Denver fans will be looking for some much needed Christmas cheer tonight as the Nuggets attempt to break their four-game road losing streak against one of the better teams in the NBA: the rival Portland Trail Blazers.
First off, why does the NBA and their network partners insist on ruining big events by having Mariah Carey involved? I'm all fired up to watch today's NBA penta- (is that right?) header, and I just had Carey shoved down my throat in the opening teaser and seen her during every other commercial break. This is reminiscent of when Carey almost single handedly ruined Michael Jordan's final All-Star Weekend when she serenaded him while wearing that atrocious half Bulls/half Wizards jersey.
Check that, she did ruin it. Bah! Humbug!
But I digress...
In the fifth game of today's penta-header, our Nuggets get to spend their holiday in enemy territory: Portland, Oregon. As everyone who follows the NBA - and especially Nuggets fans - knows, the Blazers have been decimated by injuries. Centers Greg Oden and Joel Pryzbilla are done for the season with destroyed knees, star guard Brandon Roy has a sore shoulder (and may not play tonight), and forwards Travis Outlaw (foot) and Nicolas Batum (shoulder) and guard Rudy Fernandez (back) are all out tonight. Even head coach Nate McMillan is recovering from an Achilles tendon rupture which prevents him from working the sidelines.
And yet the Blazers - so overly loaded with talent that they could start two separate starting fives when healthy - went into San Antonio on Wednesday and won behind 31 points from Jerryd Bayless. I watched that game and the Spurs color announcer (Sean Elliott, I believe) commented in the first minute on how the injured Blazers are like a wounded animal backed into a corner and are to be feared as a result. So true.
Unlike our Nuggets - who are 1-5 in games with a missing starter due to injury - the undermanned Blazers have rattled off three straight impressive road wins: at Miami, at Dallas and at San Antonio (that's not a typo). And they've won five of their last six, including a pair of home victories over the dangerous Suns and suddenly dangerous Kings. I hate to sound like Scrooge here, but while our Nuggets make excuses with their injuries, the Blazers just win games.
Back when our rival Blazers were fully stocked, however, the Nuggets impressively beat them at Portland on October 29th as the second of a back-to-back to open the season. Carmelo Anthony was spectacular that night, scoring 19 fourth quarter points en route to a 41-point night serving notice to everyone that he's an MVP candidate this season.
But what we thought was a victory that would set the tone for future Nuggets road play has proved to be an aberration, as the Nuggets are now 6-8 away from Pepsi Center since that game. And thanks to those four straight road losses, even a more-than-solid 20-9 record for Denver can't keep Portland at bay. The Blazers linger just two games behind in the division and will be one game back if they best Denver tonight. There's no such thing as a must-win at this point in the season, but tonight's game is a damn important one and there's no way to sugarcoat it.
Like the Blazers, the Nuggets could be underhanded tonight, too. Whether or not Chauncey Billups plays is being reported as a "game-time decision" and the same goes for Roy. The Nuggets finally won a game sans Billups when they clocked the Hawks at Pepsi Center on Wednesday, but there was no doubt that the Hawks - who were wrapping up a three-game road trip and had played the night before - already had visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads.
Lets hope our Nuggets pass on the eggnog and don't eat too much turkey today. We could really use a Christmas victory tonight.
Greg Oden and Joel Pryzbilla's knees: Oden and Pryzbilla aren't Stiffs when they play, but as mentioned above each is done for the season due to major knee injuries, all but guaranteeing that the most Portland fans can hope for is a feel-good Rockets-type season. WIthout Oden or Pryzbilla, the Blazers won't do any real damage in the playoffs.
Andre Miller: The former Nugget point guard was signed to a three-year, $21 million contract by Portland in the offseason and rewarded them by showing up at training camp out of shape and averaging career lows across the board in shooting percentage (40.1%), points (11.2), assists (4.3) and steals (0.8). Way to go, Andre.
Martell Webster: Webster deserves credit for coming back from a season-ending foot injury, but he still can't shoot straight, making just 37.2% of his field goal attempts.
Jerryd Bayless: Buried on the bench for much of his time in Portland, Bayless is making the most of his opportunities with injuries to his teammates opening up playing time for the talented guard. Bayless unloaded on the Suns for 29 points a week ago and 31 on the Spurs this past Wednesday. Don't sleep on Bayless.
Brandon Roy: Even though his numbers are basically stagnant compared to last season, Roy remains on my NBA "Alpha Dog" list - i.e. guys who will put the team on their back and win a game for you, even when the chips are down. This list includes (in no particular order) Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce, Steve Nash, Roy and now Melo, too. That's it.
LaMarcus Aldridge: His numbers are down a bit, but that's because Oden was producing while healthy. In Oden's absence, Aldridge has stepped up and is even grabbing some rebounds, too! (Aldridge remains a woefully poor rebounder considering his size.)
Opposition's Take: Blazers Edge
Photo courtesy of AP Photos: Tony Gutierrez