The 20-20 Nuggets are a bit of a difficult read this season. David Walker of Roundball Mining Co. summed up the Nuggets' up-and-down first-half of the season rather succinctly in a recent article: "After a rocky start, [Denver] ripped off 11 wins in 13 games, right before succumbing to a horrific eight-game losing streak, which bloomed into a four-game winning streak that has now become a rough two-game slide."
The Nuggets may be toiling in "NBA purgatory" right now with a .500 record, just outside of the playoffs but with no realistic chance of landing a top pick in this Spring's NBA draft at this pace, either. That doesn't mean they're not producing, however; Through 10 games in January, Denver is the only team in the league topping Portland's 112.8 points per game, registering 113.8 points of their own.
The two most active players on offense right now for the Nuggets are point guard Ty Lawson and forward Wilson Chandler, who's stepped up big lately in the absence of forwards Danilo Gallinari, Darrell Arthur and guard Randy Foye due to various ailments.
Unfortunately for the Denver faithful -- even though Lawson and Chandler are both launching about 15 shots a night -- neither player is shooting the ball particularly efficiently at the moment. Lawson clocks in with an effective field-goal percentage of 44.5 over his last five games and Chandler is sitting at 49.2 percent over the same span. Lawson buoys his scoring output by getting to the line, which he's done 8.4 times per contest recently. Chandler draws a decent amount of shooting fouls, but the majority of his scoring right now is due to a high-volume of shots, as he's attempting about 15 per game, with a whopping nine of them coming from behind the arc at a 36.1 percent clip.
Lawson is also distributing the ball as well as anyone in the league right now, registering 11 assists a game. The benefactors of Lawson's impressive passing lately are plenty, the most efficient of the group being none other than big man J.J. Hickson, who -- for better or for worse -- certainly left an impression on most Blazers fans in his 99-game stint in Portland over the last couple seasons. Hickson is hitting over 55 percent of his shots, the majority of them coming in the painted area.
Forward Anthony Randolph, who's played limited time this season because of injuries, was aggressively looking for his shot in his first game back Sunday against the Suns after missing four straight. Randolph went 6-9 from the field and 2-4 from downtown, scoring 19 points in the loss. Foye, who takes over half of his shots from outside, is canning 44.4 percent of his three-pointers, almost half his overall shots and is contributing almost 17 points a night.
Guards Nate Robinson and Evan Fournier, along with bigs Kenneth Faried and Timofey Mozgov, are all hitting between 52.2 and 54.8 percent of their field-goals recently, all attempting between 6 and 9 shots per contest in Denver's high-octane offense. Fournier hits half his three-pointers and Robinson is good for over 42 percent of his own. Faried and Mozgov, predictably, stay pretty close to the hoop.
As you may have expected from a frontcourt rotation featuring Hickson, Faried and Mozgov, the Nuggets are a pretty solid offensive rebounding team. Hickson is feasting right now on the glass, pulling in over 13 rebounds a night. Mozgov, Faried and backup forward Quincy Miller are all strong individual rebounders.
There's going to be one player on the court tonight who is currently pulling down a higher percentage of available rebounds than Hickson, and that's Portland power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. He's grabbing a quarter of all available rebounds over his last five nights for an average of 15.8 a game. The Blazers' frontcourt offensive rebounding production has waned a bit outside of Aldridge lately, though coach Terry Stotts' frontcourt rotation of Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, Joel Freeland and Thomas Robinson have all contributed to the NBA's best rebounding team in January; Denver is just two spots behind Portland for the same distinction.
The Blazers are also one of the best passing teams in the league right now, with guards Damian Lillard and Mo Williams leading the charge with 6.4 and 5 assists a game, respectively. Batum's cooled off a bit as a distributor, but Portland's excellent ball-movement persists.
Aldridge continues his quest to distinguish himself as the game's best power forward, dropping in about 29 points a game the last several weeks. His efficiency is pretty average right now, but Aldridge has the ability to stretch opposing defenses out with his excellent jump-shot. Denver's frontcourt will be faced with slowing down the NBA's fourth-highest scoring player this month, a monumental task considering the defensive deficiencies of Hickson and Faried. Expect another huge game from Aldridge if he keeps up current trends, especially against a team that doesn't exactly hang its hat on defense. Portland has improved its scoring down low, too, so the soft interior of Denver's defense will have its hands full tonight.
Of the main rotation players for Stotts, center Robin Lopez is shooting the ball best, a trend that's continued for the majority of the season. Guard Wesley Matthews is also rounding back into form, hitting almost half his shots and 44.7 percent of his three-point tries lately. Though his rebounds and assists have tapered off a bit the last several games, Batum has found a way to hit 40 percent of his threes en route to a true-shooting percentage of 63.2 percent.
Though Lillard hasn't lost his aggressiveness, his outside shot is faltering a bit right now. He's not slumping yet, but it's worth noting that he's been shooting about 10 percentage points lower than his season average from behind the arc. Williams has basically replicated Lillard's percentages, hitting a bit lower than his usual averages, also. Rookie guard C.J. McCollum has been able to come off the bench for more than 13 minutes a game, displaying a scorer's mentality and establishing himself as a decent threat off the dribble and a reliable three-point shooter.
Neither the Nuggets nor the Blazers are playing impressive defense right now, both giving up over 106 points a night. Denver has been locking down the three-point line well, but Portland has actually struggled to keep opposing teams from finding success from outside. The Blazers will need to keep an eye on the perimeter tonight, because the Nuggets have six solid threats from behind the arc, and none of them is shy at pulling the trigger. Both teams are also pretty bad at defending the paint and will send the opposition to the line often.
The general outlook for this game seems to call for a whole lot of offense -- particularly in the form of long jumpers -- and not a whole lot of effective defense, if current trends hold. Denver has been resting since Sunday night, while Portland just got home from a four-game road trip that was packed into five nights. If the Blazers can summon the energy -- their scoring output has been impressive all season, regardless of days off, or lack thereof -- expect to see a ton of offensive fireworks tonight as two of the NBA's top-scoring teams try to outgun each other.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter