There may not be a less forgiving two-game stretch for any team on the NBA schedule this season than the back-to-back the Nuggets are currently enduring.
On Thursday night, the Denver Nuggets hosted the Utah Jazz at 8:30pm MDT, where they managed to defeat the Jazz 106-100, but then they had to quickly turn around, get on a plane, and head off to Milwaukee to take on the Bucks less than 23 hours later.
“The back-to-back is criminal,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone stated prior to the Nuggets win over the Jazz. “You are playing an 8:30pm national TV game here and you are going to lose an hour. Our itinerary has us arriving at the hotel at 3:30am. The itinerary is never right and we will be in after that. I guarantee that there will be some kind of problem with the plan and we will have to de-ice. It is what it is. We can’t change the schedule.
“Then, on Sunday, we play at noon. There is a lot more to it than just this back-to-back. Tomorrow (against the Bucks) will be our eighth game in 13 days. It is what it is. Just keep on trucking.”
Not only was Malone poignant with his response, but he was also prophetic.
The Nuggets, who’s flight out of Denver was set to depart at 12:10am on Friday morning, ended up stuck on the tarmac because (surprise, surprise) the plane needed to be de-iced according to Katy Winge. By the time Denver’s flight landed in Milwaukee, the Nuggets had lost an hour due to the time zone change and it was suddenly 3:54am, again according to Winge. Once Nuggets color commentator Scott Hastings arrived at the team hotel, his clock showed that it was 4:30am.
That meant the Nuggets had just over 14 hours between the time they arrived at the hotel and when they were set to tip off against the Bucks, who are on pace to win 71 games this season.
“It is definitely going to be a challenge,” Torrey Craig said when asked about how tough it is going to be to find a way to beat the Bucks after such a tough victory against the Jazz. “I don’t know what time we get in, but I think it is like 4am or later than that and it is a really quick turnaround because we had a late game tonight. So I think this will be the most challenging one for sure.”
To make matters worse, Malone is not quite sure who is going to be available to play. All three of Jamal Murray (left ankle sprain), Paul Millsap (left knee contusion/sprain) and Mason Plumlee (right cuboid injury) will likely continue to be out. Gary Harris, who missed Denver’s game against Utah for personal reasons, has an unknown availability heading into Denver’s matchup with the Bucks. In addition to all of those injures, the Nuggets have a multitude of players who could use some rest after what has been a brutal stretch of schedule in the month of January.
“We are going to take it one game at a time,” Malone said prior to beating the Jazz in Denver. “Get through the Utah game and then see who we have ready and available tomorrow night in Milwaukee.”
This back-to-back will be Denver’s fourth in January alone after having a stretch of three-consecutive back-to-backs which meant playing six games over a span of 10 days. The Nuggets are playing a total of 16 games in the month of January with 10 of those battles being played away from the Pepsi Center. To make matters worse, Denver has been without at least one starter in all 16 of those games including a stretch of five games without three starters.
Despite those facts, the Nuggets are currently 10-5 in the month of January with just one more game to go and Denver’s head coach could not be happier with the end result of such a tough stretch of the schedule.
“I think we’ve done tremendous; I really mean that,” Malone explained when reflecting back on the Nuggets brutal month of January. “This has been a very tough month of January with the amount of road games. Then you come back for one game and go right back out on the road. When you combine that with the number of injuries and bodies out — I mean, to have three starters out tonight and one of your top reserves in Mason Plumlee — it is definitely a challenge.
“I think overall, we have done a pretty good job in this tough month.”
While the brutal nature of this particular back-to-back paired with just how exhausting the entire month has been for the Nuggets makes it seem like a scheduled loss, Malone is not willing to fold just yet. Yes, he knows the Bucks are currently 41-6 with the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player in Giannis Antetokounmpo anchoring both ends of the floor for them. Yes, Malone knows his team will be short-handed. Still, he cannot find it within him to just sit by and accept a loss.
“Ever since I have been here, we don’t fall for the readily available, ’man, we are ok if we lose a couple games’. No, that is not us,” Malone stated proudly. “We have to find ways to be tough and navigate through those tough waters.”
For Craig, once the game ended, he already had his plan of attack prepared so that he was not only ready to play against the Bucks on Friday night, but to find a way to win regardless of the odds.
“I think we will have a meeting in the morning, then watch some film, and then guys are going to get rest prior to the game,” Craig explained. “It is going to be tough, but I think we will get enough rest and we can go out there and get another win tomorrow.”