The good, the bad and the ugly: Millsap returns to a heated playoff race

Feb 27, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap (4) defends against Los Angeles Clippers forward Tobias Harris (34) in the second quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

At 33-28 on the season, the Denver Nuggets find themselves in a better spot than they were in at this same point last season, but they still have plenty work to do. Currently in a tight playoff race with most teams only being separated by a loss or two — and with only 20 or so games for each team remaining, nearly every game is a must-win game. Denver has been playing well for the month of February, but they’re still in a position where they could make or miss the playoffs; making this streak of games incredibly important.

The Good – Paul Millsap Returns

After 100 days of not playing and a few tears shed on the drive up to the Pepsi Center, Denver’s four-time All-Star and $30-million free agent acquisition made his return to the team.

“I actually cried a little bit,” Millsap said, ”because of the hard work that has been put in from myself, from our (physical training) staff, and Felipe (Eichenberger) getting my body right. Seeing all the hard work that has been put in to get to this point –- I broke down this morning.”

Millsap was sidelined with a ligament injury in his left wrist which required surgery. The injury happened on Nov. 19 and his return came on Feb. 27, a total of 100 days. He made his return Tuesday, and although it was overshadowed by the fact that Denver blew a 19-point lead in a 122-120 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the fans were happy to have their defensive anchor back.

He finished the game with nine points, two assists and seven rebounds and made his defensive presence known; recording two blocks and a steal in only 23 minutes played.

On the season, Millsap is averaging 15.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists in the 16 games he played before the injury ,so it’s only a matter of time until he returns to his usual self. While head coach Michael Malone figures to up his minutes incrementally over the next few games, it shouldn’t be long before Millsap is back with the starters and using his veteran leadership to help make the Nuggets a playoff team.

They’ll need him.

The Bad – The Nuggets are fighting in the playoff race

A little over a week ago, Denver was in the No. 6 spot in a very tight Western Conference race, with momentum that showcased their potential to rise even higher. They had one of the best home records in the league and were inching closer and closer to getting Millsap back. Fast forward to today and the team is currently on a two-game losing streak and just experienced their first back-to-back home losses of the season. In their last game, they blew a 19-point lead to the Clippers, who leapfrogged them in the standings and clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Nuggets. Fortunately, a loss by the Clippers on Wednesday night moved Denver back to the eighth spot.

Now, Denver has 11 of its next 16 games on the road, and have to implement Millsap back into the rotation Before Tuesday’s game, Malone spoke about his expectations for the four-time All-Star. “I do not want to have people expecting Paul to come back and save the day,” Malone said. “We don’t need saving. We need Paul Millsap to come back in and blend in with the group. We’ll bring him along slowly.”

With the team still having issues on the defensive end, in a close playoff race where each game matters and Millsap being implemented back into the rotation slowly, it’ll be interesting to see how the team adjusts and competes for a spot.

The Ugly – Blown lead in Clippers loss

Denver went into Tuesday’s game playing very well in February; 7-2 on the month with their only losses coming to the Houston Rockets — who happen to own the best record in the league.

The Clippers came into the game banged-up, which should’ve given Denver an advantage. Two of their starters, Avery Bradley (sports hernia) and former Nugget Danilo Gallinari (bruised right hand) were both out, forcing the Clippers to start Tyrone Wallace and Wesley Johnson. Left with a thin bench, Denver seemed to have had the Clippers’ number.

With L.A. trailing by 19, Doc Rivers called it a night and let some of his backups play. But with a third quarter explosion from Boban Marjanovic in his first non-garbage minutes as a Clipper alongside Lou Williams, Milos Teodosic, Wallace and Harrell, the Clippers’ bench outscored Denver’s bench 74-24 — including a 54-4 advantage in the second half. Marjanovic scored 18 points in 15 minutes while also grabbing six rebounds, a block and two steals, sparking a rally that led to a 122-120 Clippers win.

Malone was not happy with his team’s performance. “That was just a very disappointing way to lose a game tonight — when you played well enough to build a lead like you did at 19 points and then give it back and then some. We made a valiant rally at the end, but too little, too late. We should have never been in that situation.”

Denver has to find ways to get back to winning close games, which means limiting their turnovers and improving their late-game execution. If they don’t get on the right track quickly, the Nuggets could easily find themselves on the outside of the playoffs once again.

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