far. The Nuggets went 1-3 in four matchups against the Thunder, meaning that Oklahoma City holds the tiebreaker over them.

The chances of the Nuggets claiming the top seed in the conference depend on these three battles they have remaining against a Timberwolves team without Karl-Anthony Towns. These matchups, as well as the fact that half of their remaining games are against sub-.500 teams, put the Nuggets in a very favorable position to have the Western Conference playoffs run through Denver once more.

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Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) dribbles the ball down the court against the Indiana Pacers during the second quarter at Paycom Center.
Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 45-20 (0.5 GB from DEN) | 11 of remaining 17 games against .500 or better

Right behind the Nuggets, the Thunder are still in a very strong position to possibly grab the 1-seed in the Western Conference. After playing the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night, who will be without Luka Doncic due to a hamstring injury, the Thunder will have 16 games remaining on their schedule, 10 of which will be against teams vying for a playoff spot. Over half of their matchups to close out the year will also be on the road, where the Thunder have gone 19-13 this season.

No matter who their opponent is or where they are, the Thunder have proven to be a dangerous team this season because of all the balance they possess. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is right next to Nikola Jokic in the running for the NBA’s MVP award, and Chet Holmgren has made a difference on both ends of the court as a Rookie of the Year candidate. Then, the Thunder have Jalen Williams, Josh Giddey, Luguentz Dort, Isaiah Joe, Cason Wallace, and Aaron Wiggins for added secondary depth.

They may be the youngest team in the league, but the Thunder play with their heart on their sleeves, and they may just have the best depth out of any other organization in terms of guys playing their respective roles.

“You talk about the best team in the West with Oklahoma City,” Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said recently when previewing his team’s matchup with the Thunder on Thursday. “They are playing well. Shai is the head of the snake. You gotta try to keep him out of the paint. They got a lot of other weapons, Chet, those guys, they are playing well. They play extremely well at home so this is another great test for us.”

The Thunder are a very dangerous team, especially for an older group like the Nuggets, because of how they can easily convert defensive stops into immediate offensive production. Compared to the Nuggets, who rank 27th in pace out of all teams in the NBA, the Thunder rank 10th in pace, and ninth in fast break points. Oklahoma City currently ranks third in offensive rating and fifth in defensive rating, making them the best all-around team in the league alongside the Celtics.

The key to the Thunder claiming the top spot in the Western Conference entering the playoffs, besides seeing Denver lose a few games, is handling business against the other playoff teams in the West. Matchups against the Mavs, Suns, Kings, and New Orleans Pelicans remain on the Thunder’s schedule. Exhibiting dominance over these types of teams will continue to instill fear in the rest of the league, while also giving Oklahoma City the keys to their own destiny in the postseason.

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Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards (5) celebrates the win over Indiana Pacers at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 45-21 (1.0 GB from DEN) | 8 of remaining 16 games against .500 or better

Out of all the teams in the Western Conference, the Timberwolves have sat at the top of the standings the longest. Minnesota has proven to be an elite defensive team this season, ranking first in defensive rating and first in opponent’s points per game as a result of their length. Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns make things difficult in the paint, plus both Jaden McDaniels and Anthony Edwards are terrific defenders on the perimeter.

However, defense is about the only thing the Timberwolves have been consistent with this season. On offense, this team ranks just 18th in offensive rating and 19th overall in points per game. As a team, the Wolves are averaging only 41.3 made shots per game, 23rd in the entire league.

Edwards is an All-Star and will be mentioned in the All-NBA conversation, yet he alone can’t carry this team down the stretch and into the playoffs. Towns recently suffered a meniscus injury, leaving a huge hole in the Timberwolves’ rotations that they are unable to fill.

Three games against the Nuggets remain on Minnesota’s schedule. Winning two of these three games instantly puts the Timberwolves in a great position to jump ahead of Denver in the standings since they would ultimately own the tiebreaker over them. For the Timberwolves, road matchups against the Suns and Lakers also stand out.

These are two teams that the Wolves have had trouble with at times this season, and both of them are competing for playoff position. Minnesota has gone 22-13 away from home this season, tied for the most road wins in the league. In addition to defending their home court against struggling teams, the Timberwolves are also going to need to prove that they can still hang against the better teams this league has to offer despite Towns being injured.

As long as Edwards is healthy and continues to grow into one of the league’s best stars, the Timberwolves will be in a position to win any game they play.


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