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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets

The Blazers have punched their playoff ticket, but their first-round opponent is still undecided. After last Saturday's tough loss against the T-Wolves, the Blazers look to clinch the fifth seed in the West with a win over the Denver Nuggets tonight.

Which way to the playoffs?
Which way to the playoffs?
Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports


Portland Trail Blazers (43-38) vs Denver Nuggets (33-48)
Wednesday, April 13
Moda Center | 7:30 p.m. PDT | Local TV/Radio: KGWHD; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Meyers Leonard (Out - Shoulder), Chris Kaman (Questionable - Abdomen) | Denver injury report: Danilo Gallinari (Out - Ankle) Kennith Faried (Doubtful - Rest) Wilson Chandler (Out - Hip) Gary Harris (Questionable - Groin), Darrell Arthur (Doubtful - Knee)
SBN Affiliate: Denver Stiffs

We are 81 games into this incredible Blazer season. We celebrated some great basketball for long stretches and we have also sat through some pretty low stretches as well. We watched this young team grow and evolve and were witness to them messing up every preseason forecast by overachieving more than any other NBA team this season. It's been a fun year to be a Blazers fan so far, but the best is yet to come.

Right now Portland is 43-38, good enough for the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. With Memphis losing to the Clippers on Tuesday, the Grizzlies can no longer catch Portland, so the Blazers can finish no worse than sixth. It comes down to the Dallas Mavericks or the Blazers for the No. 5 seed. Portland has a one-game lead on the Mavericks, but the Mavs have the tie-breaker over the Blazers. If Portland beats Denver, they clinch the No. 5 seed. If the Mavericks lose to the Spurs in their final game Wednesday, the Blazers clinch the fifth spot. Only if the Blazers lose and the Mavericks win will the Blazers drop to sixth. The team that finishes fifth in the West will open the playoffs with a series against the Los Angeles Clippers and the sixth seed will face the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Spurs have announced they're going to rest most of their players for Wednesday's season finale against the Mavericks so it is imperative that Portland takes care of business tonight against the Nuggets.

While the Blazers have the playoffs to look forward to after the regular season ends, the Nuggets are out of contention. At 33-48, they're tied for the eighth worst record in the NBA. At this point, Nuggets fans only have the NBA draft to look forward to. With the Blazers being guaranteed a playoff spot, the Nuggets will receive Portland's upcoming draft pick from the Arron Afflalo trade last year. They're are also rooting for the Rockets to make the playoffs, because if they do make the postseason, Denver will receive the Rockets lottery-protected pick as well, due to the Ty Lawson trade.

This Nuggets team the Blazers will see Wednesday is not the same team that has played most of the season. Denver no longer has anything to play for in the standings, so the Nuggets have been giving extra minutes to their younger players who still have much to prove. Their starting lineup in their last game against the Jazz on Sunday consisted of two rookies and three sophomores. They also brought another rookie and sophomore off the bench as well.

In their last two games, Denver has not only gone young, but big. They have started two centers together -- the 6-foot-10 Serbian rookie, Nikola Jokic, and the second-year, 7-footer Bosnian Jusuf Nurkic. Not to exclude their third foreign young big man off the bench, 7-foot, second-year french center Joffrey Lauvergne is also in the rotation (take a moment to get those names memorized).

The first game Jokic and Nurkic started together was against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday. Although the Spurs were in rest mode, with a few of their bigger names getting the night off, the two Denver bigs combined for 29 points and 24 rebounds, leading the charge for a Denver upset. This created a buzz around Denver of a possible future starting frontcourt. That was a short-lived dream as the foreign twin towers were exposed defensively the following game against the Jazz. Trey Lyles, the Jazz rookie stretch-four, hit 4 of 8 threes, mostly uncontested, and was able to get good looks off the bounce all night as well. Neither of the two Nugget big men are very capable defenders away from the basket.

"I think tonight showed that that big lineup is probably not something we can live with for extensive minutes," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after the game.

