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Nuggets at Blazers: Changing of the guards (8:30pm MST)

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In a crowded Denver Nuggets backcourt that features Chauncey Billups, Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, and J.R. Smith, Nugget fans were ready for breakout performances from Afflalo and Lawson. But an unexpected player has emerged from the group ... 25 year-old rookie Gary Forbes. Tonight Forbes will see a player whose path he could continue to follow in Blazers guard Wesley Matthews.

(Editor's note: This post actually by Nate Timmons)

The particulars ...

Records:
Denver:
6-5 (2-4 on the road)
Portland: 7-5 (3-1 at home)
Injuries:
Denver:
Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen both out recovering from knee injuries.
Portland: Greg Oden (left knee), Joel Przybilla (right knee), and Elliot Williams (right knee) are both out. Brandon Roy (left knee) is questionable.

Opposition's Take: Blazersedge

Take another look at the injuries above ... you'll see six guys who are all out or questionable with knee injuries. Nothing worse than knee injuries in basketball. And Blazersedge.com has the news that Greg Oden will miss the remainder of the season as he'll be undergoing his second microfracture surgery, this time on his injured left knee. Nuggets Nation has seen Kenyon Martin's career marred by knee injuries and multiple microfracture surgeries so we can definitely sympothize with a player who wants nothing more than to be out there helping his team.

The toll injuries can take on a player we've seen first hand. K-Mart was so frustrated with his injuries that it led to some run-ins with coach George Karl and got ugly enough that Martin was infamously suspended during a playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers for a locker room blowup. Another injury weighing on Blazer fans is that of Brandon Roy. The talented shooting guard has proven to be one of the best in the NBA when he's on the floor, but has also had issues staying injury free and is listed as questionable for tonight's game.

In Roy's starting spot tonight will be Matthews, an undrafted second-year guard that the Blazers lured to Portland with a dump truck full of cash. After signing a one-year deal with the Utah Jazz out of Marquette, Matthews played for just $467,123 last season. He averaged 9.4 points on 48% shooting in just over 24 minutes a game last season for the Jazz. And after coming off the bench to start his rookie season, he worked his way into the starting lineup and started 48 of his 82 games for the Jazz. Matthews also played a key role in helping to eliminate the Nuggets from the playoffs last season ... just in case you need a reason to root against him. As a restricted free agent this past off-season, the shooting guard was expected to get a raise in the $3 million to $5.8 million per season range. Matthews and his agent were able to parlay his lone NBA season into a 5-year $35 million deal with Portland.

So far this season Matthews hasn't quite had the same success in Portland has he did in Utah as his shooting percentage is down from 48% to 44% and his three-point percentage down from 38% to 26% and his shooting more often from downtown with roughly 3.5 attempts from deep per game. But Matthews scoring average is up from 9.4 ppg to 11.2 ppg and in the Blazers last game Matthews started in Roy's place and notched 30 points in 43 minutes in the 100-99 victory over Memphis. Matthews played with a ball dominant point guard with the Jazz in Deron Williams and fits into the starting lineup nicely alongside former Nugget and notorious ball dribbler Andre Miller in Portland.

The reason I talk so much about Matthews? Because Gary Forbes should be drawing up the same blueprint for success with the Nuggets as he's on a one-year deal this season. Forbes is averaging 8.5 points on 51% shooting (61% from deep) in just 16 minutes per game. But like the title of this post says ... we are seeing a changing of the guards for the Nuggets.

J.R. Smith was late for shoot-around in Phoenix and that gave Karl the right to bench him for that game (even though his scoring prowess could have lifted Denver to a big win) and Smith was only on the floor for just over one minute against the New York Knicks Tuesday night. Forbes has filled in for Smith and played 23 minutes against both the Suns and the Knicks and set a new career high against the Knickerbockers by scoring 19 points on 8-13 shooting (including 3-3 from downtown).

Forbes seems to have all the qualities Karl loves ... he gives a tremendous effort on defense, he's always around the glass on the offensive end (impressive rebounding for the guard), and he plays within the offense. It's easy to see that J.R. Swish has the most natural talent on the team, but his attitude and lack of attention to detail seem to have run their course and it would appear that Forbes is just the answer Karl needed to tie Swish to the bench.

I still think Smith has the talent to be an all-star in the NBA, but he might need Afflalo's work ethic and Forbes' hustle to get there. In the preseason game against the Blazers that I attended, it looked like Smith was a new player ... he was hustling on defense, creating turnovers, and looked to be in great basketball shape. The downfall of Smith, as we appear to be seeing, is a tough one for me to swallow. Afflalo is a tireless worker, but he just doesn't have J.R.'s talent and ability to not only get to the rim, but to sky above it. Forbes is a talented player, but again nobody can touch Smith's athleticism and the Nuggets are going to miss that if Smith is indeed stuck on the bench now. As an impending free agent and one that the organization or at least the coach doesn't want back, it appears we might be losing Smith sooner than expected (although some have been calling for Smith's time to be over for awhile now).

Players to watch tonight:

Nuggets: Well, I hope we'll see a good dose of Forbes, but I'd like to focus on Billups. The Nuggets starting point guard is off to a horrible start. Billups' field goal percentage (34%) and three point percentage (29%) are his lowest since his injury shortened 13 game 1999-00 season with the Nuggets in his first go-round. Billups 4.5 assists per game are his lowest since his 2002-03 season with the Detroit Pistons, yet Billups is on the floor for 31.4 minutes per game. As Denver's point guard it is time for Billups to stop looking for his own shot and get his teammates going a little more. He's not letting the game come to him and he's forcing way to many bad shots. Billups is still finding ways to get to the foul line where he's shooting 91.2% on 6.2 attempts per game ... so there's that.

Blazers: LaMarcus Aldridge. The power forward is the second leading scorer on the team with 17.5 ppg. Aldridge benefits from both Miller's and Marcus Camby's ability to toss the lob pass we saw for years here in Denver, but other than that the 6'11'' big man out of Texas likes to play away from the rim and the Nuggets must force him to do so tonight. With Denver's lack of size they run into a bigger team tonight than they've face the last couple of games. But again, Portland's bigs in Aldridge and Camby can be turned into jump shooters and the Nuggets will have to do a good job on the defensive glass.

Sarcastic Nuggets key to victory: Hire a hypnotherapist to convince the players the Rose Garden is the Pepsi Center ... maybe that'll cure the ball hogging road style the Nuggets have adopted in the Karl era.

More on Forbes: You can follow him on Twitter at GForbz3

His Twitter profile quote: "Some people have Good Luck.. Some people have Bad Luck.. Don't Run when you lose. Noone [sic] likes a cry baby... Ceasing everyday til I get what's mine."

Some cherry picked facts about Forbes from his UMASS player profile:

Favorite Musical Artist: Jay-Z
Best Sporting Event I Ever Attended: FIBA Championships, playing for Panama
Favorite TV Show: Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Favorite Athletes: Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant
Childhood Idol: My brother- Anthony Fields
Magazine Cover I'd Like to Be On: Forbes
Most People Don't Know This But: I have diabetes
My Biggest Fear: God and the open sea
My First Memory of Basketball: Losing to my brother when I was two years old
My Most Prized Possession: My family
If I Didn't Play College Basketball I Would Play: Football
Who Had the Greatest Impact on My Life: My family
Pre-game Rituals: Ice-tub/hot tub
Best Advice From a Coach: Shut up and play
My Best Non-Athletic Talent: Writing
If I Had $1 Billion Dollars I Would: Buy a Country

ntimmons73@yahoo.com
Twitter: Nate_Timmons