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HOUSTON – The set-up, for the Nuggets, is simple. Win on Wednesday night in Houston against the Rockets, and in 24 hours they could again be the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. That, of course, is provided Portland loses on Thursday at home against Minnesota.
“It’s funny, a lot of people keep on counting us out,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We lose three in a row and a lot of people kind of give up hope. We haven’t. Everybody in that locker room is remaining positive, optimistic and we’re going to play this thing out.”
Malone is right about one thing: What a difference 10 days make.
On March 26, the Nuggets hold of the eighth spot, a place they’d held for nearly two months, was as loose a grip as had been. Two nights later, after a loss to Portland, they were officially the chasers, no longer the chasee. A third straight loss in Charlotte put the Nuggets two games behind.
But then… Portland lost twice and the Nuggets found ways to win in Miami and on Tuesday night in New Orleans. Now, they can win and pull into a tie record-wise with Portland. Another Blazers loss would then put the Nuggets up by a half-game in a playoff race that is sure to be a photo finish.
“It’s coming down to the end,” Nuggets guard Gary Harris said. “We knew it was going to be like that. We’ve just got to take care of us, do what we’re supposed to do, and hopefully the chips fall into place.”
Doing what they have to do starts with figuring out a way to beat the Rockets, a team that has won all three games in the season series so far. The last time these two met, however, it took a James Harden coast-to-coast layup with time running out in order for the Rockets to pull out a victory. The last two games between the Nuggets and Rockets have been decided by a grand total of five points.
The Nuggets getting themselves to the finish line in the last two meetings against the Rockets hasn’t been the problem. Sealing the deal once they get to the line, has been.
Things may be changing, however. In each of the last two wins on their current five-game road trip, the Nuggets have had that finishing kick. Gary Harris made two defensive plays that helped his team clinch the win over New Orleans on Tuesday night. Rookie Jamal Murray also had eight points in the fourth, making timely shots when the team needed them most.
Two nights earlier in Miami, Nikola Jokic made a big jump shot with just under a minute to play. Then Emmanuel Mudiay gets a blocked shot, and Murray knocked down two free throws as the Nuggets closed out that game in strong fashion.
“We find a way to get a stop, that’s what it comes down to,” Harris said. “We’re fighting right now to stay in the playoff race, so I’m just happy to see us get the stops when we need them.”
NOTES FROM LAST NIGHT’S GAME:
– With the win over New Orleans, the Nuggets record improved to 37-40. It is their most wins in a season since racking up 57 victories in the 2012-13 season.
– Gary Harris had 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting. His 10 field goals tied for the most he’s made in a single game in his career. His shooting percentage (83.3 percent) was the highest in his career in a single game in which he’s taken five or more attempts. It is the 13th time this season Harris has scored 20 or more points. His eight rebounds were also a career high.
– Nikola Jokic had 21 points and 12 rebounds. It was his 20th 20-point/10-rebound double-double of the season. He now has 22 games this season of 20 or more points.
– The Nuggets scored 134 points in the game. It is the second-highest point total they have scored in a game this season, second only to the 140 points the Nuggets put up in London against Indiana. The Nuggets are now 5-0 when they score 130 or more points in game this season.
– The Nuggets took 99 shots in the game, and made 53.5 percent of them. It is the 10th time this season that they have taken at least 99 shots in a game. This, however, was only the second time they’ve won in doing so.