That said, look for Jokic and Nurkic to start the game Wednesday against Portland, allowing Malone to get another look. The two bigs are a good fit offensively. Neither are overly athletic, but Jokic is a very good passer and has borderline 3-point range while Nurkic is more of back-to-the-basket player but has a good shooting touch and is a decent passer as well. Nurkic received an NBA All-Rookie Second Team selection last year.

One of the biggest surprises for the Nuggets this year has been ex-Blazer Will Barton, who came to Denver in the aforementioned Afflalo trade. Barton has scored the most total points for the Nuggets this season, made the most 3-pointers, played the second most minutes, had the second most assists and third most rebounds on the team. Barton has put up these numbers while coming off the bench for all but one game this season and is in the discussion for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award.

The Nuggets are also playing what they hope to be their backcourt of the future. 2014 first-round pick, Gary Harris, has been very consistent in his first year of extended minutes. Harris has started in every game he has played, and lately has been more of a focal point of the offense. Since February, Harris has only had two games of less than 10 points and averaged over 14 points per game. He is a good defensive player and good shooter with 1.4 3-pointers made per game at 35 percent. Harris has been dealing with a sore groin and may sit this game out.

For what consistency Harris gives the Nuggets, rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay does the exact opposite. After bypassing college to play in China for a year instead, the No. 7 pick in last year's NBA Draft has had a rough year to say the least. Mudiay is currently averaging 12.6 points and 5.5 assists per game, which is very respectable, especially for an NBA rookie. But deeper analysis of Mudiay's rookie season, however, shows that there is absolutely nothing respectable about his efficiency.

Mudiay is shooting 36.1 percent this season, 32 percent on 3-pointers and is 67 percent from the free throw line. He is also averaging 3.2 turnovers per game. On an historical level, when we ask basketball-reference.com how many players have played 50 games and averaged more than 3.1 turnovers per game on less than 37 percent shooting, this is what comes up -- it's him, and him alone. That can't be good for his win shares either. Spoiler alert: It's not. Mudiay and his -2.2 win shares will go down as the lowest win share of any player since 1963 and the fourth lowest in history. But still, Woody Sauldsberry's record is safe for another year.

That said, Mudiay is just 20 years old and has shown flashes of being a good point guard. In the past seven games Mudiay is averaging 16.4 points and shooting 44 percent from the field, 40 percent from the 3-point line and has a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio. He also has not had a 6-turnover game since before the All-Star break. The young point guard may have had one of the least efficient seasons ever, but the Blazers need to respect his play of late. As bad as his season was, his confidence is as high as ever.

Keys to a Blazer Win

The Playoffs have started: The fifth seed is obviously better than the sixth seed, but this game has even more meaning than that. The Blazers lost a tough game Saturday that could have put Portland in a great position for the fifth seed and losing another game would be a bad way to enter the playoffs. Momentum is a real thing and getting this win would put Portland on a high note for their series against the Clippers.

Expose the Bigs: Al-Farouq Aminu is the only Blazer interior player with a 3-point shot that poses a threat, so if the Nuggets play Jokic and Nurkic together, Aminu needs to be on the floor. Even if Harkless is playing the four, he needs to be in attack mode whenever he finds one of the big, slow Denver frontcourt players on him. Offensively the two bigs can be a handful, so the best way to stop them is to expose them defensively.

Force Mudiay's hand: Mudiay is playing better as of late but he is still going to force bad shots if you make him. He has difficulty finishing at the rim when there is resistance or shooting off the move. Whoever is matched up with him needs to not let him get his feet set when he shoots and apply constant pressure. He will make the mistakes from there. If Harris does not play, Denver will not have many shooters available so the Blazer defenders can help off their players and put even more pressure on Mudiay.

Final Thoughts

Getting the No. 6 seed would taste a bit sour but the Blazers control their own destiny and should take care of business tonight. This has been an amazing season and we as fans have a lot to be thankful for. But as I said before, the best is yet to come.