Game Time: 7:30 p.m. Pacific TV: TNT
Before we begin anything, my prayers and well-wishes go out to Nuggets coach George Karl as he battles with cancer. George was one of the more gracious guys to interview with me during my earliest years of attending Summer League. I've not forgotten his directness and enthusiasm and I certainly hope all goes well for him.
There was a time this year when in Dave's Book of How Things Will Probably Go the Denver Nuggets were penciled in as the Western Conference representatives in the NBA Finals. They were strong enough, deep enough, talented enough, and motivated enough to knock off anybody who came their way. Then they ran into late-season misfortune. Coach Karl's cancer, Kenyon Martin's injury, now 5 losses in their last 6 games. And they needed a Carmelo Anthony buzzer-beater against the Toronto Raptors (not exactly streaking hot themselves) to get that lone win.
What's their problem? First, that frontcourt isn't what it used to be. Denver's big-man calling card was that you had to cope with both Nene and K-Mart. Either one of them alone is bothersome but both together with their size, speed, and toughness, can be overwhelming. Now teams are able to key on Nene or Chris Anderson without worrying about Johan Petro or anybody else the Nuggets are throwing in at power forward. Nene's 20 and 9 versus the Raptors was enough, but the 12 and 7 he's putting up most other nights isn't. Second, ‘Melo and Chauncey Billups have still been putting up numbers but they've been requiring an enormous amount of shots to generate them. With the only real scoring threats living on the wings and not as much bruising power inside opponents are getting hands farther up into faces, committing extra men--if not with impunity, at least with less punity--to harass Denver's big weapons. Third, Denver's defense has gone south. They've held 1 team in the last 6 under 100. Guess which one? If you said "Toronto" give yourself a prize. Otherwise we're ranging from Milwaukee's 102 (they average under 98) to Boston's 113. With the Nuggets regularly running at 97 ppg that's way too much to give away. Finally, the rhythm hasn't been there. Carmelo can always get his own but the Nuggets became great at the precise moment they got beyond that and started looking like a team. Lately they've reverted to the days of intermittent fireworks rather than a well-oiled machine. At times you couldn't tell whether ‘Melo and Chauncey were playing with or in spite of their teammates. Just like that the strong, deep, talented, and motivated team looks a little less strong, a lot less deep, just as talented, but not anywhere near as together as they once were. In the ultra-tight West that's a problem.
But make no mistake, this team can still clean Portland's collective clock. They know what time it is. They know how important seeding and homecourt are going to be in the post-season. They see the edge of the cliff they're teetering on. And Portland hasn't had much success against talented, tough, knowledgeable teams in critical situations, especially on the road. Denver wiped the floor with us last year when the division race was close. Phoenix shut the door on us earlier this year. Denver is weakened, but it'd be hard to imagine them being anything other than badgers trapped in their den tonight. The Blazers still don't have a great answer for ‘Melo. Chauncey Billups could still drop 25 and 10 on us. The Birdman has shut down our inside game on multiple occasions, all but killing the offense and the confidence.
The two big advantages that the Blazers might have tonight which they haven't before are LaMarcus being freer to run and score plus LMA and Camby having the speed to stick with Nene where the bigger centers didn't. In an abrupt plot twist Portland may have the edge in the frontcourt tonight. Those frontcourt battles have been key in recent history between these two teams.
As mentioned in last night's recap, the whuppin' Portland put on the Knicks set them up perfectly in every way for this game. There will be no excuses, nothing inhibiting this team's performance besides the obvious season-long trials beyond their control. Portland has had a couple tests of their mettle of this magnitude this year and come out on the short end each time. Hopefully this one will be different. It should show what the 2009-10 Trail Blazers are all about.
Check out the preparations at DenverStiffs.
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