The Denver Nuggets are currently the lone holders of the NBA’s Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff seed. With 26 games to go, the Nuggets are looking to end their three-year playoff drought; however, if they want to do so, they will have to overcome the many obstacles and challenges that still remain in the regular season.

This is head coach Michael Malone’s first opportunity running the helm to lead his team to the playoffs, something he knows will be difficult, but likewise a challenge that both he and his players are ready for.

“26 games to go, man,” Malone said after the team’s first practice following the All-Star break. “We are a game and a half up on Sacramento and a couple of games up on the other teams. 13 home, 13 road, and every practice matters, every game matters. We are looking forward to that challenge.”

The All-Star break came at the right time for the Nuggets, giving the team ample time to recover and prepare for the journey that lies ahead.

“It was needed by all of us,” Malone said. “I think everybody, judging by the energy in the gym tonight, everybody is excited to be back knowing what’s at stake, and what’s in front of us, and I think we are all ready for that challenge.”

While the eighth seed is the Nuggets to lose, there is still a lot of uncertainty with the team. They have yet to prove anything of real significance and have failed to show if they are worthy of the NBA’s coveted final playoff spot.

The New Orleans Pelicans addition of All-Star DeMarcus Cousins has pinned them as the favorite to surpass the Nuggets for that final spot. That mixed with the other surging teams vying for the final spot has the eighth seed all be locked up for Denver.

With that said, Malone believes if his Nuggets’ could become just an average defensive team, that they would be in a much better position to make the playoffs.

“Defend,” Malone said as his key for his team to making the playoffs. “For us to be a playoff team we have to defend a lot better and more consistently. Now, if we do that and our offense stays where it’s at we are a much better basketball team.”

The Nuggets defense has been sluggish all year, ranking 28th in the league in points allowed per game. With that, the Nuggets have been forced to rely heavily on their offense which ranks 4th in the NBA in points per game.

With the schedule that lies ahead, the Nuggets are going to need to take care of their home court. Since the December 15th lineup swap, the Nuggets have compiled a record of 12-5 at Pepsi Center. Defending the home court is critical for the Nuggets, and young center Nikola Jokic believes it’s the key to making the playoffs this season.

“We need to defend the home court,” Jokic said. “I think we can do that, try to get into the playoffs. That’s out goal. We are in a good spot for that.”

There’s a lot of noise going around the league right now with the trade deadline looming and the playoffs nearing. With that, Denver knows they sit in a good spot as the season dwindles down.

“I think we are pretty good.” Rookie Jamal Murray said of where the Nuggets stand. “I think we are on the right track. Just take it one game at a time and not panic, and just try to stay consistent.”

21 of the Nuggets remaining 26 games are against teams that either are already slotted for a spot in the playoffs or are on the outside looking in by just a few games.

Michael Malone has done a solid job at keeping his team on course throughout all the adversity that had been thrown at the Nuggets this season. There is a tough road ahead for Denver, one that will answer a lot of questions about the immediate outlook of the team.

It’s down the stretch where the contenders and pretenders start to separate themselves. Malone and his players will have to wipe away the youthful mistakes they’ve made this season and develop into a sharp, crisp team to solidify themselves as a playoff team down the stretch, something they believe they can be this season.

“You get into these important games and every possession matters,” Malone said. “If you want to be a playoff team you have got to be disciplined and know that you can’t take any possessions or nights off. I think our guys understand that.”