Game Time: 7:00 p.m. TV: KGW
As any good Trail Blazer fan knows, the Blazers are riding high on a two-game win streak, having started their season with back-to-back spirited victories versus the 76ers and Kings, the latter in blowout fashion. Portland's energy and hustle, combined with a couple of heroic efforts by forwards, have carried the day. Denver has also started the season strong. This will be a different kind of test for the Blazers, hardly insurmountable but requiring a new level of cunning and resolve.
The Sixers field a mish-mash of mismatched veterans and kids. The Kings are all young, not even developed enough to know if they fit together yet. The Nuggets are a team: deep, interlocking, and if not experienced together at least smart enough about the game and the league to make it work. They've got big players running down to the bedrock level. Their wing depth isn't as impressive but they field players you've heard of and (mostly) respect. The Blazers talk about playing 9 or 10 players but those last couple are a wink and a prayer. You hope they don't lose too much ground until the real guys can get back. The Nuggets can run 9 guys out there without shame, 10 in a pinch, and not sweat.
That frontcourt that just doesn't quit includes Nene Hilario, long-time Nuggets center now moved to power forward, alongside former New York fan favorite Timothy Mozgov. Nene intimidates you more, obviously, but if they get tired of Mozgov they can always trot out Chris Andersen or move Nene back to the 5 alongside veteran Al Harrington. They're not going to run out of big men who can play.
If Denver has a thin spot it's at small forward where former New York even-more-fan-favorite Danilo Gallinari takes his bows. Gallinari isn't consistent. He'll disappear on you. But when he uncorks he looks like an All-Star with his shooting and all-around stat-stuffing. Behind him come a couple of transplanted shooting guards. Corey Brewer defends while former-Blazer Fernandez plays mini-Gallinari, shooting and scrambling. Both Brewer and Fernandez are capable of manning their natural position, of course, making Denver's backcourt even deeper than the frontcourt. Ty Lawson starts at point backed by another former Blazer, Andre Miller. Denver isn't afraid to play Miller and Lawson together either, providing a heady--if short--guard lineup. Arron Afflalo defends well as the starting shooting guard.
These players don't have the name cachet of Dallas or L.A. and frankly they won't be as good as either. They do provide 48 minutes of capable basketball with enough firepower at targeted positions to given them a chance of winning any night, anywhere.
The problem the Blazers will face against the Nuggets is not so much talent-versus-talent matchups. Portland won't be ashamed to throw Aldridge and Wallace, Felton and Matthews, Crawford and Camby out there. On paper most of Portland's names are better, actually. But Portland's lineup isn't seamless. Reserve center and point guard have been huge concerns. In fact any concentrated bench presence for Portland has been a problem so far this season. That Nuggets lineup is like the ocean. It won't knock you down with one wave necessarily, but over the course of time it's going to seep through any holes in your boat and sink it. That's a glaring concern for the Blazers.
The Nuggets can defend as well as the Blazers. The Nuggets can rebound better than the Blazers. They force turnovers just like the Blazers do. Their guards get back in transition too. The Nuggets don't have an "easy" version of their lineup on which the Blazers can feast and make a run. Nene has bullied Portland before. Ty Lawson is quick enough to give any Portland guard fits. Every guard and small forward they play outside of Miller is good at hitting the deep ball and can't be left uncovered. Size...talent...skill...all there.
It'll be a different world tonight. The Blazers have the obvious advantage of being at home and they still field that amazing forward duo. Aldridge and Wallace should be able to bully guys like Harrington and Gallinari, let alone any smaller players Denver tries to field in the frontcourt. Look for the Blazers to exploit individual post-up matchups more than they have in the two games prior, and that's up and down the lineup. And speaking of...Portland will need more from its guards and wings--Felton, Crawford, Matthews, Batum--in order to survive. All four players have been inconsistent. Inconsistency will kill against this kind of team. Portland needs to weather its non-Camby moments better as well. Chris Johnson needs to have a Chris Andersen-like effect on the game. The deep bench doesn't have to play brilliantly, they just have to not get the Blazers killed.
We've seen the teams the Blazers are supposed to beat. The bar gets higher tonight. This is exactly the kind of game that differentiates a decent season from a good one. How will the Blazers respond?
Check out the opposing preparations at DenverStiffs