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Roundtable: Nikola Jokic Strikes Back

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The Nuggets play the Trail Blazers in the first matchup with the interdivision rival of the 2017-18 season.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

What is the key matchup in this game?

Adam Mares (@Adam_Mares): This one is easy, it’s Nikola Jokic vs. Jusuf Nurkic. Once dubbed “Balkan Buddy Ball,” the two former teammates are not only the x’s and o’s key to the game, they are also the emotional key to the game. Nurkic got the better of Jokic in last year’s match-up. This year, Jokic can help take the Blazers out of their game by frustrating Nurkic and drawing fouls on him. Most important of all, Jokic has to show that he can step up in a game with this much emotional weight. If he does, Denver will win and Portland might find themselves in a free-fall.

Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): Anybody who says it isn’t Jokic vs. Nurkic is a liar. Nurkic likes to be a bully, Jokic can be selfless to a fault. It would be easy for Jokic to find a path of less resistance and still make the offense work, but he really needs to go get his tonight and work Nurkic on both ends. Both players will be very up for this matchup, but Jokic has to work at least a draw out of it for Denver to pull out this victory - and with Jokic being the better player, it’d be nice for him to show it on the court and in the box score.

Mike Olson (@visiblemike): While I completely agree with Adam and Gordon, a close second will be seeing how Denver’s young guards fare against a crazy-good Portland backcourt tonight. But yeah, all eyes will be on Jokic/Nurkic, and who could blame them? Both guys have shown a propensity for staying ahead of a learning curve, and Nurk got the better of Jokic last go-round. It should be a great game to watch.

Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): Well I guess I’m a liar then, because while I think the Jokic-Nurkic lineup will be the most entertaining matchup to watch, I don’t think it’s the key matchup. In my opinion the game will be decided by the guard play between the starters for both teams. If Harris is out, Murray and Barton are going to have to limit Lillard and McCollum while also play an integral role on offense. Those two Nuggets combined for over 50 points against the Magic, and if they can do that again while limiting the Trail Blazers guards to under 50 points combined, it’s going to be an easy win for the Nuggets.

Jeremy Poley (@JeremyPoley): I'm going to sidestep Jokic vs. Nurkic and this is why: I doubt we'll get a full game's worth of these two going head-to-head. With Millsap in the picture, and likely a heavy dose of Plumlee, the war of who-makes-the-better-slivovitz could end up more symbolic than real. Nurkic is the third or fourth best player on the Trailblazers. Everyone knows Lillard is their superstar. I would say Lillard vs. Murray, but I think Mudiay will bite off more of this matchup than Murray will. Against top tier PG's Murray has disappeared and Mudiay has risen up. I expect the same in this game. If Mudiay can challenge Lillard on both ends of the court all game long then I see us taking home the win.

What is the X-factor for the Trail Blazers? for the Nuggets?

Mares: I think the x-factor for both teams is the same: offensive rebounding. Both teams rely on second-chance points as a large part of their offense. Jokic tends to struggle with big, physical centers (Nene, DeMarcus Cousins), especially on the offensive glass. Nurkic is at his best when he’s carving out space on the block for the putback. Denver will have to gang rebound on the defensive end and then find a way to snag extra possessions on the offensive end.

Gross: Mares stole rebounding from me, so I’m going to go with outside shooting. The Nuggets are averaging 30 3-point attempts a game in their last three outings, and if they go 9-for-34 like they did against the Nets they’ll have trouble. The Blazers are a good rebounding team as Mares says above but have been a poor shooting team (which is part of the reason they have so many offensive rebounds). Denver does not want to get into a brick-fest with Portland, and they definitely don’t want the 27th ranked team in 3-point attempts to get hot from distance against them either. Keep Portland’s attempts low from behind the arc, and hit yours. Easy.

Olson: I love both of those answers, but think that if the Nuggets can win the assists battle in this contest, they can win the game. Play their game of getting the easy shot in the air, stick with this recently-discovered defense, and try to put some distance between them in every quarter. The possible emotions in this game could see both teams come out of the gates pretty hot. The team that’s being most efficient in their efforts and sharing the ball well ought to see the W at the end.

