Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
The Denver Nuggets have the Trail Blazers out-manned and outgunned as the two teams face off in the Rose Garden tonight. Can the injured Blazers' joie de vivre propel them past a team that, on paper, should obliterate them?
The last couple weeks have been a feel-good era for the Portland Trail Blazers. They've posted a 5-2 record in their last 7 games, won a couple of overtime thrillers, spanked the Spurs, and ridden the tidal wave of Damian Lillard's first game-winning three into happy land.
That may end abruptly tonight.
The Denver Nuggets are only 14-12 (compared to Portland's 11-12) as they enter the Rose Garden for a 7:00 game televised on KGW locally. But the Nuggets have also won 5 of their last 7 and come in with a relatively healthy roster. The Blazers will be without LaMarcus Aldridge due to an ankle sprain, likely without Wesley Matthews because of a bum hip, without a fully-functional Nicolas Batum who has been dealing with back issues, and that means quite possibly without much of a chance.
The Blazers have been fighting gamely in the face of all of these injuries, mind you. But they've not played without Aldridge yet. They're already thin. Missing half of the heaviest-used starting lineup in the league does not inspire confidence.
Even fully healthy the Blazers might have trouble with this Denver lineup. They feature three--count them, three--legitimate centers. Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee have both been playing well this week while Timofey Mozgov watched from the bench. Anybody 7-foot tall and more than 220 pounds gives the Blazers trouble. That's all of them.
Then you can say hello to lickety-quick point guard Ty Lawson and his back-up Andre Miller. Each presents a different problem for Damian Lillard, the equivalent of defending algebra and geometry when he's still learning addition.
You want wings? The Nuggets have Danilo Gallinari, who (despite struggling this season) just dropped 28 on the Spurs and Andre Iguodala who is now going up against a Matthew-less lineup. Then they trot out Corey Brewer who was an afterthought--a defensive specialist--before this season but who is suddenly shooting great from the floor and darn well from the three-point arc too. Wilson Chandler is injured and they barely care at this point.
Then there's Kenneth Faried at power forward, whose direct quote on facing the Blazers without Aldridge is, "OM-NOM-NOM-NOM!"
The Blazers have found success switching out personnel in their recent run of success, particularly going smaller than normal. But, see, the Nuggets can go small or they can go big and they can do both better than you. A straight punch in the kisser can still drop them but the jab-dance routine doesn't have much of a chance. Portland's straight punch just left the building with Aldridge.
The Nuggets win big by scoring big. They generate a ton of possessions and try to score as easily as possible in them...the antithesis of all of these teams the Blazers have faced lately which had no paint or transition attack and thus no easy avenues to the hoop. The Nuggets rank 2nd in the league in fast break points per game, 1st by a mile in points in the paint. They're 5th in free throws attempted, 1st in offensive rebounding percentage. Remember those old late night tire commercials where one dude would stand behind a counter and bark out a sales pitch while his buddy pointed around the room going, "Ho!" as if they had just rung up a sale? Well the barker here is going, "Easy bucket!" and his friend is "Ho-Ho-Ho"-ing like Santa Claus. Obviously their overall shooting percentage is high due to the kind of shots they take. Their three-point percentage is the weakness in their attack but if the Blazers can bait or force the Nuggets into a three-point heavy night, shame on Denver.
The Denver defense is decent overall. They're around the middle of the league in efficiency and allow a low percentage overall from the field. Portland has some holes to worm through, however. The Nuggets have three recurring problems. They allow a huge percentage from the arc, they give up turnovers without forcing them, and their defensive rebounding percentage is lousy. Educated Portland observers will realize that the Blazers have wormed wins away from other teams using all three of those approaches...to the point where they might be considered the Blazers' best hits. If the Blazers can force turnovers, grab offensive rebounds, and pour in a substantial number of threes they might be able to steal this game, broken lineup or no.
But those are big "ifs". The decorative frosting could potentially belong to Portland in this game but the cake still has Denver's name all over it. Pray for energy and youthful ignorance from the Blazers...just going out and playing carefree like they have nothing to lose. A wild game would be in Portland's favor. If it goes by the numbers, this game will be all Denver.
Denver Stiffs will talk about the exploits of the Nuggets.
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