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Game 2 Preview: Nuggets vs. Blazers

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7:30 p.m. Pacific at the Rose Garden   TV:  TNT

A Look at the Nuggets

Division rival Denver cruises into town fresh off of a 114-105 spanking of the Jazz in Pepsi Center.  This is pretty much the Denver team you remember from last year save that springy shooting guard J.R. Smith is serving a seven-game suspension for reckless driving (the vehicle kind, not the down-the-lane kind) over the summer break.  The Nuggs barely missed him though.  Carmelo Anthony led the way with 30 and Chauncey Billups chipped in 25.  Billups was 4 of 7 from the three-point arc.  Anthony also contributed 8 rebounds and 5 assists.  With those two connecting Denver's athletic bigs were free to run and roam.  Kenyon Martin and Nene each had 16 points and combined for 17 rebounds between them.  The real eye-opener was rookie Ty Lawson who at least temporarily shed his steady-competent image by being steady, competent, and pouring out 17 points, 6 assists, and 4 rebounds in 26 minutes.  The guy has brains and is quick.  If he can continue producing like that he's going to be a scary dude.

Playing Denver is like playing dodge ball with meat cleavers.  You're not quite sure where the next attack is coming from but you're pretty sure you don't want to get hit by any one of them because it's going to hurt.  They'll run on you if they can, using their speed and hops.  If you shut that down they'll key off of Carmelo.  Obviously he can score on anyone but Billups joining the team reinvigorated his sense of team play.  With the occasional pass he becomes a nightmare to guard.  Both big men are going to try to go around you and get to the cup.  They're going to succeed.  When they don't get the shot they are accomplished at offensive rebounding.  Billups orchestrates the thundering herd and provides offensive firepower himself.  It's a potent lineup.

Defensively Denver is more thuggish than technical.  Their ability to move works on both ends even though some of their players forget that.  But they're going to body you up, rebound, and try to make you suffer for anything extra you want.  They have always, always, always tried to bully the Blazers, often succeeding.  You cannot be a shrinking violet and prosper against them.  You have to cut hard, drive hard, pass quickly, and keep them guessing.  Their weak point is individual defense.  If you can isolate any given Nugget you have a chance.  They depend on the cumulative effect of their athleticism and attitude to wear you down.

The absence of Smith weakens Denver's depth.  They've got Joey Graham and Aaron Afflalo at shooting guard but they elected to start veteran point guard Anthony Carter against Utah.  He only played 17 minutes while Afflalo saw 23 and the aforementioned Lawson 26.  Their strategy is going to be playing Billups as much as they can and rotating guys in and out to try and keep fresh legs (and perhaps bruises) on Brandon Roy.  They have Renaldo Balkman on the pines but their main bench big man is, of course, the ultra-creepy Birdman, Chris Andersen.  He played 23 minutes last night with 6 rebounds but no blocks.

The Nuggets want to dominate the boards and score a ton on you, keeping you working hard enough (and keeping you distracted enough) that you're not able to muster enough points to finish on top.

Turning Points of the Game

1.  This is going to be a titanic rebounding battle.  The entire Blazer roster needs to be prepared to rip rebounds away from the opponent.  The more possessions you control the more you can measure out Denver's attack.  The more measured Denver is the less chance they have to win.  Ball control and tempo control (not necessarily slower, but in your control and comfort zone as opposed to theirs) is paramount.  That means getting possession of the ball and dictating what happens with it.

2.  Denver's good enough offensively that you're not going to shut them down.  Instead you need to commit to getting back in transition so you do not give up easy buckets in addition to the regular ones they'll score on you.  The Blazers should rue every Denver dunk or layup, as they'll make the difference between facing a challenge and facing an impossible task.  The Blazers have offensive chops but it's going to be difficult for them to summon 110 points or more...or at least they don't want to have to.  This also means that if you make turnovers (and Portland probably will) you have to make the kind that don't lead to fast breaks.  Down low is OK.  Off of the dribble or passes not so much.

3.  You know how we said in general Brandon Roy would be well-served by picking his spots early, getting teammates involved, and then asserting himself later in the game?  Forget that tonight.  No matter who Denver runs up against him he should look to score.  If he puts in 52 again that's just dandy.  Make them pay for not having Smith out there.

4.  By the same token the Blazers have something of an extra defender to spend.  They might consider roaming the passing lanes.  Even though the Nuggets scorers are accomplished, if they're going one-on-one all night they're not generating extra points for the bigs.  You might have to live with Anthony and Billups going for 25 each but if you can shave 6-8 points off of Nene and K-Mart that could be the winning margin.  In general try to prevent passes and cuts down low and perhaps use any defensive slack to bother those bigs.  They're not natural scorers, rather rhythm/athletic guys.  They can be disrupted.

5.  Greg Oden had trouble with these guys several times last year, both from the speed standpoint and intimidation.  I expect both to be gone tonight as he's faster and more assured.  If he can hold down one man, both defensively and keeping him off the boards, the Blazers will be ahead of the game.  The more pivotal matchup could be Aldridge.  LaMarcus may be able to take his man outside on the offensive end but can he man up defensively and grab those rebounds?  Again, you almost have to live with their smaller guys.  You need to cripple the big guys to get your advantage.

6.  That said, what are the Blazers going to do at small forward?  25 from Anthony, OK.  30?  Sort of OK.  40?  That's going to break the defense.  Martell and...?

7.  If they thug it up, you thug back.

Final Thoughts

Despite the potential matchup issues I believe the Blazers present enough problems of their own (depth, matchups on the other end) that this should be a win.  Homecourt has a lot to do with that.  Also the day of rest that Portland has had and Denver hasn't.  Can Billups hold up?  Can Lawson pull another game out of his hat?  Do the Nuggets feel they need to beat Portland as much as the Blazers feel they need to beat Denver?  Given these factors, Portland probably has a better chance of winning tonight than against Houston on the road on Saturday. 

But then again, I forgot the TNT curse.  Never mind.  Toss up.

Check out what the other side thinks at DenverStiffs.com.

Also...once again...for those who didn't hear...the Jersey Contest will start with the NOVEMBER games.  Enjoy these first few contests without the burden of deciding whether to pick for or against the Blazers.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)