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Nuggets visit Pacers attempting to steer season back on course

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In a season that's gone awry thus far, our Denver Nuggets face off against a struggling and severely wounded Eastern Conference foe in the form of the Indiana Pacers.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Game 8: 2014-15 NBA Season
Denver Nuggets (2009 - Pres)
@

1-6 (0-3 on road)
Series 0-0
3-6 (2-3 at home)
Nov. 14, 2014
Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
5:00 PM MT
Altitude / 950 AM

Ty Lawson PG Donald Sloan
Arron Afflalo SG Solomon Hill
Wilson Chandler
SF Chris Copeland
Kenneth Faried PF Luis Scola
Timofey Mozgov C Roy Hibbert
Notes
Um... You are already here... 
Blogs Indy Cornrows
Ty Lawson - Probable (sore ankle), Nate Robinson - Probable (strained hamstring), Randy Foye (knee) is out Injuries Paul George - Out (fractured leg), George Hill - Out (bruised knee), C.J. Miles - Questionable (migraine symptoms), Rodney Stuckey - Questionable (sore foot), C.J. Watson - Out (bruised foot), David West - Out (sprained ankle)

A study in contrasts, the Nuggets rank second in the NBA in opposing points allowed per game whereas the Pacers rank third from last in the same category.

Etc...

With a litany of injuries, Pacers appear poised to lose more "man games" to injuries than last season's Nuggets, who were second-highest in the NBA with 264 man games lost in 2013-14.

It's rare when two NBA teams size each other up in advance of a matchup and simultaneously think: "Phew, thank god I get to play those guys tonight, get an easy W and get our season back on track." But that's exactly what's happening when the Indiana Pacers host our beloved Denver Nuggets on Friday night in Indianapolis. Neither team is playing well, and for completely different reasons, although the Pacers have shown some remarkable fight despite landing at 3-6 through nine regular season games. Of course, it helps when you get to play in the perpetually pathetic Eastern Conference versus the brutal Western Conference (although the Nuggets haven't played anybody of substance in the West yet, either).

Before the 2014-15 NBA season began, having our Nuggets kickoff a three-game Eastern Conference road trip against the injury-ravaged Pacers appeared to be a near lock for the win column. But most unfortunately, given the Nuggets shoddy 1-6 record and general performance issues to date, there's no such thing as a lock for our Nuggets anymore. Even against a Pacers squad that's missing its best three players from last season (Paul George is out for the season due to a devastating leg injury, Lance Stephenson now wears a Charlotte Hornets uniform and David West is recovering from a sprained ankle).

In fact, the Pacers are so depleted that I - a self-anointed NBA aficionado - had to research exactly who is on this Indiana team. When you haven't heard of three/fifths of an NBA's team starting lineup, it means you've suddenly become very out-of-touch or the Pacers, just a season removed from a third straight Eastern Conference Finals appearance, have been reduced to a collection of nobodies. It's probably a little of both.

Currently, the Pacers are led by an ex-Colorado Buffalo in small forward Chris Copeland, who is admirably putting up 15.6 ppg in the absence of George and Stephenson. Kind of like the Nuggets own Wilson Chandler, Copeland can score but he can't shoot straight. Both are sub-.400 shooters, but that's par for the course for both the Nuggets and Pacers who currently rank 27th and 28th, respectively, in team field goal percentage. Ugh.

Helping Copeland pick up the slack has been much maligned Pacers center Roy Hibbert who appears (at least) to be back to his All-Star playing days. The 7'2", 275 pound Hibbert is averaging career highs in points and blocks and a near career high in rebounding. I always liked Hibbert to I'm happy to see him turn things around. In fact, I was among a small chorus that wanted to see a Hibbert / Stephenson trade to Denver last season given that Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw mentored them both during his assistant coaching days in Indiana under Pacers head coach Frank Vogel.

But tonight's game is less about the Pacers than it is about our Nuggets. With just three wins, the injury-depleted Pacers have won three more games than anyone thought they would by now. Conversely, our Nuggets - a team many thought would qualify for the playoffs - are in free fall at 1-6. If ever Shaw and the Nuggets could right the ship, tonight is the night.

But I'm not optimistic.

Three things to look for in this game ...

1) The Arron Afflalo / Brian Shaw Situation: As caught by Denver Stiffs own intrepid reporter Nate Timmons during Wednesday's Trail Blazers game, there's something fishy going on between Afflalo and Shaw. Did Shaw bench Afflalo? Did Afflalo refuse to come back in? According to Shaw, Afflalo wanted to remain on the bench because the other guys were playing so well. It will be fascinating to see how both respond tonight ... especially Afflalo, who hasn't had a single good game yet this season.

2) Hibbert versus the Nuggets center threesome: Can the Nuggets center triplet of Timofey Mozgov, JaVale McGee and Jusuf Nurkic accomplish anything offensively against the Pacers' big man?

3) Any fight?: If the Nuggets show no fight / heart tonight, it's clear that the players have quit on Shaw and are basically politicking for a coaching change by not showing up on the floor. For those who have long followed the NBA, you've seen this movie before and it's not pretty.

Scouting the Pacers ...

Pacers Non-Stiffs

-Roy Hibbert: Coming off a bizarrely shaky post-season, the aforementioned Hibbert is having perhaps his best NBA season ever and will make interior scoring tough for a Nuggets team already having trouble getting easy buckets inside.

-Chris Copeland: Copeland won't be making any All-Star teams, but you have to commend this undrafted player for stepping up in the wake of the George, Stephenson and West absences.

Pacers Stiffs

-Anyone who criticized Frank Vogel last season: The Pacers head coach was crucified last season as his team nearly lost in the playoffs to the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks as well as the underdog Washington Wizards en route to a third consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearance during which they pushed the Miami Heat to six games. Pacers president Larry Bird stood behind Vogel and will be rewarded as Vogel - up against more adversity than any other head coach other than Byron Scott this season - turns in a decent season all things considered.

Final Thought

Playing on the road either galvanizes a team that's struggling or exacerbates the issues that divides them and their head coach. We'll find out this weekend whether or not this road trip will save or sink the Denver Nuggets 2014-15 season.

**

Update: With Randy Foye out tonight with a knee injury, rookie Gary Harris will dress and could make his NBA debut in his home state of Indiana.