The Blazers return to the Moda Center tonight to face the Denver Nuggets on the second night of a back-to-back set of games that started with a loss to the Clippers yesterday.
The Nuggets have come slowly out of the gate this season, bringing a 1-4 record into tonight's matchup with Portland. Serious issues have arisen on both sides of the ball, as Denver is No. 28 in the NBA in three-point shooting (29 percent), No. 28 in overall shooting percentage (41.9 percent) and dead-last in the league in average points scored in the first quarter (20.2).
These offensive woes are compounded by a reeling defense; The Nuggets are No. 28 in points allowed in the paint (46.4 per game), No. 28 in total points allowed (106.4 per game), No. 30 in free throws allowed (36 per game) while allowing opponents to shoot 45.4 percent from the floor (No. 19 in the NBA).
This has led to Denver falling behind early in games, unable to dig themselves out of large deficits.
The Nuggets do a few things well, however: they block a lot of shots, defend the three-point line well and grab a large percentage of available defensive rebounds. For the most part, Denver is a middling team in most other statistical categories.
Who leads Denver in scoring? If you guessed point guard Ty Lawson, forward Kenneth Faried, or guards Arron Afflalo or Nate Robinson, you'd be wrong.
Shooting guard Randy Foye (!) is the Nuggets' leading scorer per game with 12.8 points per contest. Clearly, that's not a winning formula, and the results speak for themselves.
Lawson -- who led Denver in scoring last season with 17.6 points a night -- is playing on a bad ankle that kept him out of Friday's 110-101 loss to the Cavaliers. He's said he'll try to play tonight, though he may not be as effective as expected - Lawson is shooting 38.2 percent from the floor and 14.8 percent from deep in four games this year.
Drives to the rim are typically Lawson's bread-and-butter, but he's being used more in the midrange this year by coach Brian Shaw, which hasn't translated to wins. In two games against the Blazers last season, Lawson wasn't particularly effective, averaging 17 points but shooting just 37 percent from the floor. On a bad ankle, he'll likely continue his struggles shooting the ball. Lawson picked up 8.5 assists per game against Portland last year and averages 7.8 assists per game this season, so if his teammates are making shots, his drives to the rim could be fruitful via kick-outs. The issue there, however, is that Foye is the Nuggets' only bankable outside shooter at 44 percent for the season -- no one else on the team has made more than 28.4 percent of his three-point tries.
Big men Darrell Arthur, Timofey Mozgov and JaVale McGee were the only players to make 50 percent or more of their shots against the Blazers last season, but they average 12.8, 18.1 and 13.2 minutes per game this season, respectively. Denver's most effective scorers against Portland don't play many minutes and don't get up many shots.
Nate Robinson is shooting 48.6 percent from the field this year, but just 28.6 percent from deep. Faried has made 51.4 percent of his shots at the rim, but only gets up 9.2 shots per game. In 32 minutes a night, Afflalo has averaged 9.4 points on 33.3 percent field goal shooting, though he's made only 26.3 percent of his three-point tries.
Will Denver's woes continue all season? Not likely -- the Nuggets had nine players shoot 34.8 percent or better from outside last year. Still, they are clearly in an early-season funk, and the Blazers -- No. 1 in the NBA in opponents effective field goal percentage (43.1 percent), No. 6 at defending the three-point line (29.2 percent) and No. 2 in overall opponent shooting percentage (40 percent) -- should be able to keep a lid on Denver defensively.
Portland's best scorer this season is power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, with 26.5 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field. In three games against the Nuggets last season, Aldridge averaged 28.3 points, so expect him to have a big game tonight.
Blazers point guard Damian Lillard is struggling this year to finish at the rim, making just 38.5 percent of his field goals through six games. He has made 35.8 percent of his threes, though, and gets to the line almost six times per game, so Lillard's scoring output has been slightly buoyed by his ability to shoot from deep and get points at the free throw line, where he's made 94.1 percent of his attempts this year.
Shooting guard Wesley Matthews has been Portland's second-best scorer this season, putting in 20.8 points a night, making 54.8 percent of his field goals and 40 percent of his threes. He's roughly the same height as Afflalo and Foye -- who will likely get the defensive assignment on Matthews -- but he has a weight advantage over both, so again, he should be able to get some points off post-ups tonight, which has become a trademark for the sixth-year shooting guard out of Marquette University.
Center Robin Lopez has emerged as a legitimate option on offense this season, averaging 14.7 points per game while shooting 52.2 percent from the field, with a nice touch on his midrange jumpers. If the Nuggets leave him open, he should be able to make them pay. His backup, big man Chris Kaman, continues to produce off the bench, making 62 percent of his field goals for 10.5 points per game.
Small forward Nicolas Batum has been inconsistent from the field, attempting 10.2 shots per game but averaging just 11.5 points. On the bright side, however, Batum has proven himself to be one of the most well-rounded small forwards in the NBA, getting 7.2 assists and 8.3 rebounds per game while typically drawing the assignment of guarding the opposing teams' most potent wing scorers. If Lillard struggles to stop Lawson or Robinson from getting into the paint tonight, Batum or Matthews might switch onto them.
Off the bench, point guard Steve Blake and wing CJ McCollum have struggled to make baskets, while guard Will Barton has been ineffective in limited minutes. Forward Thomas Robinson has made half his shots, but plays 9.6 minutes a game and is used more circumstantially, particularly when coach Terry Stotts needs to insert some energy into the game. Kaman has really anchored Portland's bench unit, which is again one of the least productive in the league.
The Nuggets don't rebound well under their own hoop, but they do grab plenty of defensive rebounds when they force teams to miss. Mozgov, Faried and rookie center Jusuf Nurkic are all solid individual rebounders, and power forward J.J. Hickson makes his return to the lineup tonight after serving a five-game suspension for violating terms of the NBA's drug policy, so Denver should put up a solid fight on the glass. On the other hand, the Blazers are one of the best rebounding teams in the league, led by Lopez, Batum, Aldridge and Kaman. Lillard and Matthews are also some of the better backcourt rebounders in the NBA. Don't be surprised to see Portland out-rebound the Nuggets tonight, as their team-effort on the glass so far this season has often carried them.
On paper, tonight's matchup looks like a winnable game, as Denver has struggled so far this season to get any consistent production on either side of the ball. Still, earlier losses for Portland against the Kings and Clippers looked like good opportunities for wins, too.
If Lawson wakes up from his early-season slump, he could make life much more difficult for the Blazers' defense tonight and get the Nuggets back on the winning track after four straight losses. Denver will also need to see better performances from just about everyone besides Foye, though, and we'll see tonight if the Nuggets are indeed as bad as their 1-4 record would imply.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter