With the 2023 NBA playoffs just around the corner, the Denver Nuggets almost know who they will face in the first round.

After clinching the top seed in the Western Conference last week, the Nuggets had nothing left to play for in the regular season. They could sit back comfortably and watch the majority of the conference struggle and stress over playoff seeding, knowing that their own fate would not be decided until this coming Friday night. That’s because of a relatively new inclusion to the postseason festivities: a Play-In tournament.

In its fourth year of existence dating back to the 2020 NBA playoffs delayed by Covid-19, the Play-In has become a mostly popular addition to the schedule. Adding intrigue and stress to the end of the regular season has turned the end-of-year standings shuffle into a must-see event. Becoming a top six seed in either conference is now exceptionally valuable, but there’s jockeying for position up and down the standings based on where certain teams hope to finish each and every season.

This season, the Western Conference plays host to four exceptionally different teams. The Los Angeles Lakers ended the year as the seventh seed and will play the eighth seeded Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night. On Wednesday night, the ninth seed New Orleans Pelicans will play the tenth seed Oklahoma City Thunder. The winner of Lakers-Timberwolves will become the new seventh seed and face the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. The loser will face the winner of Pelicans-Thunder on Friday night, and the winner of that game will become the new eighth seed and face your Denver Nuggets.

So, the Nuggets could still face any of the Lakers, Timberwolves, Pelicans, and Thunder in the first round. Game 1 will be on Sunday at Ball Arena.

I ran a poll for Nuggets fans on Monday night to see who they want the Nuggets to face in the first round among the aforementioned teams, and the results were very interesting:

Leading the poll by a significant margin were the Timberwolves, a team that has defeated the Nuggets twice this season. With Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Rudy Gobert, they certainly have the talent to make things difficult for Denver in a series. Of course, when one of your star players (Gobert) punches a teammate and another starter (Jaden McDaniels) breaks a hand punching a literal wall, all bets are off.

The Thunder are immediately after the Timberwolves and are seen as one of the weaker matchups. They have little size to match up with two-time MVP Nikola Jokić and would be operating at a disadvantage for much of the series, though their future is incredibly bright.

Tied among teams Nuggets fans least want to see are the Lakers and Pelicans. The Nuggets went 2-2 against each team in the regular season, and both the Lakers (16-7 record post All-Star break) and Pelicans (12-11 record with a win against the Nuggets) have been solid. Neither team is a great matchup for Denver with big forwards (LeBron James, Brandon Ingram) and dynamic athletes (Anthony Davis/Jarred Vanderbilt, Trey Murphy/Herb Jones) that could pose some matchup problems. Yes, the Lakers defeated the Nuggets in the 2020 bubble playoffs, but that was a long time ago. Jokić wasn’t an MVP caliber player yet, Porter was a rookie, and the Nuggets roster wasn’t as strong as it is today.

Denver should of course be favored in any series against the Lakers or Pelicans. Their real worries can’t be centered around any particular first round matchup though. It will be all about the Nuggets and the level of focus/intensity they bring.

The Nuggets effectively clinched the top seed in the West on March 3rd, defeating the Grizzlies in an emphatic way. Denver moved to 45-19 on the season and had a seven game cushion in the standings. They mostly relaxed at that point, and the losses began to pile up in the final six weeks of the season. Denver finished the year with an 8-10 record in their final 18 games, which isn’t a short period of time. It wasn’t just a blip on the radar of Denver’s season. The Nuggets actively played worse and never ratcheted up their intensity for the final 20% of the season. Their net rating of -0.5 points per 100 possessions from March 4th until the end of the season ranked 20th in the NBA and far worse than any other championship contender, per Cleaning the Glass.

How much those final 18 games actually mean in the grand scheme of things is likely negligible, but it was a period of time in which the Nuggets certainly didn’t get better. They were never really tested in that stretch, and though there were some nice wins against the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, and Golden State Warriors (without Jokić) along the way, that’s all they really were: nice wins. The first truly meaningful action the Nuggets will have played since March 3rd will take place on Sunday. That will be when Nuggets fans can expect to learn who the Nuggets really are.

No matter who the Nuggets face in the first round, they should be significant favorites. Having the two-time MVP in Nikola Jokić, the healthy returns of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., and the best supporting cast potentially in Nuggets history means something. The Nuggets are facing the pressure to deliver this year, and they are hungry for success. They haven’t hard to stress during the last six weeks of the season, knowing that their seeding was (basically) in hand. That should mean they are quite possibly the freshest and healthiest elite team heading into the 2023 playoffs.

But it’s their own rust and malaise that the Nuggets will have to watch out for when the playoffs come around. That will be the scariest opponent of them all.