Game Time: 7:30 p.m. Pacific TV: Comcast and ESPN
So here we go. Just when you thought things were rolling right along Portland draws the Denver Nuggets in Pepsi Center. The Nuggets are 41-21 on the season and have won pretty much every game in the last two months in which they've scored more than 90 points. Only San Antonio and Phoenix have beaten them at home during that span.
If you've followed the Blazers at all in the past two seasons you probably don't need a detail description of the Nuggets. They're strong. They're experienced. They're determined. They're legitimately one of the three best teams in the West this year and I'm almost leaning towards them coming out of the West over the L*kers, Mavs, and everyone else. They have almost everything you'd want. Carmelo Anthony is averaging 28.7 ppg on a team that's overjoyed to have him doing so. He's backed up by an athletic, productive trio of big men in Kenyon Martin, Nene Hilario, and reserve Chris Andersen. Together they provide rebounding, interior defense, a little shot-blocking, and on their best night a severe intimidation factor. J.R. Smith is a wildcard firecracker at shooting guard. He can be devastating or impotent but you always worry about him because his athleticism allows him to flip the switch and overwhelm you before you notice he's even ramped up. Chauncey Billups is the mastermind behind it all, the guy who keeps the team from falling apart. Oh, did I mention he's averaging 20 per game as well? The Nuggets even got help from the draft this year with reserve point guard Ty Lawson running, gunning, and learning the ropes from Billups. Stick them all together and you have an offense that marries the often-disparate qualities of high pace and efficiency with devastating results. The defense and rebounding are solid enough that Denver's offensive dominance just isn't threatened most nights.
As one might expect, the Nuggets shoot well from the field, including from the three-point arc. You can't sit on one or two areas nor force them to a consistently weak point, partially because they're diverse enough not to have glaring weaknesses and partially because they're smart enough to share the ball when cornered. They bank on a substantial shooting advantage overall, a more-than-substantial advantage from the arc (at least some of that because their perimeter defenders are good), and an enormous advantage drawing and hitting free throws. You best bet of throwing their offense off is to hope the backcourt, particularly Smith, go into business for themselves and have an off night. Occasionally that will happen to the frontcourt as well. Unfortunately Carmelo's offense wipes away a multitude of sins so it's a thin thread on which to hang.
If the Blazers are going to win tonight they have to press whatever advantage they can get on the boards and try to keep the overall scoring down. Denver just doesn't lose games in the 100's. You have to make this ugly and brutal and then be willing to match them blow for blow. This will be a tall order for our big guys. However these are the nights when your Andre Miller and Marcus Camby types are worth their weight in gold. They may not outshine their counterparts but they're not going to be intimidate by their counterparts either. They've been through the song and dance before. Portland will also need amazing nights from Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. They're going to have to be superstars for Portland to have a chance.
I cannot help but think back to this juncture last season when the Blazers, soaring and contending for a division crown, visited Denver and got their lunches handed to them. The Nuggets have continued their rise this season. The Blazers have fallen apart like a liquidation lawn chair, at least by comparison. Portland is mending but is not mended yet. Maybe that's a good thing, as the Nuggets might not have the same chip on their shoulders and might overlook this game a little more. On the other hand Portland will have to pull an extraordinary game out of their hats to compete. It doesn't look good. The most likely outcome is a blowout, perhaps an early Denver romp followed by the obligatory not-quite-enough comeback that most NBA teams muster. Fortunately a loss wouldn't upset Portland's apple cart too much. Yes it's a division loss but the Blazers aren't going to go undefeated for the rest of the season. On the other hand for those hoping for Portland to rally to a seed well above their position, let alone those hoping for the Blazers to get out of the first round, this is exactly the kind of test they're going to have to face and overcome successfully. If a miracle finish is in the offing, tonight's game would go a long way towards sparking it. You know the Blazers have spent at least some of their time off this last week preparing for this outing. It'll be an interesting test for them.
See what the Nuggets folks think of this game at DenverStiffs.
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