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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets Preview

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NBA: Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (16-15) vs. Denver Nuggets (16-15)

Friday, December 22nd - 7:00 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: Damian Lillard (out)
Nuggets injuries: Gary Harris (questionable), Emmanuel Mudiay (questionable), Paul Millsap (out)
How to watch on TV: NBCSNW, NBA League Pass (outside of Portland)
How to stream: YouTube Live TV, Playstation Vue, Hulu Live TV, FuboTV, NBA League Pass (outside of Portland)
Radio: 620 AM
SBN Affiliate: Denver Stiffs

Two NW Division opponents. Two identical 16-15 records. A late-season trade that brought a disgruntled player back to life with his new team, including a massive performance against his old teammates where he wished them “a happy summer.

The Nuggets and Trail Blazers might have one of the better NBA rivalries going among middling teams today.

Earlier this season, the Portland dispatched the Nuggets, 99-82, in what may have been their most complete win of the season. Unfortunately, this time they’ll have to do so without their star—after suffering a strained hamstring in the third quarter against the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday, Damian Lillard has been ruled out.

What to Watch For

  • Who starts in Lillard’s place? Conventional wisdom says that Shabazz Napier will get the nod in Lillard’s absence. However, Blazers coach Terry Stotts has been known to tinker with replacement starters in order to keep other rotations more consistent. Blazer fans might see Stotts slide CJ McCollum over to point (and share ball handling duties with Evan Turner) and insert Pat Connaughton at shooting guard, which would let Napier continue his solid performance of late with the second unit.
  • Which Nurkic will we see tonight? Center Jusuf Nurkic has had an up-and-down season. While he hasn’t looked super aggressive for most of the year, he seems to play with just a bit of extra bounce to his step against his former team. For all of his offensive prowess, Nikola Jokic can’t effectively guard Nurkic down low, so hopefully we see the Bosnian Beast go right at him, but with enough self-control that he’s able to avoid foul trouble.
  • A balanced attack. Assuming Gary Harris is able to go tonight, Denver will be putting four players on the court who average more than 15 points per game—Harris, Jokic, Will Barton, and Jamal Murray (If it weren’t for Paul Millsap’s injury they would feature five). The Nuggets can get buckets from a lot of different guys at different spots on the floor, so it’s critical for the Blazers that their defense holds tight and is able to defend the pick-and-roll—as well as Jokic in the high-post—particularly well tonight.

What They’re Saying

Mike Olson talks about the Nuggets’ turnover woes over at Denver Stiffs:

Denver has turned the ball over 20-or-more times seven times this season... and has lost six of those games. That’s telling, right?

Not perfectly. 20 seems to be the Mason-Dixon there, as the team still has a ton of wins with turnover averages in the mid-to-upper teens. We only know if the total is double digits, and starts with a two, bad things tend to happen.

So that must also pan out on the low end, yes? Single-digit turnover games... those must be telling, right? Not really, due to low sample size, and the odd anomaly that the three games that fit the category are all road games, an obvious issue for the team this season. In those three games, Denver actually has more losses (Mavericks and Pelicans) than wins (Nets). Nothing to really learn there.

Good Nuggets (winning) vs. Bad Nuggets (losing) is a pretty scant average margin, at 2.2 turnovers per game. But that difference makes all the difference in where they’d fall in the league averages. Denver’s average clip in their losses would have them tied for third-worst in the league. The number for wins would make them the ninth-best in the league, placing them squarely between the Spurs and the Celtics.

Gina Mizell of the Denver Post calls the Nuggets turnover problem a “recurring nightmare”:

But turnovers have been Denver’s most consistently troubling weakness. The Nuggets will again spend part of Thursday watching film on their mistakes. Players will be penalized for committing a turnover during practice.

But Malone said fixing those ball-security woes will come down to individual accountability.

“As much as I’d like to sit here and say it’s my fault on the turnovers, I’m not gonna do that,” Malone said. “I’ll take a hit for a game plan or lack of execution, which I do all the time. But when you turn the ball over, that’s you out there turning the ball over…

“We can talk about it until we are blue in the face. I don’t have a magic potion. I don’t have a magic pill. We just have to realize, at some point, if we want to be a good team, we can’t give up 20 points a night on turnovers.”

Max Carlin at Hoops Habit wrote about Trey Lyles’ breakout:

As the 2017-18 NBA season got underway, criticism of the Nuggets multiplied. Mitchell had not yet begun his recent tear, but Lydon and Lyles were not exactly setting the league ablaze. Lydon was completely absent from the rotation, failing to log his first (and only) two minutes of the season until Nov. 20. Lyles was in and out of the rotation, alternating between limited minutes and DNP-CDs.

But as injuries piled up in the frontcourt, Lyles’ role expanded. Over the Nuggets’ last 15 games, Lyles is playing 24 minutes per game, averaging 11.9 points and 5.3 rebounds per game on 65.7 percent true shooting. Lyles is thriving.

On post-ups, he’s scoring 1.0 points per possession this season. As a roll man in pick-and-roll, he’s putting up 1.29 points per possession. On spot-ups, he’s posting 1.41 points per possession. His offensive skill-set is diverse and effective.

Lyles is playing within himself. After struggling mightily with turnovers in Utah, Lyles is turning the ball over on just 8.6 percent of possessions (92nd percentile among bigs). Still just 22, Lyles finally seems to be getting comfortable in his role.

His most impressive skill, though, is his opportunism, as 56 of Lyles’ 62 3-point attempts (90.3 percent) have been either open or wide open. He’s shooting 48.2 percent on those attempts. When the defense makes a mistake and gives him a window, Lyles capitalizes.