Enough with all the talking. The Nuggets players have seven games to prove that their spirited effort through their first 69 games wasn't a total waste. The first of those seven tests begins tonight against division rival Portland, a team that knows a thing or two about not making excuses.
When Nuggstradamus - ok, I - predicted the remainder of the Nuggets season on February 22nd, I guessed that the Nuggets would likely cede the Western Conference's two-seed to Dallas but never envisioned them being at risk to lose home court advantage in the first round altogether. I correctly predicted that they'd lose at Houston, at Boston, at Orlando and at Dallas. But losing to the Bucks and the Knicks was so inconceivable, that the Nuggets not repeating their 54-win performance from last season never crossed my mind. Even today, with the Nuggets playing their worst basketball of the season, they'd be on pace to win 54 if they had just taken care of those two squads. I don't think winning four of their last seven (with five games being at home) is such a tall order.
But reality has a tricky way of ruining hopes, premonitions, forecasts and predictions. Just ask the Portland Trailblazers. Before the season began, the NBA punditry world - including yours truly - pegged the Blazers to leap past the Nuggets and contend for the Western Conference's number-two spot with the Spurs (another conference rival unable to live up to pre-season expectations). But thanks to a collection of injuries, the Blazers conference finals hopes were dashed long ago.
Unlike the Nuggets as of late, however, the Blazers haven't been using injuries as an excuse and instead are racking up wins left and right, having brought home a victory in 12 out of their last 14 games. More impressively, eight of those 12 games played were on the road. In other words, the Blazers look a lot like the Nuggets of recent seasons past: they're closing strong.
And thus, there would be no better team to beat than these Blazers for our Nuggets to get off the schnide already. And beating Portland is very do-able, lest we forget that the Blazers were playing well and had five days rest when they last came to Denver to face a Nuggets team playing it's seventh game in 11 days...and the Nuggets proceeded to wax them by 12 and it was never that close. The fans were cheated out of a true current Nuggets vs. ex-Nuggets matchup that night as Blazers center, and ex-Nugget, Marcus Camby sat out due to injury (shocker, I know). According to HoopsWorld's Travis Heath, Camby still has strong feelings about his days in Denver and his ex-teammates, so it should be fun to watch Camby go at it with his former mates.
Given that Camby will (in theory) suit up on Thursday night, I expect a better game from Portland than we saw last time. That said, what would be a Nuggets home game without the opponent playing the second of a back-to-back? That's right, the Blazers will be coming in around 2am from Portland, meaning the Nuggets really have no excuse not to win. Even if Adrian Dantley is coaching the game. And while I've been complaining about these "unfair fights" all season long, I'll gladly take a one-sided Nuggets victory at this point. We need all the wins we can get.
On a side note, a number of readers have requested that we start posting second half threads since the game threads are getting filled up quickly. So as a test, we'll be pre-scheduling a second half thread to go up around 9:30pm MST. Since I'll be at the game, I won't be able to time it perfectly for the second half but I think it will work out great.
SCOUTING THE BLAZERS
-Blazers ownership: After successfully morphing the Blazers from the hated "Jailblazers" into the quality group of players they are today, vice president of basketball operations Tom Penn was canned and rumors are swirling that general manager Kevin Pritchard may not get a contract extension. Pritchard's possible replacement? The Nuggets' free agent-to-be GM Mark Warkentien, who just happened to be the co-architect of, you guessed it, the "Jailblazers"!
-Rudy Fernandez: And we thought Chauncey Billups couldn't shoot straight lately. The once spectacular Spaniard is shooting 38.8% from the field.
-Brandon Roy: Roy may have had his worst performance of 2009-10 when he faced off against the Nuggets at Pepsi Center in early March, but he's still anything but a Stiff. During this recent Blazers hot streak, Roy has scored less than 20 points just four times and had a 41-point game recently.
-Marcus Camby: Camby's never-ending fragility is always fair game for criticism, but when "healthy" he remains effective. In his last five games, the fewest rebounds he's pulled down is 11 and he recently had a 19-rebound, four-block game in a surprisingly tough fight against the lowly Wizards.
-Andre Miller: The Blazers have played 75 games. Guess who has played in all 75? The NBA's iron man, former Nugget Andre Miller.
Photo courtesy of AP: Jesse Garrabrant