Game 24 Preview: Denver Nuggets vs. Portland Trail Blazers

Game Time: 7:00 p.m. TV: KGW

Update: Denver Nuggets C Timofey Mozgov will not travel with the team to Portland for Saturday night's game, according to Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post. He suffered a fairly brutal ankle sprain (video here) during a Friday night game against the Los Angeles Lakers. -- Ben

Original Post: Several times this season we've talked about games that are "tests", barometers of how the Trail Blazers are doing and what kind of challenges they're ready to overcome. Portland has passed some, failed others, come out about in between. Let's hope they learned something because school is out. The next two games aren't tests. This is real life. Denver and Oklahoma City come into town in succession. Thought nothing permanent is decided with the season 1/3 of the way through these games will not only impact standings and tiebreakers, they're a must if the Blazers want to make any kind of statement that they're ready to challenge for the top two spots in the division. And of the two, tonight's game is the more critical. Barring a serious injury it's unlikely Oklahoma City will be caught. But the Nuggets are a reachable target for the Blazers. Unless they want Denver strutting around for the rest of the season like the Kings of the Walk the Blazers need to send a message tonight. Losing on the road to a team like the Nuggets isn't the end of the world. Drop a game like this at home and you might as well step aside and escort them to their seats in the row ahead of you. Get them some Perrier and canapes while you're at it.

A win won't be easy either. Chronically underrated by most before the season started, Denver has leaped out to a 15-8 record, 8-4 on the road. Only losing 3 of their last 4 to the Clippers, Grizzlies, and Lakers has dimmed their early season success. Those three teams are all good, not great...or at least not consistently. Portland could be in that category as well but they need the "W" to show it.

The last time these two teams met was the third game of Portland's season. The Blazers overcame 25 turnovers and 13 points apiece from LaMarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace through tough interior defense and some amazing shooting by Wesley Matthews, Raymond Felton, AND Jamal Crawford. Sadly that was the ONLY time those last ten words have been uttered this season. It's pretty clear the Blazers will need an alternative way of winning tonight.

Since we've seen them last the Nuggets have proceeded to blow away the league in any number of offensive categories. They create more possessions than any other team in the league, so factor that into these stats. But they lead the league in fast break points per game, points in the paint per game, free throw attempts per game, points per game, offensive efficiency, and are second by a smidge to Miami in shooting percentage. They're just average when shooting the three-pointer. That's the only stat directly related to scoring in which they're less than superb. They commit plenty of turnovers, befitting their style of play. They're also poor offensive rebounders but then who needs offensive rebounds when...

A. Most of your shots go in, and...

B. Even if you miss you'll just get another one in a second.

On the other end of the court they rebound well, force turnovers, and do a really good job getting back on the break considering how many fast points they score. Their Achilles Heel is points in the paint, where they are liberal. They don't block shots and their big guys are either a little old or a little slow. They allow good percentages to their opponents from the field and the arc but they don't foul much.

The Nuggets sport three truly dangerous (as opposed to consistent) players in their starting lineup: point guard Ty Lawson, small forward Danilo Gallinari, and power forward Nene. The Brazilian is the most developed of the bunch. He shoots 52% and every once in a while pops off for the double-digit point or rebound game. If you don't push him around he'll push you. Then you're in for a long night. Lawson has quietly turned into a fine point guard. He's as deadly on the break as always and he still sports a fine, though not quite spectacular, shooting percentage at 47%. He's not a great three-point guy but his passing is good and his defense has improved. Gallinari's three-point shot has suffered as he's shot more of them but his overall percentage is still fine and he's got ten 20+ point efforts under his belt this season.

Around these three pillars the Nuggets sport a variety of veterans with specialties. Starting shooting guard Arron Afflalo can shoot the three. Power forward Al Harrington is shooting incredibly well and logging his best season in years. Point guard Andre Miller provides stability and wisdom off the bench Oh...and more assists per game than Lawson. Guard Rudy Fernandez is producing at roughly the same rate he did in Portland, he's just more efficient. His field goal percentage with the Nuggets is approaching 47% instead of the 37% he left the Blazers with. Centers Timofey Mozgov (one of the few true youngsters in the rotation) and Chris Andersen can rebound and make the most of their offensive opportunities. Corey Brewer is a defender with a three-point shot. All of these guys are playing decent minutes and all of them seem to have found a near-optimal performance point.

Besides the usual energy, the critical requirement of getting back on defense (a weak spot in Portland's armor), and the obvious hope of taking advantage of Denver turnovers to run, the Blazers will probably need a concerted, sustained inside attack to keep up in this game. They have to hit Denver in their soft spot. Both Mozgov and Lawson are dealing with ankle injuries. Guys like Felton, LaMarcus Aldridge, even Gerald Wallace need to get inside with regularity and make the Nuggets pay. If the Blazers shoot jumpers they better hit jumpers. That said, they will need to hit a few to keep Denver from simply planting 5 of 10 defending feet in the key and waiting for Portland to enter.

Look three places for your barometers tonight: fast break points, points in the paint, and free throws. Unless we get another weird game between these two teams, the Blazers will need to keep even in 2 of the 3 at minimum to have a chance. Portland can keep pace with the Denver attack if they're getting enough easy points. I don't see any way the Blazers jump shoot or one-on-one their way to victory tonight though. There just aren't enough points on the floor to overcome Denver's team offense that way.

Also look for the physical battle at both forward spots. The power forward battle could be interesting, as either team might well use their center to guard the opposing four. Camby and Aldridge will need to match Nene's physicality since you know that Nene, Andersen, and Mozgov are going to try and bump Aldridge into his discomfort zone. Gallinari will do no such thing with Gerald Wallace but Wallace will need to press his physical advantage, turning Danilo black and blue and making him prefer getting off the floor to putting the ball on it. If the Blazers fail to respond to either physical challenge they're going to lose their edge.

Read the Denver assessment at Denver Stiffs.

Tonight's Jersey Contest form.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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