For the next few months, hopefully through June, I’m going to write a column every Thursday about the Denver Nuggets championship chase. Having already won last season’s championship, it’s only fitting that this column is all about defending that title. Topics will always focus on that title defense in this column, ranging from Denver’s power level, to their lineup flexibility, to upcoming opponents, and much more.

The goal of this column: to prepare readers for what’s to come and to document the journey along the way.

It’s rare for the Denver Nuggets to play regular season games that mean something individually.

As defending NBA champions, the Nuggets always have to take the long view on the regular season that stretches from October to April. 82 games, many of which share precious little about Denver’s title prospects. The story of the regular season is undoubtedly important, and there have been important moments during the last five months for Denver. From Peyton Watson emerging as a rotation piece, to Justin Holiday and Reggie Jackson integrating themselves as veterans, to Denver’s starting five reaffirming their place among the NBA’s hierarchy, there are plenty of reasons to play 82 games (or somewhere close to it).

And yet, there are the games against the rebuilding teams of the NBA that can often turn a regular season into a tedious completion assignment, even for the players. The Nuggets don’t need to prove themselves against the Charlotte Hornets or Portland Trail Blazers. They’ve done everything they can to guard against malaise, and quite frankly, they’ve done a great job. The Nuggets are currently 20-4 against teams under 0.500, an impressive record and one that speaks to attention to detail. The only four losses? A road loss to the Utah Jazz that Denver didn’t take seriously, and three losses to the Houston Rockets while the Rockets were playing muuuuuch better basketball than they are now.

Not every game means much in the grand scheme of things, which is why this matchup vs the Boston Celtics tonight is so fascinating.

The Celtics are having an incredible season, outside of Tuesday night’s game when they blew a 20-point lead in the second half at the hands of Dean Wade and the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the most part, the Celtics have been dominant though with a sterling 48-13 record. They’re on pace for 64 wins and are almost likely to get there with an easy strength of schedule the rest of the season.

Adding Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis to a championship core that already included Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, and Al Horford was one of the strongest “All-In” moves we’ve seen from a team in a while. Brad Stevens and the Celtics are going for it this year, and they’re well on their way to one of the best regular seasons in Celtics franchise history, which says a lot for a team that’s won 17 championships. Tatum is playing at a fringe MVP candidate level. Brown provides strong secondary scoring and playmaking. White and Porzingis were borderline All-Stars. Holiday is the team’s fifth best player, which is insane.

The Celtics have one of the best rotations in the NBA, if not the best. The record stands for itself, as does the margin of victory. The Celtics are maintaining a +11.3 Net Rating on Cleaning the Glass. Here’s the list of teams with a higher point differential than them on Cleaning the Glass in the last decade:

  • 2020-21 Utah Jazz (lost in Conference Semi-Finals)
  • 2016-17 Golden State Warriors (won NBA Finals)
  • 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (lost NBA Finals)
  • 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs (lost in Conference Semi-Finals)
  • 2014-15 Golden State Warriors (won NBA Finals)

That’s an impressive list of teams, and it goes to show just how dominant the Celtics have been. They’re mowing down the competition right now, but there’s one category that they haven’t found a ton of success in so far: facing the Western Conference elite. Each of the top four seeds in the West (Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets, and Los Angeles Clippers) has defeated the Celtics at least once. Boston is 2-4 against those teams. The two wins: a beatdown of the Clippers without Kawhi Leonard and an overtime win over the T’Wolves without Rudy Gobert or Mike Conley.

Now, it’s not like the Celtics losses to the West elite have been bad losses (save for the Clippers matchup when LA absolutely thrashed Boston sans Porzingis) but it’s still interesting to see. The Celtics only have 13 losses after all, and it’s not like they’re struggling with the top of the East in the same way. The Celtics are 11-3 against the teams in the top six of the Eastern Conference. Perhaps there’s more familiarity and comfort with those conference matchups. Perhaps the top of the West is simply better.

Jan 19, 2024; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) moves the ball against Boston Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis (8) in the first quarter at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Either way, the Nuggets have an opportunity here to drop Boston’s elite West teams record to 2-5 with a win on Thursday. There’s something psychological about that. It’s one of the few remaining questions about Boston in general. How will they handle that level of pressure when it comes? Will they struggle against the West elite in a Finals setting? Frankly, they might just be too good for it to matter.

Which puts the onus back on the Nuggets. Denver’s already won one matchup against the Celtics, a truly great January game that saw Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray dominate. They were the two best players on the court in Boston, which says a lot about a Boston team that has Tatum and Brown and also should have the personnel to challenge Murray defensively. If the Nuggets were to follow a similar script in Denver? That would be a big deal.

The last time these two teams matched up, it was Murray who took over at the end. The Nuggets can’t simply rely on Murray (and Jokic obviously) for everything though. In a home game, they will need others to be involved in a productive way. Whether it’s a crooked number from Michael Porter Jr., interior dominance from Aaron Gordon, or a random splash from Denver’s bench, the Nuggets need more from their supporting cast this time around. They won’t win otherwise.

That goes doubly for tonight’s game as it does for a championship run. When it comes to winning a title, everyone has to play their part? When it comes to defending a title? So much pressure is placed on the stars that any little contribution Denver gets from outside of their standard production could be absolutely vital. Watch for Reggie Jackson, Christian Braun, and Peyton Watson tonight. How they respond to this pressure will be intriguing. Perhaps Justin Holiday will see the floor for that exact reason.

Either way, this is what makes the regular season fun for teams like the Nuggets. It’s not often a team like Denver gets to really test itself, and what better way to do so than against the best regular season team we’ve seen in years?

Should be fun.