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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets Preview

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The Portland Trail Blazers hope to build on two consecutive wins when they take on the Denver Nuggets tonight at the Moda Center.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (13-20) vs Denver Nuggets (12-17)
Wednesday, December 30
Moda Center | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSN; 620 AM
Portland injury report
:
Damian Lillard (Questionable - Foot), Ed Davis (Probable – Ankle) | Denver injury report: Wilson Chandler (Out - Hip), Danilo Galinari (Doubtful - Ankle), Emmanuel Mudiay (Out – Ankle), Jusuf Nurkic (Out – Knee)
SBN Affiliate:
Denver Stiffs | Blazer's Edge Night 2016

The Portland Trail Blazers hope to build on two consecutive wins when they take on the Denver Nuggets tonight at the Moda Center.

As has been the case recently, they may need to do it without leading scorer Damian Lillard. Lillard, who is questionable with plantar fasciitis, has missed four consecutive games with the nagging injury after having never missed a start in more than three years in the NBA.

Backup big man Ed Davis is probable after spraining his right ankle against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday night, as he was able to go through a light workout on Tuesday.

The Nuggets have injury concerns of their own, with leading scorer Danilo Gallinari having missed the Nugget’s last five games with a sprained ankle. Highly touted rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay has missed the last eight contests with a sprained ankle of his own and is already listed as out for tonight’s game. On top of this, Denver has not had Wilson Chandler and Jusuf Nurkic all year, as both had offseason surgery.

So who is actually getting minutes?

The Nuggets, losers of five out of their last six, are currently fielding a starting lineup that features Jameer Nelson and Gary Harris in the backcourt with Joffrey Lauvergne, Kostas Papanikolaou, and (the much easier to pronounce) Kenneth Faried up front.

Faried, all hustle, is currently shooting 56 percent from the floor and averaging nearly 13 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. One of the best offensive rebounders in the league, Faried is picking up 3.5 offensive rebounds per game, helping the Nuggets rank fifth in the NBA on the offensive glass.

Faried also knows where his bread is buttered, taking 89 percent of his shots within 10 feet of the rim. It is imperative that Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard do everything they can to keep him off the offensive glass tonight.

Starting in place of Mudiay is Jameer Nelson, who somehow keeps on ticking. While Nelson is far removed from his All-Star days in Orlando, he has done a serviceable job filling in for the Nuggets, averaging 10.6 points and 5.6 assists as a starter. The major issue with Nelson is that he takes nearly half of his shots from the 3-point line and he only connects at a 31 percent clip, but he is an experienced floor general who can run an offense.

That experience comes in quite handy, as each of the other three of Denver’s starters at the moment are only in their second year in the NBA. Shooting guard Gary Harris, the No. 19 pick in the 2014 draft, is a solid fundamental player who won’t make drastic mistakes that will cost his team, but lacks the size, assertiveness, and athleticism to become a high-impact player. Center Joffrey Lauvergne averages nine points and six rebounds per game in just over 19 minutes of action. Offensively, he shoots similarly to Meyers Leonard, hitting a high percentage from close in and from beyond the arc, but struggling in the mid-range. He also needs to cut down on his foul rate in order to stay on the floor. Small forward Kostas Papanikolaou, another Nuggets player lacking elite athleticism, is a hard worker, especially on the defensive end, who has 3-point range. He plays limited minutes in order to make room for explosive sixth man Will Barton.

Barton, the People’s Champ, is having a breakout year, averaging 15.8 points and 6.0 rebounds in 29 minutes per game. Barton still can get a little out of control at times, but has definitely reigned in his reckless tendencies, shooting a solid 46 percent from the floor, including 40 percent from the 3-point line on over four attempts per game. Barton has made a home for himself in Denver and is a legitimate early candidate for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award.

Joining Barton for significant minutes off the bench is wing Randy Foye. If Barton is catching opposing teams off guard, Foye is doing everything he can to help them out, shooting 35 percent on the season. Foye is struggling from everywhere on the court, shooting below 30 percent from beyond the 3-point line and finishing around the rim at a career-worst rate.

The Nuggets struggle on the defensive end, with a No. 28 ranked DRtg of 108.8. Denver particularly has challenges defending the 3-pointer, where they allow their opponents to shoot a league high 39 percent. They also rank No. 21 in the NBA in pace, which limits their opportunities to make up ground on their opponents.

The Blazers have had an impressive stretch over the last two games, with wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings.

Key Match Ups

CJ McCollum, fresh off one of the best games of his career, has a favorable matchup tonight against either Gary Harris, another undersized guard, or Jameer Nelson, a slower point guard at the end of his career. While Harris is a cerebral player, McCollum should be able to put in work with his array of midrange-jumper freeing moves. Nelson is clever, but does not have quick enough feet to stay with CJ.

Meyers Leonard vs. Kenneth Faried. Sure, Noah Vonleh is going to start, but Meyers Leonard will likely play the bulk of the power forward minutes tonight. Leonard has been shooting much better of late, and will be needed against Faried. Forcing the Manimal to step out and guard him will allow other Blazers to get in on the offensive glass. On defense, Leonard’s main focus should be boxing Faried out; nothing more, nothing less.

Outlook

Denver has had a disappointing season but is capable of surprising some teams. Portland, after a winless road trip, has won two games in a row without Lillard. If the Blazers are committed to sharing the ball like they were against Cleveland, where every Blazer that played more than 13 minutes had an assist, they should be in good shape to send the Moda Center faithful home with a victory.