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Nuggets next in line as Nets’ tough stretch continues: ‘We all know math, and we see the seeding’

When the Nets last played the Denver Nuggets on March 12, the game plan was clear:

Force MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic to assume more of an offensive responsibility and take away his help.

Jokic finished with 35 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists on the night, but the Nuggets forfeited a 22-point lead. The Nets only allowed three other Denver players to score in double figures, outscored the Nuggets by 19 in the third quarter and secured a 122-120 victory — an unlikely outcome on the road against a team expected to emerge as Western Conference champions this season.

But will it work again now that the cat’s out of the bag?

Opponents can ill-afford to take their foot off the gas against this resilient Nets team.

Just like the Nets can’t afford to believe the same game plan that allowed the Nuggets to build a 22-point lead in the first place will win against a motivated Denver team this time around, albeit in the second game of a road back-to-back after their six-point loss to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

“We always talk about you have to have a formula or strategy going into the game,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said after practice at the HSS Training Facility in Industry City on Saturday. “I told the guys yesterday: Some dudes they get up to the plate and you don’t pitch to them, so we’ve gotta have a strategy of who we’re gonna pitch to, and that game, we said we were gonna let Jokic do what he was doing and see if we can have a compromise with the other guy, so we’ll see if that formula is the same for us.

“[Denver is a] smart team. They’ll make some adjustments. What I did like is we played with a lot of energy, we were scrambling around, very scrappy, all the above, played small. So those things we’ll probably see again.”

Jokic, however, is cut from the same cloth of Nets kryptonite as Domantas Sabonis, the All-Star forward who put up 24 points and 21 rebounds in Brooklyn’s home loss to the Sacramento Kings on Thursday. The Nets have traditionally struggled against dominant big men who use sheer force and brute strength to muscle their way to the rim for rebounds and baskets.

It’s an area the team has tried to address twice with backup center Day’Ron Sharpe on the outside of the rotation. The Nets weren’t sold on Nerlens Noel after his 10-day contract expired and pivoted to the 7-foot-2 center Moses Brown, who just completed a 10-day deal with the Knicks and practiced with the Nets on Saturday.

Brown, for reference, towers over Sharpe, who is listed a 6-foot-11. Vaughn was noncommittal about using Brown as quickly as he used Noel, who played immediately after signing his 10-day deal.

“I’m gonna see how the games present themselves. We do want to see him get some quality minutes at some point. I did that pretty early with Nerlens to get us some answers quickly. But he’ll find a way to get some minutes for sure,” Vaughn said of Brown. “He’s just big. He’s just a big body at the rim for us, but an agile guy. Like he can run the floor. Young, 23 years old, has the ability to get up and down. But at the end of the day, he’s a big dude.”

It’s unfair, of course, to expect Brown — who went undrafted in 2019 and has played minutes for five different NBA teams — to make much of an impact checking Jokic, who has won MVP each of the past two years.

It’s also unfair to expect the Nets to have as much success against the Nuggets as they did in their last outing.

Denver is home to the best record in the Western Conference. They have the second-best offensive rating in all of basketball behind only the same Kings team that won at Barclays Center on Thursday, rank second in assist percentage, first in assist-to-turnover ratio and fourth in rebound percentage. They shoot the second-best three-point percentage in all of basketball and, of course, are led by the presumptive MVP in Jokic, who is on pace to join Wilt Chamberlain as the only player ever to win three MVPs in a row.

And they led by 22 before admitting they took their foot off the gas and let the Nets come back to win in Denver.

More importantly, Sunday’s matinee game is the second game in a six-game stretch that could define Brooklyn’s season.

The Knicks’ victory over the Nuggets on Saturday moved them two games ahead of the Nets for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. The seventh-seeded Miami Heat entered the weekend 1.5 games behind the Nets before facing another playoff hopeful, the Chicago Bulls, on Saturday.

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The Nets are sandwiched in between the two, clinging onto the solace that comes with the sixth seed by a thread. If they fall to seventh place, they will have to compete in the Play-In Tournament, which means a sudden-death showdown between playoff hopefuls where the winners advance to the seventh and eighth seeds in the playoffs and the losers go home.

The Nets dropped the first game in their stretch to the No. 2 Kings on Thursday. It’s Jokic’s Nuggets on Sunday, two straight games against Donovan Mitchell’s Cleveland Cavaliers after that, then a road back-to-back first in Miami against the Heat, then in Orlando against the long, athletic Magic the following night.

“We all know math and we see the seeding,” Spencer Dinwiddie said after Saturday’s practice. “Everyone knows that.”

Vaughn, however, joked that the first thing he told himself when woke up Saturday morning was that he wasn’t going to look any further ahead than Sunday’s matchup against the Nuggets. He doesn’t want his team to look too far down the line because there are too many variables that could be in play between now and the season finale against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 9.

“I really want them to focus on our next game, which is Denver, and let that be everything that consumes them. Because it’s enough already,” he said. “That team is good enough that we’ll have enough problems to deal with, so we don’t want to exacerbate it by putting more pressure, anything more on top of it besides the game.”

This, of course, is the time of the season where every game comes with added pressure. In Brooklyn, each loss will send the Nets closer and closer to sudden-death Play-In Tournament territory.

That’s the last place a team without superstars like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving wants to be, especially for a team like the Nets, still working out the kinks in their late-game offense.

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