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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets Preview

Damian Lillard hopes to make his return tonight as the Blazers matchup against the injury-stricken Nuggets tonight in Denver. Will Portland be able to pull out the victory in the Mile-High City?

Mike Powell/Getty Images

Portland Trail Blazers (14-22) vs Denver Nuggets (12-22)
Sunday, January 3
Pepsi Center | 6:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSN; 620 AM
Portland injury report
Damian Lillard (Questionable - Foot) | Denver injury report: Wilson Chandler (Out - Hip), Kenneth Faried (Out - Neck), Emmanuel Mudiay (Out – Ankle), Kostas Papanikolaou (Questionable – Ankle)
SBN Affiliate:
Denver Stiffs | Blazer's Edge Night 2016

UPDATE (Jan. 3, 1:45 PM): Casey Holdahl reports that Damian Lillard will be a game time decision tonight. The final decision on his status will be made after a hard pregame workout.

Results from a CT scan reportedly show that Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried escaped serious injury despite leaving last night's game against the Warriors on a stretcher. He is officially listed as questionable for tonight's game with neck stiffness.

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The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets meet for the second time in five days tonight at the Pepsi Center in Denver. The Blazers won the last game between these teams 110-103 on December 30. Portland was led by 29 points from C.J. McCollum, while Will Barton topped all Nuggets with 31 points.

The Nuggets and Blazers have each played once since their last encounter. The Blazers looked listless in a convincing 109-96 loss to Utah on New Year's Eve. The Nuggets, on the other hand, took the Warriors to overtime before losing 111-108 last night in Oakland. Golden State jumped out to an early 21-2 lead, but the Nuggets made a spirited second half comeback after Steph Curry went down with a left shin contusion.

Last night's close game between the Nuggets and Warriors is good news for Blazers fans. The Blazers have had two days of rest since their last game and should be able to take advantage of a tired Nuggets team. In the past Denver has had one of the few true home court advantages in sports because of the city's high altitude, but this season the NBA actively worked to remove some of that advantage by intentionally scheduling some Nuggets' home games on the second night of back to backs. The Blazers will benefit from that scheduling quirk tonight.

Since December 30 the teams have both had some major injury news. For the Nuggets, Danilo Gallinari returned last night against the Warriors after missing six games with an ankle injury. Gallinari looked strong, scoring 24 points in 41 minutes. Gallinari has struggled to stay healthy his entire career, missing at least 20 games in five of seven seasons. His shooting provides important spacing to the Denver offense, so the Nuggets need him to stay on the court if they hope to be successful in the future.

Jusuf Nurkic made his season debut last night, returning from a torn patellar ligament. Nurkic, a 7-foot center from Bosnia and Herzegovnia, averaged 6.9 points and 4.1 rebounds in 62 games last year, but his primary calling card is paint defense. He played only five minutes last night and will likely be under a major minutes restriction again tonight.

Emmanuel Mudiay and Wilson Chandler remain out for the Nuggets and Kenneth Faried and Kostas Papanikolaou have been added to the injury list. Papanikolaou has a sprained left ankle and Faried suffered a neck injury at the end of overtime last night. Faried spent the night under observation in a hospital and will miss today's game.

The ongoing revolving door of injuries has left the Nuggets without a clear rotation for their matchup against the Blazers. Last night they started Gary Harris, Jameer Nelson, Gallinari, Faried, and Jokic, but Jokic only played five minutes as Barton played with the starters down the stretch. Joffrey Lauvergne, who started against Portland on Wednesday, did not make it onto the court; Coach Mike Malone opted to go with a smallball lineup of Faried or Darrell Arthur as the de facto center for much of the game in order to matchup with the Warriors. Given that Gallinari may be fatigued coming off an injury, Nurkic is only available for limited minutes, and Faried is not going to play, it is virtually impossible to predict Denver's front court rotation going forward.

On the other side of the injury spectrum, the Blazers hope to be fully healthy tonight. Damian Lillard, who has missed the last six games with plantar fasciitis, participated in a full practice yesterday and speculation is that he may play tonight. Lillard's return would be welcome news for the Blazers who have acquitted themselves extremely well in their star's absence, winning three of six games, but are perilously thin at point guard without him.

Tonight's game marks the end of a rough start to the season for the Blazers. They have played 35 total games and 21 road games, both NBA highs. Twelve of the next 15 games are at the Moda Center, and they incredibly have only one back-to-back from January 5 to February 27. The immediate home schedule, however, may be fool's gold  - the Blazers face Western Conference playoff teams in their next five games.

Keys to the game:

Guard play: With Mudiay out the Blazers hold a massive advantage at guard. Lillard and McCollum should easily and convincingly outscore the Nuggets expected starting guard duo of Nelson and Harris tonight. Neither backcout played much (any?) perimeter defense in the previous meeting between the teams. That would be a problem against a playoff team, but Lillard and McCollum have shown this season that their offense alone can carry the Blazers to a win against an inferior opponent.

Play some perimeter defense: The corollary to the previous key is that the Blazers will get a lot of mileage out of playing some tough perimeter defense. Notably, Barton has been shredding teams in the open court and adding Gallinari's spacing to the mix will make the former Blazer even more dangerous. Al-Farouq Aminu can only guard one of the two Nuggets' wing scorers so Henderson and/or Crabbe will likely get a chance to be a big defensive stopper tonight.

Execute well: Denver does not have much of an identity at the moment. They showed last night that they can attack well with a smallball lineup in a frenzied game, but Faried's injury has made even that strategy problematic. As a result, Portland should be able to dictate the style and tempo of play tonight. If the Blazers stick to their gameplan, especially on offense, and don't allow the game to break down into chaos, they should be able to get the win

All-time series

The Blazers and Nuggets play once more this season on the last day of the regular season (April 13) in Portland. The teams split the two previous games this season.

The Blazers lead the all-time series between these teams 91-75, but the Nuggets have a commanding 55-27 advantage in Denver.

The teams have met twice in the playoffs. Portland beat the Nuggets in the 1977 Western Conference Semifinals on the way to the franchise's only championship, while the Nuggets beat the Blazers in the first round in 1986.



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