Blazers vs Nuggets preview: Fournier, Mozgov will have their hands full against Lillard, Lopez

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

With the team decimated by injuries and rookie head coach Brian Shaw attempting to wring something - anything - out of a roster of largely mismatched pieces, the Nuggets couldn't be any farther from their postseason hopes of last year.

Game 56: 2013-14 NBA Season
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38-18 (17-11 away)
Series 2-0
25-30 (14-13 home)
February 25th, 2014
Pepsi Center - Denver, CO
7:00 PM MT
Altitude / 950 AM

Damian Lillard PG Aaron Brooks
Wesley Matthews SG Randy Foye
Nicolas Batum SF Wilson Chandler
Dorell Wright PF Kenneth Faried
Robin Lopez C Timofey Mozgov!
Notes
Blazer's Edge Blogs You're here!
LaMarcus Aldridge (groin) is out, Meyers Leonard (ankle) is out, Joel Freeland is out (MCL)
Injuries Danilo Gallinari (knee) is out, JaVale McGee (leg fracture) is out, Nate Robinson (ACL sprain) is out, Ty Lawson (rib fracture) is doubtful, Darrell Arthur (hip) is day to day
The Blazers are 1st in the NBA in points per game (107.8ppg) Stat The Nuggets are 28th in the league in points allowed (104.7ppg)

Instead of a dark horse contender, the Nuggets are now a team fighting(?) for one of the top picks in the 2014-15 NBA Draft. Instead of a team with a veteran coach and an improving core of talents, they're now a team with a coach still finding his way at the NBA level and riddled with serious injuries to players the Nuggets counted on developing. Instead of holding home court advantage into the first round of the playoffs, the Nuggets are rapidly falling to the bottom of the Western conference standings. Their 10-season long playoff streak is likely coming to an end.

This year's team seems about as far removed from last year's Nuggets as they could be.

Most of us lowered our expectations for this year's team with all the turmoil in the front office and the organization in general. I think I speak for most Nuggets fans when I say that I still thought they would make the playoffs as a low seed and finally see Danilo Gallinari return. How many people saw the current state of the team coming, given season-ending injuries to Gallo, JaVale McGee, Nate Robinson, and Andre Miller self-destructing his way off the team during the most difficult stretch of his career?

The Nuggets have dealt with an enormous level of adversity this season. This isn't to cover for their garbage efforts lately, but to provide some context behind a squad that's playing like it's worn down, overmatched, outmanned and struggling to learn from the end of the bench to the head coach. I think it's easy to call for Shaw's head in the situation he's in, despite his stumbles in dealing with Miller's ugly situation and the so far unsubstantiated locker room acrimony between him and the team. Any coach in the NBA would struggle were they in Shaw's place and with the talent available to him.

That said, the Nuggets effort has been wanting lately. Getting blown out by the Kings at home is one of the ugliest things to happen to the Nuggets in years, so I can only hope that the Nuggets fight harder against the 5th-seeded Trailblazers tonight. Evan Fournier's career-high 27 points (on 11 shots!) against the Kings was exciting, and his growth into a solid all-around player has been one of the few bright spots of this year's campaign. Despite the Nuggets acquiring Jan "Airwolf" Vesely and Aaron Brooks at the trading deadline, make no mistake - this team is simply treading water as it continues to limp towards the close of the regular season.

Conversely, after finishing out of the playoffs last year, the Blazers have experienced a resurgence, behind the development of Damian Lillard into a superstar paired alongside one of the top-3 power forwards in the game in LaMarcus Aldridge. Both players have elevated their games this season, though in a bit of luck for the Nuggets LMA will likely miss tonight's game with a groin injury. They're also buoyed by no longer giving minutes to J.J. Hickson, as Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland have provided a much tougher interior defense compared to Hickson's halfhearted handwaving. We'll see how well Mozgov does in the starting role at center tonight against Brook Lopez, something those amongst Nuggets fans have been clamoring for for a while. Notorious Nugget killer Nicolas Batum will keep Wilson Chandler's hands full, and it might get ugly if Quincy Miller or Anthony Randolph have to guard him.

Tonight will showcase two teams headed in opposite directions: the Blazers with a bright young star in Lillard heading into the postseason, and the Nuggets, a starless team looking for answers.

All you can do is sit back, look for positive signs, and hope for no more injuries. This scene from The Life Aquatic sums up my feelings on the gutpunch that is this season:

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The Life Aquatic - Life on Mars

Try to enjoy it, Stiffs.

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