The All-Star Game is over and the NBA’s stretch run begins Thursday, and for the Denver Nuggets, that means securing the top seed in the Western Conference for the first time in franchise history.

Denver leads the West by five games — by four in the loss column — with 23 games remaining. The first of those 23 is against the host Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night.

Cleveland had won seven in a row before ending the first half of the season with a six-point loss at Philadelphia on Feb. 15. All-Star starter Donovan Mitchell, the team’s leading scorer at 27.3 points per game, has been hot lately, averaging 33.3 over the last four games.

Mitchell didn’t play in the only other meeting between the teams, the Nuggets’ 121-108 win in Denver on Jan. 6, but he is good to go for the rematch against a club he saw often as a member of the Utah Jazz.

Mitchell, in his first season with Cleveland after five years with the Jazz, has the Cavaliers sitting fourth in the Eastern Conference and chasing the Milwaukee Bucks in the Central Division.

Cleveland has not reached the playoffs without LeBron James on the roster since 1997-98 but Mitchell has them on the verge of having homecourt advantage for the first round. Many weren’t sure the Cavaliers could make the playoffs, and now reaching the second round is a realistic goal. They have the second-best home winning percentage (.806) in the Eastern Conference.

“We have a group of guys that they put the time and the work in throughout the regular season,” Mitchell said during All-Star Weekend. “That will point to success in the playoffs. … For us, it’s not putting too much pressure on that moment. And I think we have a lot of guys that are really good at that.”

The Nuggets have a realistic chance of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in team history, while Nikola Jokic is in the running for his third straight MVP award. Jokic is averaging a triple-double (24.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists), and if his pace holds up, he would be the third player in league history to accomplish the feat.

He would also be the first player since Larry Bird (1984-86) to win three consecutive MVPs.

Jokic is more focused on winning, and after two short playoff runs due in part to Jamal Murray’s absence, Denver is poised for a deep run. Murray is expected to return from a six-game absence due to right knee inflammation, but Aaron Gordon (left rib contusion) is expected to be out for the fourth straight game.

The Nuggets have their doubters, but they are confident in their system, especially with the offseason additions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown as well as the signing of Reggie Jackson last week to serve as Murray’s backup.

“We believe in the basketball system that we have built over the years, so it works,” Jokic said during the All-Star Weekend. “It’s still working. Nothing can affect us from outside. We are thinking about ourselves and just how to get better.”

–Field Level Media