Nuggets at Trail Blazers preview: Never sleep in Portland

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With rookie point guard Damian Lillard leading the way, the Blazers remain a tough opponent when playing at the Rose Garden.

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2012/2013 NBA Regular Season: Game 27
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vs
14-12 (7-11 on road)

11-12 (7-4 at home)
December 20, 2012, 8:00 PM (MT)
Rose Garden, Portland
TV Altitude / 950 AM / 104.3 FM The Fan
Probable Starters
Ty Lawson PG Damian Lillard
Andre Iguodala SG Sasha Pavlovic
Danilo Gallinari SF Nicolas Batum
Kenneth Faried PF LaMarcus Aldridge
Kosta Koufos C J.J. Hickson
Notes
Denver Stiffs Blogs Blazers Edge
Wilson Chandler and Julyan Stone are out Injuries Wesley Matthews (questionable), Elliot Williams (out)
The Nuggets have won three straight ... Stat ... and the Blazers have won three straight!

Northwest Division rivals Denver and Portland have something in common: they each recently beat the Western Conference powerhouse San Antonio Spurs. Portland did it last Thursday thanks to an amazing performance from their star rookie point guard Damian Lillard. Lillard torched the Spurs for 29 points, seven rebounds and six assists and is going to give Anthony Davis a run for Rookie of the Year.

The Nuggets, meanwhile, took down the Spurs on Tuesday in what was one of the best regular season games I've attended in a while. Even though the Nuggets did everything they could to give the game away at the end (the usual stuff - a nearly catastrophic Ty Lawson turnover, giving their opponent ample open three-pointers, etc), a win is a win and the Nuggets are now riding a three-game winning streak. As are the Blazers.

But the similarities between these two division rivals should end there. The fact that the Blazers are just a game under .500 while the Nuggets are just two games over .500 is more a product of scheduling than anything else. While the Nuggets had to play 17 of their first 23 games on the road, the young, rebuilding Blazers have only had to play about half their games away from the Rose Garden. And while some might think the Blazers are on "a run" by winning three straight, the truth is that two of those three victories came against the lowly Raptors and Hornets (both in Portland) and the Blazers needed a Lillard last-second three-pointer to beat the Hornets.

That said, we as Nuggets fans have learned to never sleep on the Blazers. It seems no matter who is on the Blazers roster playing in Portland is always tough. Especially on a Thursday night with an inner-division rival as the visiting club.

The Nuggets will have their hands full trying to best the Blazers to bring their win streak to four.

Three things to look for in this game ...

1) How much better is Damian Lillard than Ty Lawson? I normally write "point guard X vs. Ty Lawson" here but I've had it with Lawson's tentativeness and late-game turnovers. With Ricky Rubio, Russell Westbrook, Mo Williams and now Lillard in his own division, Lawson needs to start asserting himself as one of the dominant point guards in the Northwest. But could Lillard already be more valuable than Lawson?

2) Can Danilo Gallinari play five good games in a row? Gallo has been frustratingly inconsistent this season to date, but has stepped up his play these past four games and it's no coincidence that by doing so the Nuggets are playing better. Gallo may indeed be "the man" on the Nuggets as my colleague Jeff Morton desperately wants him to be, but he must string together multiple games of 18-plus points if he's ever to get there as a player.

3) Defending the three-pointer. The Blazers rank seventh in the NBA is three-pointers made per game at 8.0 and we know all too well how the Nuggets struggle to defend on the perimeter. The Nuggets need to pay attention to Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Luke Babbitt all game long.

Scouting the Trail Blazers ...

Blazers Non-Stiffs

-LaMarcus Aldridge: Lillard is getting all of the media attention surrounding the Blazers right now, but the big man from Texas is quietly having another fine season. The undersized Kenneth Faried is going to have his work cut out for him against the 6'11" Aldridge tonight.

-Damian Lillard: If Davis continues to miss games for the Hornets due to injury and the Hornets continue to sink in the standings, the 2013 ROY Award could easily be Lillard's. Drafted sixth overall out of Weber State, Lillard is already proving to be a top point guard just 23 games into his NBA career.

-Nicolas Batum: Batum is a box score filler (I should know, he's on my fantasy team) and is having his best NBA season yet, turning in 15.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.7 spg and 1.2 bpg - all career highs.

Blazers Stiffs

-Jared Jeffries: A former 11th overall pick, Jeffries proves once again that Indiana University alums make crappy NBA players. Jeffries gets just eight minutes per game in Portland and is often DNP-CD'd by head coach Terry Stotts.

Final thought ...

It's games like these that are the difference between 50 wins and 55 wins at season's end. No one should expect the Nuggets to win at Portland (especially after the Blazers have been resting nearly all week) and thus can't be overly disappointed if they don't. But road wins against mediocre opponents can make up for a lot of losses against quality opponents later in the season.

***

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