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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets Preview

The Blazers host Will Barton and the Denver Nuggets tonight at the Moda Center. Both teams are on the second halves of back-to-backs after winning last night.

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Denver Nuggets (28-45, No. 12 in the West) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (45-25, No. 4 in the West)
Saturday, March 28
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Wesley Matthews | Out for the Nuggets: Darrell Arthur (day-to-day)
SBN Affiliate: Denver StiffsTimmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night

The Blazers return home tonight after a 2-0 Southwestern road trip to host the Denver Nuggets. Both teams played last night, each earning a victory.

The Nuggets boast a stable of young, solid talent, but former coach Brian Shaw -- who was let go earlier this month after leading Denver to a disappointing 20-39 record through early March -- was unable to bring out the best in the roster. The Nuggets hit a high point in mid-January at 18-20, but the wheels soon fell off and the team went 5-19 through February before Shaw was eventually relieved of his duties.

Denver's front office promoted assistant Melvin Hunt to interim coach, who immediately set out to change the attitude and culture around the team. Instead of the rigid and predictable old-school offense Shaw employed, Hunt gave his players the freedom to seek out their own best shots by making reads off each other and the opposing defense.

Hunt's free-flowing offense has enabled seven of his players to average double-figure scoring over the course of his 14-game tenure at the helm, as his young team has responded well to his positivity, relatability and the liberties he's provided them on the court.

The Nuggets have gone 8-6 in the three-and-a-half weeks since Hunt's been in charge, pushing the tempo, attacking from outside and emphasizing ball movement and player spacing. Denver features Ty Lawson at point guard, one of the quickest players in the NBA. His ball-handling and ability to penetrate and either take it to the rim and find open teammates in space has been integral in the Nuggets' late-season, mini surge.

The 27-year-old, often-overlooked Lawson stands just 5-foot-11, but he's hit 59.5 percent of his shots at the rim in the 14 games since Shaw was let go, averaging 8.9 assists and just 1.9 turnovers a night in that span. His shooting outside of the paint has been less than sterling, but Lawson's generally at his best when he can attack from the inside-out and distribute at will.

Perhaps the main beneficiary of Hunt removing the shackles from Denver's ballhandlers has been forward Danilo Gallinari, who shot 35.7 from the field and 31.8 percent from deep in 40 games under Shaw. Those numbers have jumped to 42.7 percent and 38.3 percent, respectively, under Hunt. Gallinari was fighting some nagging aches and pains earlier in the season and a slew of trade deadline moves opened up some shots for the six-year veteran, but there's no doubt he's recently been put in a better position to succeed by his new coach and has taken full advantage of the opportunity.

Forwards Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried round out Denver's undersized starting frontcourt, each one hitting just over half his shots the last 14 games. Faried does most of his damage inside, assisted by teammates. A decent portion of his scores derive from his feisty offensive rebounding and energy around the rim. Chandler is a bit more inclined to score off the dribble, often taking the ball all the way inside. He's been lights-out from deep the last 14 games, making 46.8 percent of his threes in that time, mostly in catch-and-shoot situations.

Starting wing Randy Foye attempts almost two-thirds of his shots from the perimeter, connecting on 41 percent of his three-pointers under Hunt. He's a complementary scorer and a willing passer, much like several of his other backcourt teammates.

Hunt often goes six-deep on his bench, playing a rotation of about 11 guys a night, generally. Point guard Jameer Nelson has resurfaced as an effective reserve since being acquired by the Nuggets in mid-January, and since Shaw's firing, he's made a staggering 72.4 percent of his attempts at the basket and 44.4 percent of his 4.2 three-point tries a game. While Nelson is neither as deft a passer nor a penetrator as Lawson at 32 years old and 11 seasons into his career, he has provided a bit of instant offense off the bench in 21.4 minutes a night the last three weeks and is capable of keeping the ball moving.

Guard Will Barton -- former Blazer and affectionately referred to as "The People's Champ" or "The Thrill" by many fans in Portland -- makes his first return to the Moda Center tonight since being swapped along with forwards Thomas Robinson and Victor Claver (both since waived) for Blazers guards Arron Afflalo and Alonzo Gee back at the trade deadline. Barton has certainly wowed Nuggets fans in large doses off the bench since being inserted into the rotation almost immediately following the trade, and he's averaged 10.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists under Hunt in Denver. Barton is most effective using his rebounding and ability to force turnovers to get out on the fastbreak and score on the run. He's definitely still not shy about creating his own offense, either, and he poured in 12 points on 5-for-9 shooting last night against Utah in 20 minutes of action.

Power forward J.J. Hickson, also a former Blazer, provides hustle, rebounds and a general nose for the ball, but is not a reliable finisher inside. Center Jusuf Nurkic, point guard Erick Green and wing Gary Harris have all earned playing time off the bench recently, but none of the three factors in as a significant piece in the Nuggets' offensive gameplan.

Denver's defense hasn't been stifling under Hunt, but the fairly short lineup has managed to perform at an average level or better on the defensive end since he was promoted. The Nuggets are a top-10 team the last few weeks defending both from the field and from outside. They force plenty of turnovers and generally prefer a faster-paced game, though they are prone to fouling shooters and lack a reliable defensive presence down low besides Nurkic, who plays limited minutes and picks up more fouls than any of his teammates.

