The Nuggets eliminated New Orleans from the playoffs with a nail-biting road win Tuesday, and now the Pelicans can return the favor to Denver on Friday night at Pepsi Center.
The Nuggets' 134-131 win in New Orleans earlier in the week left Denver on the brink of tying Portland for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. The Trail Blazers lost at Utah that night, pulling Denver within a half-game of the final playoff spot, but a 110-104 loss in Houston on Wednesday was a dagger to the Nuggets' postseason dreams.
After Portland beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 105-98 on Thursday, the Blazers (39-40) hold a 1 1/2-game lead on the Nuggets (37-41).
Denver can't afford another loss the rest of the way if it is going to catch and pass Portland to reach the playoffs for the first time in three years.
The Pelicans (33-45) would like nothing more than to return the favor to the Nuggets in the final game of the season between the teams.
New Orleans wasn't able to turn a February trade for DeMarcus Cousins into a playoff berth, but the team is looking forward to a full year with Cousins and Anthony Davis playing together.
"I think we're light-years ahead of where we were," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry told the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Thursday. "We've got arguably two of the best 10 players in the NBA. Then you add Jrue (Holiday) to the mix, and hopefully that's going to be somebody we can keep on our team. You've got guys that are a year older playing (together).
"I just think we have to have a situation where we can come out of training camp and have those six, eight preseason games where we can tweak and tone everything and we can go into the regular season playing with the group that we're going to have throughout the year."
The Nuggets are still focusing on this season and aren't conceding anything to Portland just yet. They finish up the home schedule Sunday against the Thunder before ending the regular season with games at Dallas on Tuesday and at Oklahoma City on Wednesday.
After the Wednesday loss to the Rockets, Denver coach Michael Malone took a positive approach to the uphill battle for the playoffs.
"My message to our guys was, 'Don't drop your head. Feel good about the effort we put forth tonight,'" he told The Denver Post. "We have basketball left. We're still alive. There's only two teams fighting for that playoff spot."
The Nuggets went 2-3 on their just-finished road trip but had a chance to win all five. The Trail Blazers pulled away late in Portland on March 28. Denver then blew a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter to Charlotte on Saturday, then rallied from 17 down to Houston to lead in the third quarter before James Harden took over in the fourth.
The Nuggets can't afford to squander leads the rest of the way and hope Portland stumbles. The Trail Blazers play their last four games at home, and they hold the tiebreaker on Denver. Two of the games are against playoff teams -- Saturday against the Utah Jazz and Monday against the San Antonio Spurs -- which gives the Nuggets some hope that if they win out, they can leapfrog Portland.
"We've been a good team the last 1 1/2 months, and we play together," center Nikola Jokic told The Denver Post. "We're going to continue to do that. We're going to keep fighting in every game, and we'll see what happens."
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