The Blazers play their third consecutive Northwest Division opponent tonight in Denver when they take on the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center.
Denver GM Tim Connelly shipped out point guard Andre Miller and wing Jordan Hamilton last week in separate trades that brought back guard Aaron Brooks and power forward Jan Vesely. Both newly acquired players had their first practice with the team yesterday, but recently injured guard Ty Lawson and forward Darrell Arthur did not see the court and likely will be out for tonight's game, along with guard Nate Robinson and big men JaVale McGee and Danilo Gallinari.
The Nuggets have lost seven of their last eight games, most of them in blowout fashion. The players have seemed to play lackadaisically lately, prompting frustration from not only the fans but also from coach Brian Shaw, who will move starting center J.J. Hickson to the bench in favor of Timofey Mozgov for tonight's match-up.
Since Lawson has been sidelined with a rib injury the last six games, the bulk of Denver's offense has been spread pretty evenly among several players -- in that span, guards Aaron Brooks, Randy Foye, wings Wilson Chandler, Evan Fournier and bigs Hickson, Mozgoz and Kenneth Faried have all averaged between 9.2 and 13.4 shots per game.
Foye has done the most damage since injuries struck the Nuggets, throwing up almost seven three-pointers a night and converting over 41 percent of them. A third of his outside shots come off the dribble, but he creates all his own offense otherwise as a decent occasional mid-range shooter and mediocre finisher at the rim. Foye is also accountable for 5.5 assists a night but turns the ball over often, averaging almost 4 turnovers a game since Lawson's sat out.
In the two games since coming to Denver via trade, Brooks has reassumed more of the attacking role he played earlier in his career, scoring 17 points on 7-11 shooting Friday against the Bulls and nine points in a 3-12 performance against the Kings the following night. Brooks made his first start for the Nuggets Saturday and looks to be the starting point guard tonight against Portland. He's an adept three-point shooter who also attacks the basket, though he sees much less success in the paint and hits from outside at over a 40 percent clip.
Chandler and Fournier both create about a third of their own offense, attacking somewhat aggressively from the wing. Chandler is usually more reliable at finishing inside but he's had some shooting woes recently, averaging about 37 percent from the field. His three-pointer has bolstered his scoring output, though, as he's connected on over 38 percent of the 5.7 outside shots he's taken the last six games. Fournier went for 27 points on Saturday night, shooting 8-for-11 and 4-for-5 from deep. His outside shot is hot right now, as he's connected on almost 43 percent of his threes in the last six contests.
Faried and Mozgoz both operate almost entirely in the key. About half of Faried's shots come from his own efforts under the basket, but Mozgov prefers to be set up by teammates, being assisted on 70 percent of his shots. Faried has hit half his shots the last six games but Mozgov has struggled a bit from the field in that time, making only 36.7 percent of his attempts.
Hickson has had a rough stretch of games and might play decreased minutes tonight, especially if Mozgov responds well to his new starting position. Hickson's made 44.4 percent of his field-goals lately, but he struggled mightily two nights ago against the Kings and played a passive game overall, only attempting two shots.
Vesely and small forwards Quincy Miller and Anthony Randolph round out the rest of the 10-man rotation Shaw's stuck with since losing several players to injury and integrating the newly traded-for Brooks and Vesely into the lineup. Randolph and Miller have been terrible from the field their last six games, both hitting under 28 percent of their field-goals and sitting around 14 percent from beyond the arc. Vesely has gone 5-12 from the field in his two games since joining the Nuggets, but was hitting over 52 percent of his attempts on the year, so he could start showing improvement as he gets more acclimated to the team.
Denver's defense this month has been horrible, as they've given up 112.2 points per night while allowing 48.1 percent shooting from the field and sending opponents to the line over 27 times a game. They've managed to be decent at defending the arc, giving up 37.7 percent from outside and they've forced over 14 turnovers a game, so the Nuggets have been decent at times, but they still allow a lot of ball movement and are not particularly difficult to score against from anywhere on the court.
Since Portland's played without big men LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard the last three games, All-Star point guard Damian has stepped his game up in big ways. He's averaged 30.3 points, 22 shots, 53 percent shooting from the field, 50 percent from outside on 5.3 three-pointers, 6 assists and only 1.7 turnovers a night in that span. Brooks is the only healthy point guard available for Shaw tonight, and he's not exactly known for his defensive prowess, either. Expect big things for Lillard, as he's been unassisted on a staggering 85.7 percent of his offense since Aldridge has been out.
Guard Wesley Matthews has increased his participation in the offense the last three games, too, scoring almost 20 a game on 38.8 percent field-goal shooting and hitting about 43 percent of his threes. Guard Mo Williams has been an occasional offensive spark but has struggled from deep, and forward Nicolas Batum had struggled before the win over the Timberwolves Saturday night when he went 9-15 from the field and 3-6 from deep for 22 points.
Aside from forward Dorell Wright and center Robin Lopez, the rest of Portland coach Terry Stotts' rotation -- forwards Thomas Robinson, Will Barton, Victor Claver and guard C.J. McCollum -- has been inconsistent. Lopez and Wright are both good for half their shots, with Robinson and Barton hitting in the mid-40s while Claver and McCollum have converted on less than a third of their shots. Even as a reliable shooter playing out of position at power forward, Wright saw his playing time shrink Saturday night as Robinson played out of his mind in one of the best games of his career and proved to be a more effective option. If Robinson can string together another solid game tonight -- Denver doesn't sport the most intimidating frontcourt in the league at the moment -- Wright may continue seeing less time.
Though they've played shorthanded San Antonio, Utah and Minnesota the last three games, Portland has managed to step up its overall defense, limiting teams to 100.7 points a night and allowing 44.3 percent from the field. In that span, the Blazers have forced 14 turnovers a game, have largely prevented easy ball movement and have put teams at the foul line far less often than they had been earlier in the month. Still, the perimeter defense has suffered and Denver has at least four shooters in the main rotation who have shot very well from outside, so the Nuggets could give Portland a hard time if the Blazers don't defend the three-point line well.
Hickson, Faried, Mozgov and Vesely are all good individual rebounders, but their team has been average on the boards lately. For the Blazers, Robinson and Lopez have gone bananas on the glass with Aldridge out, and the rest of the lineup has stepped up while Portland has out-rebounded both the Jazz and Spurs while sticking with the Timberwolves on the glass, losing the rebounding battle 46-48. Lopez faces off against a solid Mozgov tonight and Robinson will have his hustle tested against two scrappy rebounders in Hickson and Faried, so the Blazers will likely have to see inspired performances on the boards tonight from secondary rebounders like Batum and Matthews if they want to continue their recent streak of effective rebounding.
Both teams tonight will be missing several rotation players, though Lillard's leadership and the inspired play of Matthews, Lopez and Robinson -- among others -- has galvanized Portland, leading the team to a 2-1 record in Aldridge's absence while the Nuggets have only defeated the 11-45 Bucks in the last three weeks while dropping seven other games by an average of 22.4 points a night. If the Blazers can come out focused and play as well as they have late in recent wins over the Jazz and Timberwolves, they should be able to bury a depleted Denver lineup that's still trying to integrate Brooks and Vesely. Even so, the Nuggets have a few players who can do some individual damage and could keep this game close, especially if Lillard struggles.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter