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Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Preview

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Jusuf Nurkic makes his first return to Denver since being traded away.

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

Portland Trail Blazers (25-21) at Denver Nuggets (23-23)

Monday, January 22nd - 6:00 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: None
Nuggets injuries: Kenneth Faried (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

After taking down the Dallas Mavericks 117-110 on Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers are looking to win their fourth consecutive game for the first time all season as they go up against Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.

While there has been a bit of a burgeoning rivalry between the two teams over the last 11 months, the Nuggets dominated Portland 102-85 on Dec. 22—a game that saw the Blazers sleepwalk through the night with little emotion or energy.

What to Watch For

Will Jusuf Nurkic play with energy? The last time these two teams matched up, Nurkic showed little fire or effort while going up against his old team. He appeared to be benched in the second quarter of last week’s game against the Suns. Nurkic seemed to respond with more effort against the Pacers and Mavericks, but he’ll need to sustain that level of play against Jokic.

Can the Blazers stop Denver’s balanced attack? Not counting Millsap, who is still recovering from a wrist injury, the Nuggets feature four players who average 14 points per game or more. Gary Harris Jr., Will Barton and Jamal Murray all do a great job working off of Jokic’s play making. Portland will need to be locked in on defense.

The battle of the boards. While the Blazers have spent most of the season near the top of the leader board in rebounding, they’ve seen some slippage of late, currently ranking 11th in the league. Denver ranks sixth in total rebounding, second on the offensive glass. Portland needs to be focused on the defensive boards to prevent the Nuggets from getting extra opportunities.

What They’re Saying

Gina Mizell of the Denver Post tells us how matchups will determine Denver’s frontcourt starters:

Is the Nuggets’ “Twin Towers” starting lineup of Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee officially over?

Not exactly, coach Michael Malone said. But Malone revealed Friday that he will begin mixing and matching his frontcourt starters depending on the opponents’ personnel — but that he’ll aim to play Jokic at center “a lot of nights.”

“(We want to) try to get him back to the level he was playing at last year when he was a 5 and we had the best offense in the NBA for that stretch,” Malone said of Jokic. “… Offensively, Nikola is a lot more effective playing the 5 than he is a 4.”

Trey Lyles made his second start of the season at power forward on Friday against the Suns. The shift comes after Jokic put together one of his most dominant outings of the season (29 points, 18 rebounds, seven assists) while playing center in Tuesday’s win against the Mavericks, before going 7-of-18 from the floor (including 1-of-8 from 3) for 18 points, eight rebounds and two assists the following night in a road loss to the Clippers while starting at power forward alongside Plumlee.

Jeff Morton of Mile High Sports writes it’s time to expect more from Nikola Jokic:

Head coach Michael Malone likes to point out that Jokic is a second-round pick and his ascendancy wasn’t expected. While this is undeniably true, Jokic has been — to a large extent — the marquee, franchise player for the last two seasons. It’s not like he wasn’t prepared for the avalanche of expectation and pressure coming into the season, even with the presence of the (injured) $90 million man, Paul Millsap.

Still, it’s understandably hard to face up to franchise-savior expectations; even in a basketball-agnostic city like Denver. Just ask Carmelo Anthony, whose emergence as the marquee Nuggets player of the mid-2000’s propelled the Nuggets to 10 straight playoff appearances. It wasn’t easy… and Melo dealt with the “you aren’t good enough” critiques over the entirety of his nearly eight-year tenure in Denver. It’s not fair, but it’s part of the job. Nobody said this would be easy.

Nuggets fans need to stop focusing on Jokic’s goofy personality and casual demeanor and understand that, while the pressures that come with expectations are often unfair, they’re part of the job. When Jokic plays like garbage and seems disinterested — regardless of lineup configuration — he needs to be called out and criticized because he is the face of the franchise. Fans need to be critical of ‘The Joker’ while taking into consideration that everything isn’t perfect for him to flourish. It comes with the territory.