Nuggets vs. Trailblazers preview: JJ Hickson returns to Portland in tough test against LaMarcus Aldridge and friends

Byron Hetzler-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets head to the Pacific Northwest to take on the surprisingly superb Portland Trailblazers in their first game since learning Danilo Gallinari will miss the remainder of the season.

Game 41: 2013-14 NBA Season
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20-20 (9-11 on road)
Series 1-0 Blazers
31-11 (16-4 at home)
January 23rd, 2014
Moda Center - Portland, OR
8:30 PM MT
TNT / 950 AM

Ty Lawson PG Damian Lillard
Randy Foye
SG Wesley Matthews
Wilson Chandler SF Nicolas Batum
Kenneth Faried
PF LaMarcus Aldridge
J.J. Hickson
C Robin Lopez
Notes
Denver Stiffs Blogs Blazer's Edge
Danilo Gallinari (knee), JaVale McGee (leg) are out, Darrell Arthur (left hip strain) is day-to-day
Injuries Nicolas Batum (finger) is day-to-day
Since the beginning of last season, the Nuggets are 50-21 with Gallo and a mere 27-24 without him.
Etc... The Blazers have won 10 more games at this point in the season than they did last year, when they were 21-21 after 42 games.

It's an exciting time to be a sports fan in Denver. The Denver Broncos are heading to their first Super Bowl in 15 years. Under first-year head coach Patrick Roy, the Colorado Avalanche are playing well and are ensconced as the 5-seed in the Western Conference playoff race. The best skiers and snowboarders in the world (minus Shaun White) are heading to Aspen this weekend for the Winter X Games to tune up for the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

And then you have the Denver Nuggets. Their roller-coaster ride of a season took another unexpected turn when it was announced on Tuesday that Danilo Gallinari will miss the rest of the season. It's an unfortunate situation, to say the least. I feel bad for Gallo, as he has to be frustrated after putting in so much work in his rehab only to suffer this setback. How it affects the rest of the team remains to be seen.

The Nuggets were already scuffling before the devastating Gallo news. After rebounding from the horrendous eight-game losing streak with a five-game winning streak, the Nuggets have completely forgotten how to play defense in their last four games. They've given up an average of 117 points on 49.3% shooting against their last four opponents, three of which have been losses.

Now they face yet another hurdle in what has already proven to be a difficult season. It will be interesting to see how the team responds. This is the sort of thing that can galvanize a team, a la Tom Thibodeau and the Chicago Bulls after Derrick Rose went down and Luol Deng was traded, or send them plummeting even further in the standings, like the Lakers after Kobe Bryant's latest injury. No doubt Brian Shaw has his work cut out for him getting the players to focus and compete.

On the other side of the coin, the Portland Trailblazers storybook season continues. Despite losing the last two games on a tough four-game road trip, the Blazers are still a lofty 31-11. They're third in the Western Conference, only a half game behind the Thunder and 1.5 games behind the Spurs. Several prognosticators predicted Portland would regress to the mean and come back to the middle of the pack, but they keep defying expectations. They're first in points per game, second in rebounds, and third in assists.

LaMarcus Aldridge leads the way with 24.2 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. Damian Lillard has continued to grow in his second season, averaging 21.2 points and 5.8 assists per game. The rest of the starters (including this guy) have also played well, and Portland is second in the NBA in three-point shooting at 40%. The Moda Center is never a hospitable place to play, but the Nuggets recently won in Golden State, also known as a difficult environment for opposing teams.

Basically, I have no idea what to expect from this game. The Gallo situation, the match-up, the setting, and the Nuggets' play of late could make this an extremely difficult game to win. On the other hand... the Nuggets seem to play better during nationally televised games, and they tend to get up for the upper echelon teams. As an eternal optimist, I think the Nuggets are going to bring their A-game and at least make this a competitive affair. I also think Denver is seeking revenge for the way Portland dominated and embarrassed them in the Nuggets' home opener. Gallo isn't coming back to help out, so now it's up to the rest of the team to band together and decide what they want out of the season.

Game Predictions -

- The Nuggets were losing big in their home opener against Portland until Nate Robinson came in and brought the Nuggets back to within seven, if I recall correctly. He had a big game against Golden State, the Nuggets' most recent nationally televised game. I think he leads the team in scoring tonight.

- Portland is a great three-point shooting team, led by Lillard and the resurgent Wesley Matthews. Those two will combine for seven three-pointers at minimum.

- JJ Hickson was let go by Portland in the off-season and will be looking to make a statement in his return. He'll have at least 15 points and 10 rebounds.

- Wilson Chandler's shooting from deep has been suspect lately, but he rights the ship tonight and hits 50% of his threes.

- The Nuggets' front-court struggles against elite players, and that will continue in this game. Aldridge will have a huge night to the tune of 30 points and 15 rebounds.

- Kenneth Faried will have a bounce-back game and record a double-double.

- The Nuggets lose the three-point shooting battle but will minimize the Trailblazer's second-chance points. The defense won't fully re-appear, but the Nuggets step it up again against a tough team and win a shootout 115-110.

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