Denver Nuggets (35-38) at Portland Trail Blazers (35-38)
March 28, 2017, 7:00 PST
Watch: CSNNW; Listen: Rip City Radio 620 AM
Blazers injuries: Ed Davis (out), Festus Ezeli (out)
Nuggets injuries: None
SBN Affiliate: Denver Stiffs
After notching their third consecutive victory Sunday and clinging to an 11-3 record in their past 14 games, the Portland Trail Blazers play their biggest game of the season against the the Denver Nuggets tonight, with whom they are locked in a virtual tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Blazers currently lead the season series 2-1, the first tie-breaking criteria in terms of playoff seeding. A win tonight would give them a one-game lead over the Nuggets and a virtual two-game lead, since Denver wouldn’t be able to squeak past the Blazers should the two teams finish with identical records at the end of the season.
If Denver wins and ties the season series at two games a piece—while pushing the Blazers a full game behind them with eight games to play—the tie-breaker then falls to whichever team holds the best division record. Portland currently holds an 8-3 record against the NW Division, compared to Denver’s 5-8 mark.
Oh, one other thing: Mason Plumlee is making his first appearance in the Moda Center since being traded to Denver last month. Oops, and I almost forgot; Jusuf Nurkić, seemingly freed after an acrimonious season in Denver, is going up against his old team, and the newly-anointed star center that replaced him.
I told you this was a big game.
Denver, which brings the NBA’s fourth-best offense to town, is led by big man Nikola Jokic. Jokic has been a revelation for the Nuggets this season, who have rightfully made him the focal point of the offense. Already the best passing big man in the league at 21 years old, Jokic excels at creating in the high post, shooting 58 percent en route to 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. Unbelievably, since Christmas he’s been even better, putting up 20, 11, and 6 while shooting 35 percent from the 3-point line.
Jokic is supported at the forward spots by Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. Gallinari, after dealing with injury issues for several years, is on pace to play in more games than he has in any of the previous three seasons. When he’s on, Gallinari is one of the best pure long-range shooters in the league, and this year is no exception, as he’s averaging 18 points per game and shooting 39 percent from the 3-point line.
Chandler has been something of a surprise this season, starting strongly before tapering off somewhat, but chipping in 16 points per game—which is on pace to be the highest scoring average of his career. Chandler’s a decent 3-point shooter, but excels in the mid-range and is comfortable getting to the basket.
In the backcourt, the Nuggets feature youngster Gary Harris, 22, and veteran point guard Jameer Nelson, 34. Harris, an up-and-coming guard, is averaging nearly 15 points per game and shoots nearly 50 percent from the floor and 43 percent from behind the 3-point line. He seldom takes over games, but he can absolutely knock shots down if left open. Nelson is far removed from his All-Star days in Orlando, and mostly helps steer the offense through the other players, though he can knock down the triple if left open.
The Nuggets have a solid bench rotation featuring Kenneth Faried, Will Barton, Mason Plumlee, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Jamal Murray. Faried and Barton are pure energy guys, though Barton has gotten himself a bit more under control compared to his Portland days, and puts up nearly 14 points a night. Plumlee is doing well in Denver, having been shuffled in and out of the starting lineup, and gets 10 points and 7 rebounds of his own. Mudiay has disappointed as a starter but can get hot, while Murray, after a slow start, has come on and shown potential to be a very solid hybrid guard in the near future.
One thing the Nuggets don’t do well is play defense, ranked No. 29 in the league, and that’s what the Blazers are going to need to take advantage of. Denver’s guards tend to go over pick-and-rolls, but then struggle to get back onto guards, while the bigs do a poor job of stepping out to contest the jumper. We’ll likely be seeing a whole lot of those open Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum mid-range jumpers off of a Jusuf Nurkić screen tonight.
That said, the Blazers will need to continue playing the improved defense fans have seen since the acquisition of Nurkić. Despite sleepwalking through a couple victories over the Knicks and Lakers in particular, I expect that tonight’s game will have a playoff-type intensity that will translate into a bit of physical defense from both sides. The crowd, both teams’ players, the coaches; everybody knows how big tonight’s game is. If the Blazers are able to take care of business, they will have a fairly solid foothold over Denver for the eighth spot as the playoffs loom only a little more than two weeks away.
It starts tonight.