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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets Preview

The NBA is back! Portland kicks off its season with a difficult divisional matchup.

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (0-0) vs. Denver Nuggets (0-0)

Wednesday, October 23 - 7:00 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: Jusuf Nurkic (out), Pau Gasol (out)
Nuggets injuries: Bol Bol (out)
How to watch on TV: ESPN, NBCSNW
Radio: 620 AM
SBN Affiliate: Denver Stiffs

The 2019-20 NBA season kicks off Wednesday for the Portland Trail Blazers as they host the Denver Nuggets. Both teams will be looking to build on successful 2018-19 seasons. The Nuggets won the Northwest division with a record of 54-28, while the Blazers were right behind them at 53-29. Portland got the better of Denver in the playoffs, squeaking past the Nuggets in a hard-fought seven-game series.

Denver and Portland both have their eyes on another deep playoff run, but with all the player movement among Western Conference teams, last season’s successes will be difficult to replicate. Starting off the season with a win against a tough divisional opponent would be a good step in the right direction.

What to watch for

  • New rotations. While Portland and Denver had similar success last season, they had wildly different offseasons. Denver maintained its core—the addition of Jerami Grant their only significant roster change. Portland, however, has completely reworked its roster while locking in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum long term. It will be interesting to see how coach Terry Stotts plans to divide up the minutes. Rodney Hood, Zach Collins, and Hassan Whiteside are expected to start with Lillard and McCollum. Kent Bazemore, Anfernee Simons, Anthony Tolliver, and Mario Hezonja figure to get the bulk of the bench minutes.
  • Slowing down Jokic. Nikola Jokic, a potential MVP candidate, poses a problem for most teams, Portland included. The 24-year-old center finished fourth in MVP voting last season (two spots ahead of Lillard), averaging 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game. He upped those averages in the playoffs to 25.1, 13.0, and 8.4, respectively. The Blazers will lean heavily on the newly acquired Hassan Whiteside to help contain Jokic. With Pau Gasol injured and Jusuf Nurkic not expected back for a while, Portland doesn’t have a lot of options for defending Denver’s big man. Zach Collins has reportedly put on some muscle, but will still be giving up some size in that matchup. How Portland defends Denver’s All-Star could go a long way in determining who wins this one.
  • Lillard, McCollum, and Hood scoring. Expect Portland to run their offense primarily through Lillard and McCollum again. The two averaged 25.8 and 21.0 points per game last season. If Denver focuses their defensive efforts on Lillard and McCollum, Rodney Hood can help carry the load. Hood took advantage of mismatches in Portland’s playoff series with Denver, averaging 14.7 points on 58.3 percent shooting off the bench. If the Nuggets try to hide their weaker defenders on Hood again, look for him to take advantage.

What they’re saying

Ryan Blackburn of Denver Stiffs talked about how Jerami Grant is fitting in with Denver:

A universally accepted perfect fit for the Nuggets offense, Grant is going to do more than just be a great fit next to Nikola Jokic. As it turns out, he fits well with Mason Plumlee too. With his three-point shot hitting in the preseason at 58.3%, Grant has spaced the floor well for Denver’s bench units which have been the most successful on the team.

His ability to space the floor offensively has been impressive, both as a shooter and a cutter. He seems to know where he needs to be at any given time, and Malone commended him in practice for it last Sunday as having good enough chemistry and skill level to play with either the starters or the bench.

And that’s what I think he will do: split time with the starters and the bench this year. Paul Millsap will need rest days throughout the year, and Grant is still 25 and won’t turn 26 until late March. He can handle a bunch of minutes and will be relied upon to do so, aiding all three of Millsap, Jokic, and Plumlee with his springy frame, defensive IQ, and shooting stroke.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer placed the Nuggets fifth in his NBA power rankings (three spots ahead of the Blazers):

Look up and down Denver’s roster and you’ll find talent. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris perfectly complement each other, and they both work seamlessly with Jokic pick-and-rolls as both ball handlers or screeners. Malik Beasley is their 3-and-D backup and an emerging on-ball presence; someone will drop the bag for him as a restricted free agent next summer. Mason Plumlee is one of the best backup centers in the game.

The Nuggets are loaded at wing and forward. Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant, Will Barton, and Torrey Craig look like they’ll get minutes if Mike Malone’s rotation in their recent dress rehearsal was any indication of his regular-season plans. That means Michael Porter Jr. and Juancho Hernangómez probably won’t even play to start the season. It’s a good problem to have for Malone, as long as chemistry issues don’t emerge.

Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post wonders what the Nuggets have to do to be taken seriously by the rest of the league:

A recent poll of general managers recognized Jokic as the league’s best center, but also tabbed Denver as the most “fun” team to watch, which if you’re asking me, was akin to naming the Nuggets as Miss Congeniality.

Here’s further proof of what I mean: In a survey of 20 basketball analysts at ESPN, only two predicted Denver would even advance as far as the conference finals, with more love given to the Clippers, Lakers, Rockets and even the Jazz.

Fair or not, the Nuggets’ reputation is they’re still too young, too soft and too reliant on Joker to be more than a regular-season sensation that’s set up for a quick, hard fall in the playoffs.