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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets Preview

The Blazers bottled up Nikola Jokic last time these teams met. Can they do it again?

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Denver Nuggets v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets are set for their second matchup of the 2022-23 season. The last time these two division rivals met was October 24th. The Blazers decimated the Nuggets 135-110, behind 60 combined points between Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons, with six Trail Blazers scoring in double figures.

Portland was able to contain reigning MVP Nikola Jokic to only nine points on 3-4 shooting, though the All-NBA First Team center was able to notch nine rebounds and nine assists.The last time he took four or fewer field goal attempts was the 2019-20 season. Portland was also great at being a hindrance to the rest of the Nuggets, as only three of their players scored in double figures.

After winning five of six games, all against Western Conference foes, the Nuggets have fallen back to the earth, and are on a current three-game skid. Concurrently, the Blazers have won two of their last three and recently took care of the Indiana Pacers by 16 points. They executed a varied defensive front, and a well-balanced offensive assault, and will look to channel that same energy and proficiency tonight.

How to Watch

Blazers vs. Nuggets – Thursday, December 8, 2022 – 7:00 p.m. PT

How to Watch: NBA TV, Root Sports Plus, Altitude

Blazers Injuries: Gary Payton II (out), Nassir Little (out), Keon Johnson (probable), Josh Hart (probable), Drew Eubanks (probable), John Butler (gametime decision)

Nuggets Injuries: Michael Porter Jr. (gametime decision), Collin Gillespie (gametime decision)

SBN Affiliate: Denver Stiffs

What to Watch For

  • If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix it: Clearly Portland had a recipe for success against Nikola Jokic in their first go-round. There were no complaints from Jokic reported by the media after the game, and he played almost 35 minutes in his next game against the Los Angeles Lakers, scoring a 31-point double-double and looking more like himself. Portland incorporated a zone as well as man defense, but bothered Jokic down low. Blazers bigs drew charges on the Joker when he tried to bully his way down low, and played him tough. Surprisingly, Jokic wasn’t face guarded much coming up the court, nor was he trapped off the catch too often, especially once the Blazers saw how passive he became. Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups should definitely mix up the defense this time, as Jokic may very well remember his lackluster performance weeks ago, and look to make good on his reputation. Face guarding him, especially when Drew Eubanks is in, and making life uncomfortable for the Serbian big man may work wonders for the Blazers. However, with his passing prowess and the competency of his supporting cast, harking back to the strategy of last game in not trapping him with two defenders on the block would be wisest.
  • Push the Nuggets Wings Off the Block: In the first matchup against Portland, and indicative of Michael Malone’s style of coaching, Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green frequented the mid-post on both the left and right sides of the floor. For years the Nuggets have resorted to this style of offense with this core intact. Gordon bodied his way to 26 points on 12-16 shooting. It’s safe to assume that Jokic won’t have another 9-9-9 performance tonight, so Gordon scoring so easily at will this time around will not fly if the Blazers hope to come away with a win, even if it’s not a blowout like last time. The tip-off will tell all about where coach Billups opts to play Jerami Grant. Throughout this season he has made it a habit to put Grant on dynamic guards to bother their airspace, a la Ja Morant and Devin Booker. The Nuggets have a dynamic guard of their own in Jamal Murray who can give anybody the business – a 50-point business endeavor at that – so we will see if Josh Hart and Anfernee Simons are tasked with guarding Michael Porter Jr. and Gordon. Off the bench, guys like Justise Winslow will have to be strong and either front the Nuggets’ wings, or play deny and shade baseline, where it’s harder to score off of a turnaround jumper from that angle, and invites help defense for succor.

What They’re Saying

Nekias Duncan of Basketball News takes a deep dive into Denver’s defensive deficiencies:

A not-so-fun fact: Literally every Nuggets big man is allowing a field goal percentage over 65% at the rim this season. On the whole, teams are shooting 70.7% at the rim against the Nuggets, the worst defensive mark in the NBA.

It’s hard to foresee a big shift coming. They aren’t trading Jokic, because duh. But because they have Jokic, they don’t have much scheme versatility to play with unless they want to lean more into zone. That generally isn’t Malone’s vibe, but it’s worth noting this is the most zone he’s thrown out there during his Nuggets tenure.

Asher Levy of Denver Stiffs also critiques the defense, but adds the bench to the list of Denver’s troubles:

The bench has seen a revolving door of guys being in and out of the rotation, seemingly for no reason. Christian Braun was playing well early on, but has since vanished from the rotation for Davon Reed. Reed has shot 30.2% from the field, 15.5% usage rate, and a 17.4% turnover rate, on the other hand, Braun has shot 40.4% from the field, has a lower usage rate at 10.9%, and a turnover rate of only 9.2%. The eye test will tell you Christian Braun has been more effective on both ends of the floor, the stats will tell you Christian Braun has been better than Davon Reed. So why does Michael Malone continue to play Reed when he has a better defender riding the pine?

It’s been a pattern with Malone for his tenure that he tends to like to ride with his guys to a fault. Even when it’s clear that there are better alternatives, or at least ones that should be tried, Malone will still take his guy and put him in the game.

For a positive spin, Kyle Berry of Fansided applauds the work of guard Jamal Murray:

Murray spaces the floor well and his rebounding is icing on the cake. Jokic continues to push the Blue Arrow physically and mentally, and the two continue to show blossoming chemistry on jaw-dropping plays that seemingly only that specific pair can make.

When Murray takes his time, his game gets smoother, and everything seems to slow down as he starts to cook. Defenses are often put to sleep with his lullaby nature and humble dribbling skill, only to be slapped awake with his quick twitch and decisive passing.

The Trail Blazers will tip off against the Denver Nuggets at 7:00 PM, Pacific. All nationally televised NBA games can be watched on Sling TV.