After struggling through injuries that were partially accountable for five straight losses, the Blazers now have their full roster available besides Wesley Matthews and have won two straight games on the road against defensive-minded teams. After exchanging small leads for three quarters against the Jazz and Suns on Wednesday and Friday, respectively, Portland was able to put the clamps down defensively in the fourth periods of both games and let their All-Stars take over on the offensive end.

Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has shot 20-for-44 the last two games total, making 56 percent of his midrange jumpers. He's been solid at getting to the line, but 60 percent free throw shooting in the Blazers' two most recent wins is below Aldridge's general performance. Still, he almost single-handedly led Portland to the win down the stretch last night, scoring 12 points in the game's final five minutes.

On Wednesday night in Utah, when Aldridge had 19 points on 18 shots and four turnovers, point guard Damian Lillard had 13 of his 23 points in the fourth period and led the Blazers as they erased a 10-point lead late in the game and eventually squeaked by with a three-point victory. Lillard has made just three of his 12 three-pointers the last two games, but he went 10-for-10 from the line Wednesday and was able to manufacture points that way. Last night, Phoenix guard Eric Bledsoe was able to irritate Lillard on the defensive end. Tonight, the Nuggets have no such designated perimeter defender and lack a true game-changing big man in the middle; The shots should come a bit easier for Lillard.

Wing Nicolas Batum sat out in Utah then responded against the Suns with five points on 1-for-6 shooting. His contributions were much more far-reaching than just scoring, however, and he's been big on the glass and as a distributor. The Nuggets aren't particularly likely to stop him fully in either area.

Center Robin Lopez hit five of his six shots last night for 12 points to go along with 10 rebounds, just a game after he scored four points and six rebounds. The Nuggets frontcourt will probably have to throw a lot of extra attention Aldridge's way tonight in the hopes of keeping his offense bottled-up. Featuring a huge size advantage, Lopez should be able to score a few easy points after establishing deep post position on either Faried or Hickson.

Guard Arron Afflalo has gone cold from the field lately, missing all six of his threes and making five of 14 shots the last two games. He's seemed a bit out-of-sorts recently and hasn't been very aggressive. Maybe playing against his former teammates will spark Afflalo back into being a reliable shooter. He should be able to find a way to take the ball in the post tonight and get shots over shorter or smaller defenders.

Reserve wing and occasional stretch-four Dorell Wright has looked for his own shot much more often off the bench the last couple of games, generally not shooting well but scoring in bunches occasionally. He's been great on the boards lately. Backup center Chris Kaman returned last night and registered 18 minutes, also not shooting well but managing to contribute with rebounding. Point guard Steve Blake had the confidence to take and make a few nice shots against the Suns last night, finishing with 10 points and just a single turnover. He's a solid game-managing backup for Stotts at the point guard position. Guard CJ McCollum seems confident with the ball lately, even if his shot has been far from perfect. The fans at the Moda Center tonight will be in for a treat when he's matched with Barton, whom he battled with in practice for parts of two seasons for playing time on the wing.

Blazers coach Terry Stotts played a five-man bench rotation last night in Phoenix, leaving out big man Meyers Leonard and guards Allen Crabbe and Alonzo Gee. After playing late last night on the road, the Blazers may need to tap into their end-of-bench players for short spurts against the Nuggets.

Portland beat the Suns somewhat handily on the glass last night, and they've given up a pretty reasonable 11 offensive rebounds per game to their last two opponents. The Nuggets are an average rebounding team on either end, though Faried and Hickson vacuum up misses on both sides of the floor more than effectively. Chandler and Barton contribute well from the wings, but Denver gets most of its rebounding from energy, hustle and effort, severely lacking Portland's size up front. Lopez, Kaman, Aldridge, Batum and backup big man Joel Freeland all hit the glass hard. If the Blazers execute, box out well and continue getting effort from up and down the roster, their combination of size and skill may be too much for the Nuggets' scrappiness tonight.

After two straight defensive battles for Portland, tonight's matchup could provide an assortment of offensive fireworks for both teams. The Nuggets lack a backcourt player who can disrupt Lillard consistently with defense, so he and Aldridge -- who's going against a pretty limited Denver frontline -- should both have the opportunity to do some bulk scoring tonight.

Likewise, Lawson provides a difficult matchup for the Blazers' backcourt, particularly Lillard. Don't be surprised to see some cross-matching for Portland if the defense isn't working well early on. Gee played big minutes last Tuesday against the Warriors thanks in large part to his defense on Stephen Curry, and he could see some time on the floor tasked with trying to slow down Lawson tonight.

The Nuggets are improved on both sides of the ball under Hunt, but the Blazers are also well-coached, have more talent at the top and are trying to build some momentum heading into the playoffs after weathering a tough stretch of five games before Wednesday's win over the Jazz. Denver has good talent, a solid gameplan and youth on its side, but if the players and coaching staff in Portland all want to be considered any kind of legitimate threat in the postseason ever after the injury to Wes Matthews, they'll have to prove it by beating solid-but-flawed teams like the Nuggets.

-- Chris Lucia | | Twitter

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