The Denver Nuggets haven’t been very good against their division rivals so far this season. Entering Friday night’s match-up with Jusuf Nurkic and the Portland Trailblazers, the Nuggets have won just one game against a division opponent this season; a home win against the Oklahoma City Thunder way back on November 9th. They’ve lost four straight games against division opponents including their last two games, losses at OKC and at home against the Timberwolves.
On one hand, division games aren’t as relevant in the NBA as they are in other sports like the NFL or MLB. On the other hand, they still matter. Division records are a major playoff tie-breaker in the event that two teams finish the season with the same record. Denver’s division record could be the difference between them making the playoffs or not, or making the 5 seed and playing one of the more vulnerable teams and making the 6 seed and playing the Spurs, Warriors, or Rockets.
Even more importantly, division games are about pride, at least more so than most other games. Karl-Anthony Towns knows this and said as much on Wednesday after the Timberwolves strolled into Pepsi Center and scored 32 points in the 4th quarter en route to an 8-point win.
Russell Westbrook takes these games personally, evidenced by his shoving Jokic to the ground in the preseason game and scoring 26 second-half points to lead an OKC comeback win. Jusuf Nurkic takes these games personally, as evidenced by his 33 point, 15 rebound game to effectively knock the Nuggets out of the playoffs. To this day, that stands as Nurkic’s career-high in points. He even took the opportunity to dance on Denver’s grave, wishing them a good summer, smirking as the team left the floor.
And that is really what this game is all about. The Nuggets are a fun team to watch with incredible upside and 90% of the things surrounding this team are positive and happy and fun. But if there is one area that they’ve repeatedly let their fanbase down over the last season and a half it’s that they haven’t shown any urgency at all when facing Nurkic and the Blazers. They also haven’t shown much pride.
Prior to their last match-up in November, no one on the Nuggets roster would admit that the Blazers-Nuggets game is personal. This is largely due to wanting to avoid bulletin board material. That’s understandable. But now Nurkic is 2-0 against the Nuggets and the Blazers have not just beaten the Nuggets, they’ve owned them. At a certain point, bulletin board material becomes irrelevant. At a certain point, and perhaps that point is a 1-5 divisional record, a team has to confront who they are in big games and start to make a change.
Let’s all hope that that point has arrived for the Denver Nuggets.
Injuries: Gary Harris (Questionable), Emmanuel Mudiay (Questionable), Paul Millsap (Out). Damian Lillard (Out).
Balkan Buddy Ball
Jokic’s ankle is still somewhere short of 100%. Just how much is anyone’s best guess but he hasn’t looked like the Joker since he got hurt. Don’t expect Nurkic to take it easy on the big fella. The Nuggets will need Magic Jokic in order to get the better of a raucous Friday night crowd in Portland. Meanwhile, Nurkic will be looking to throw his weight around and draw fouls on the Serbian Sensation. It’s entirely possible that the winner of that battle will lead his team to victory.
Damian Lillard is out
The Blazers are a top-heavy team. Nurkic can dominate games on either end of the court at times and guys like Al Forouq Aminu can help unlock some of their versatility. But this team is all about their dynamic backcourt. C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard are among the best guard duos in the entire NBA, capable of hanging with anyone. With Lillard sidelined due to a hamstring injury, the Blazers are down to one elite creator in McCollum and a bunch of role players around him. Denver’s job defensively should be made easier.
Craig has been the story of the Nuggets over the last three games. The Nuggets have been better when he is on the court and he’s drawn some tough assignments. Tonight, he’ll likely be asked to guard Evan Turner. In Blazers wins, Turner is a +9. In losses, he’s a -10. Craig will once again play an important role for the team. Will he continue to solidify himself as one of the team’s most important players?