THE NBA regular season enters its home straight over the next week as the race to fill in the play-off vacancies reaches its end.
But while the Milwaukee Bucks have now plugged what was the one remaining gap in the East, the Western Conference has only three of its eight confirmed, with seven teams all within three games of each other with only a clutch of contests left.
Clashes between the contenders, above all, will be pivotal: which makes tonight’s visit of the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Denver Nuggets almost a must-win for both.
Especially for the hosts who presently sit ninth on 43-35, one loss behind their guests who have picked a dangerous time to hit a slump – losing five of their last nine.
The big factor has been the absence of All Star forward Jimmy Butler, whose knee injury has kept him out since mid-February. Averaging 24.8 points per game, it’s still more likely he’ll return for one of Minnesota’s three final games against the Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies – and the Nuggets again, than this one.
Defensive duties are where Butler has been missed most with his team holding only the woeful Mavericks under 100 points in their last 24 outings to drop to 18th in the points allowed standings.
That makes them vulnerable to the Nuggets, who have won three straight, against the Pacers, Bucks and Thunder, with an offense that is on full power.
It suggests going over 220.5 total points is on the cards. And if Denver stay on a roll heading into their next two contests against the ninth-placed LA Clippers and high-flying Portland Trailblazers, the West could be a race that goes right to the wire with the possibility that every team in the Northwest Division beats the cut.
- Denver -5.5 (3.30am)
- (49-50, Unibet)