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Game 36 Preview & Thread: Nuggets vs. Cavaliers (8:30pm MST)

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74419_wizards_cavaliers_basketball_medium_mediumYou wouldn't know it by watching these two teams go head-to-head last season, but there was a time when this incarnation of the Nuggets dominated LeBron James' Cavaliers.

Prior to the 2008-09 NBA season, Denver had beaten Cleveland five straight times and had won all but two games since LeBron James' arrival in 2003. Among those wins were Nuggets victories by 22, 30 (at Cleveland in 2008), 11 and 12 points.

That all changed last season, though, when Cleveland bested Denver by 11 at Cleveland early into the season and then embarrassed Denver with a 17-point victory on December 19th. And while it would be nice to see the Nuggets exact some revenge on their fellow 2009 conference finals participant, we still don't know for sure if our two best players - Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups - or even if our backup point guard - Ty Lawson - will be playing or not. As of this writing, Billups and Lawson are "expected" to play with Melo remaining doubtful.

Without Melo and/or Billups/Lawson, I doubt the Nuggets can erase their recent woes against good teams - home or road. After a shaky start, the Cavaliers are virtually tied with the Celtics for the Eastern Conference's best record, have won five straight road games (including at Phoenix, at the Lakers and at Atlanta) and have won 13 of 15 overall. I was fortunate enough to see them play live against the Lakers on Christmas Day: this Cavs team is deep, can play big or small, fast or slow and when they're stingy on defense they're almost unbeatable. During this successful 15-game span, the Cavaliers have held opponents under 100 points 11 times and under 90 seven times.

And perhaps most importantly for Cleveland, their players are having fun again. At first, the Shaquille O'Neal experiment looked to be an utter disaster as the Cavs played .500 ball with him and much better without him. But as Shaq has played himself into (sort of) shape and his new teammates are getting used to playing with him, Cleveland's one-two punch of Shaq plus Zydrunas Ilgauskas (the best backup center in the NBA) gives smaller NBA teams fits.

Which brings us to our just-so-happen-to-be-undersized Nuggets...

Remember when I wrote recently that the 76ers and the Warriors are the teams you want to play when your stars are hurt? Well, the opposite applies to the Cavs. This is precisely the team you don't want to play unless your roster is fully healthy. At the very least, you need your best player out there. Moreover, the Nuggets - who lack size to begin with - will likely be without their backup center, Chris Andersen, for this matchup...a guaranteed sellout at Pepsi Center and the biggest home game of the season until the Celtics and Lakers come back to town.

In other words, get well soon, Melo. Very, very soon.

SCOUTING THE CAVALIERS...

Cavaliers Stiffs

-Delonte West: After playing impressively for much of the 2008-09 campaign, West spent his offseason getting caught riding a motorcycle while carrying a 9mm Beretta pistol, a .357 Magnum and a Remington shotgun in a guitar case. Because, you know, riding a motorcycle wasn't dangerous enough as-is. Oh, and West is averaging a career low 30% shooting from three-point range this season.

-Mike Brown's "offense": While the Cavs head coach continues to be a great defensive coach, his offensive sets remain head scratchers. And that's putting it kindly. Seven seasons into the LBJ era, the Cavs offense still consists primarily of LeBron over-dribbling three feet behind the three-point line until the shot clock winds down and he has to barrel his way to the rack one-on-four.

-Shaquille O'Neal's physique: In the final year of his contract (that will pay him just $20 million this season) and wanting to prove he can win one more ring, you'd think Shaq would have shown up in Miami-type shape this season. You'd think.

Cavaliers Non-Stiffs

-LeBron James: Do I really need to explain why?

-Mo Williams: In big-time games, Williams steps up. In recent games at Phoenix, at Sacramento, at the Lakers, against Houston and a back-to-back with Atlanta, Williams scored 20 points all but one time and made a number of clutch shots when Cleveland needed them most (and again, if you've seen their offense trust me, they needed them!).

-Zydrunas Ilgauskas: With his minutes cut by more than six per game, The Big Z has kept his mouth shut and produced off the bench. In fact, he regularly finishes games since Shaq can't be counted on to make a free throw in the fourth quarter (or the first three quarters for that matter).

Opposition's Take: Fear the Sword

Photo courtesy of AP Photos: Mark Duncan