NBA Basketball

In thick of playoff race, Pelicans brace for Nuggets

With the NBA in the bell lap of its season, the playoff picture is coming into focus -- but slowly.

There are 12 teams in the Western Conference that could be continuing on after the regular season ends on April 9, and the positioning is still in flux.

The New Orleans Pelicans are in the mix of constant change. New Orleans entered Wednesday sitting in eighth, which would mean a play-in tournament berth, but a few losses could put it in the draft lottery. On the other hand, a winning streak could propel the Pelicans into the first round of the playoffs without having to participate in the play-in.

So, every game is important to the Pelicans, including Thursday night's matchup against the host Denver Nuggets.

Denver (51-24) leads the Western Conference and is on track to be the top seed in the conference for the first time in franchise history.

New Orleans (38-38) is coming off a tough loss at Golden State on Tuesday night. The Pelicans led by 20 at one point but lost by 11 and missed an opportunity to tie Minnesota for the sixth seed.

"Our margin for error is small," New Orleans coach Willie Green said. "Especially against good teams. Have to finish possessions."

New Orleans had a five-game winning streak stopped, and it sits in the playoff hunt despite not having star forward Zion Williamson, who has missed the last 39 games with a hamstring injury. He will be re-evaluated April 5.

"He's working," Green said. "He's working at it."

Jonas Valanciunas, who averaged 17.4 points and 16.0 rebounds during the five-game winning streak, will get the job of defending Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic. Jokic is coming off his 29th triple-double of the season in a win over Philadelphia on Monday and is nearly averaging a triple-double for the season (24.9 points, 11.9 rebounds, 9.9 assists per game).

Denver is currently three games ahead of Memphis in the Western Conference, and if the Grizzlies win out, would need to reach 55 wins to clinch the West. The Nuggets nearly blew a lead to the 76ers' reserves but held on.

"As long as we win," Jokic said, "that's the most important thing."

Denver led by 14 with 3:25 left but was forced to put its starters back in to close the game. Aaron Gordon was on the bench for crunch time, which Nuggets coach Michael Malone said was a coaching error on his part.

Malone said postgame that he didn't think the game was going to get close and stuck with veteran Jeff Green.

Reaching 55 wins won't be a cakewalk for Denver. After Thursday night's game, it plays four of its last six contests on the road, with the two home games coming against teams jockeying for playoff position -- the Warriors and surprising Sacramento Kings.

The first step is beating the Pelicans for the third time and winning the season series. The Nuggets pulled out a 99-98 win in New Orleans on Jan. 24 when Jokic made a field goal with 16.9 seconds left and the defense forced three misses in the final 5.6 seconds.

--Field Level Media

Updated March 29, 2023

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