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Preview: Portland TrailBlazers vs. Denver Nuggets

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After a miserable road trip, the Nuggets had a couple of days at home to recover before hosting division rival Portland

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

After a miserable road trip, the Nuggets had a couple of days at home to recover before hosting division rival Portland. Has it done them any good? Coach Michael Malone said he was sore after destroying a chair following that disastrous Mavericks game, which mirrors perfectly the feelings of many fans. After a couple of days to lick some wounds, though, Denver is hosting the Portland Trailblazers, another team that is under-performing expectations but will still be a handful for the Nuggets.

The last time Portland came to town they spoiled Denver’s home opener and started Denver’s string of heartbreaking fourth quarter failures. As always, Portland will be counting on its backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to take control of the game, while Denver will be countering with a bigger inside presence in Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic while hoping to contain the ball on defense and keep hold of it on offense - two things they have struggled with this season.

The TrailBlazers have lost four of their last five but did get a win in Oklahoma City against the Thunder and are hoping to carry that momentum into this game. The Nuggets just need a win, any way they can get one. Once again, the starting lineup is a mystery until closer to tipoff with this team, but there’s at least one hopeful change listed. There’s still some optimism left in Nuggets Land.

The Basics

Who: Denver Nuggets (9-16) vs Portland Trailblazers (13-14)

When: 7:00 PM MST

Where: Pepsi Center, Denver CO

How to watch: Altitude

Rival Blog: Blazer’s Edge

Position Denver Portland Advantage
PG Emmanuel Mudiay Damian Lillard TrailBlazers
SG Gary Harris (mins restriction) C.J. McCollum TrailBlazers
SF Danilo Gallinari Maurice Harkless Nuggets
PF Darrell Arthur Noah Vonleh Even
C Nikola Jokic Mason Plumlee Nuggets
Bench Will Barton, Jusuf Nurkic, Wilson Chandler, Jamal Murray, Kenneth Faried, Juancho Hernangomez, Alonzo Gee Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis, Jake Layman, Shabazz Napier, Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner Even

Injury Report: Wilson Chandler - probable (hip), Darrell Arthur - probable (knee), Gary Harris - questionable (foot); Al-Farouq Aminu - doubtful (back).

Key Matchup: Malone vs. the rotation. Nuggets fans have despaired all season (not to mention last season) when observing the rotation choices of coach Michael Malone. Injuries have played their part but leaning on lineups that get routinely destroyed by other teams and finishing games with players getting 16, 18 or even 20 straight minutes on the court as leads slip away are just a couple of frustrating elements to this season. The sample sizes are getting large enough to help make decisions that can rectify both issues, and yesterday Malone noted that two of his better players are also two of the players that he needs to prepare for the future, so there should be some clarity coming for playing time shortly:

To win this game against Portland, Malone should probably lean on his best-performing player (Jokic) and give time to his most dangerous microwave player (Murray) at the very least. We’ll see how it develops.

Spotlight on: Nikola Jokic. As laid out in this post, since his return to the center position Nikola Jokic is making his case as Denver’s best player, and one of the best-performing players in the league. Portland has received poor play from its center position, on the other hand, and is the third-worst team in the league in points-allowed. They are not a good rebounding team either, but Denver leading the league in that category hasn’t produced wins. If the Nuggets are willing to run the offense through Jokic, however, it should allow for better spacing and cleaner execution to add to that rebounding prowess. Portland should have no answer, or at least none they’ve shown this year. If Malone were ever going to give Jokic 30+ minutes of consistent play, this would be a great game to start.

Final thought: The Nuggets need a palate-cleanser. The fans need one too - a game in which Denver comes out and plays hard for four quarters and defends the home court in front of its fans would be a welcome sight. But that road trip was a soul-crusher and the Nuggets need to come out and show themselves that they can beat playoff teams if they’re playing the right way. Coaches will say you learn more from losing than from winning, but remembering how to win can be important too. This season is quickly spiraling out of control, so it’s up to the Nuggets to rein it in and get back in the saddle.

The chance to do it the easy way might have slipped from their grasp on that road trip, but they still have the chance to do it the hard way. The rest of this season can either be a journey toward respectability or a march toward another higher lottery pick. Step one comes tonight.