Lewis: For the Trail Blazers, I think the X-factor will be Nurkic. As Nuggets fans we know that he’s an inconsistent defender, turnover prone, and shoots a poor percentage near the rim. If he’s able to be the opposite of those, that could give the Nuggets problems. For the Nuggets, I think the X-factor will be Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee. I wouldn’t be surprised to see those two get tasked with defending Nurkic, and they have the defensive chops to frustrate the Bosnian big man.

Poley: The X-factor for the Trail Blazers is going to be Ed Davis - a powerful big that was buried in their lineup until Aminu got hurt. He's going to crash the glass on both ends and his size against Millsap defensively could be a game changer. The Nuggets X-factor is Barton whom I expect will start for an injured Harris. CJ McCollum is a sieve on defense - the last thing you want when dealing with Barton's career high offensive production.

There are rumors that Jusuf Nurkic is unhappy with Coach Terry Stotts after being benched for the entire fourth quarter during the Trail Blazers loss to the Nets. Any words of advice for Portland?

Mares: Nurk fever can produce many symptoms; bouts of euphoria lead to feelings of delusion early on but can quickly turn into confusion and ultimately lethargy. If the problem persists for more than two weeks, symptoms can become more severe and ultimately lead to loss of all motivation, sub-tweeting, and weight gain. Consult your doctor as soon as possible if any of these symptoms arise.

Gross: Nurkic said the right things after having some time to cool off, but for all the anxious Portland fans out there: this is what it looks like when Nurkic isn’t catered to. As long as they don’t have another big who is deserving of his minutes they should be able to ride it out, but if Stotts is trying to teach Nurkic a lesson by benching him, Denver fans will tell you that the lessons he gets from that are not the ones Stotts is trying to teach. Best of luck.

Olson: I’m still laughing at Adam’s answer. If anyone has felt the pain of the Nurkic rollercoaster, it’s Denver Nuggets fans. Nurk is a couple years older now, and maturity can be a big factor in how these sorts of situations sort themselves out, but this is the downside of the volatility you sign up for when adding him into the mix.

Lewis: Welcome to hell.

Poley: I have no words of advice for Portland. They essentially got Nurkic, Zach Collins and a playoff spot for Plumlee, Vlatko Cancar, and an obliterated off-season. This is what it looks like when a Nuggets fan offers advice to Trail Blazer management:

What is your prediction for the game?

Mares: Denver has a great opportunity to vault themselves to a 9-5 record and all of the feels if they can steal this one in Portland. A loss for the Blazers could also send them spiraling out of control, especially if Denver can frustrate the already frustrated Bosnian Beast. The Blazers schedule also gets really tough in the coming weeks so a 6-7 start could provide a challenge. In short, Portland needs this game much more than Denver. However, talking to some of the Nuggets players after the Orlando Magic game makes me think Denver has had this one circled on the calendar. So I’m feeling optimistic!

Gross: Portland has had the easiest schedule in the league thus far and has only managed a .500 record. Denver’s has been 7th-easiest by that same metric, but we knew that - and that Denver had to capitalize, which they have so far thanks to that 5-1 homestand. This is an early game with playoff implications, and Denver needs to bury the Trail Blazers. 10 days ago I would not have been confident at all in Denver’s ability to stay with a desperate Blazers team, but by winning games they could easily have dropped last year it feels like Denver can win a low-scoring or high-scoring affair, and have the will to do so. Taking Denver in this one, with at least one tech by someone in the front court for Nurkic reasons.

Olson: Tough call. I’m expecting a close score at the end, with a game that could fall either way. The momentum of the season thus far seems to be squarely in the Nuggets favor, but Portland will come out a little desperate, and with something to prove. The homer in me says that Denver gets out of Portland tonight winning a squeaker, and starts to get a little more notice around the league.

Lewis: If this was last year, I would say the Trail Blazers win, no problem. But the Nuggets have Paul Millsap now, and things are much better! The Nuggets have one game to present in the “they should lose this game but we didn’t” file after winning a nail-biter over Miami, and this would be another. I’m hoping for a 107-104 win, with Lillard time not being enough for the home team.

Evan Fiala also wants me to add that he thinks Nurkic sucks, for whatever that’s worth.

Poley: Jokic trip-dubs The Nuggets into a 120 - 106 victory, embarrassing the Trail Blazers in front of their home crowd.