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Preview: Nuggets host the Lake-Show

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Denver has won back-to-back games but needs to defeat Los Angeless to strengthen their hold on the 8th seed

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets are clawing their way toward the playoffs with a pack of teams hot on their heels, the resurgent Portland Trail Blazers chief amongst them. The schedule has brought them the Los Angeles Lakers in full tank mode, but Denver has managed to lose to tanking teams before. The Nuggets have a habit of playing down to their competition, actually, but if they want to make the playoffs they can’t throw away games against teams they outclass. Zubac vs. Jokic should be fun to watch, but really Denver should be able to put this one in the bag early if they simply do what they need to do from the beginning of the game.

The Lakers come in as losers of 9 of their last 10 as the organization tries desperately to keep this year’s pick, which is only top-3 protected in the draft. They lost a heartbreaker to the 76ers 118-116 last night and should be both tired and demoralized. Los Angeles has no reason to coach to win this game, but stranger things have happened. A quality effort from Denver should get this done, but if they use their injuries and lingering weariness as an excuse to settle and let the Lakers hang around while the Nuggets look forward to the Clippers game on Thursday, they could faceplant. That’s why they call these “trap games.”

The Basics

Who: Denver Nuggets (31-35) vs Los Angeles Lakers (20-46)

When: 8:30 PM MT

Where: Pepsi Center, Denver CO

How to watch: TNT

Rival blog: Silver Screen and Roll

Position Nuggets Lakers Advantage
PG Jameer Nelson D'Angelo Russell Nuggets
SG Gary Harris David Nwaba Nuggets
SF Danilo Gallinari Brandon Ingram Nuggets
PF Wilson Chandler Julius Randle Nuggets
C Nikola Jokic Ivica Zubac Nuggets
Bench Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Juancho Hernangomez, Darrell Arthur, Mason Plumlee Tarik Black, Jordan Clarkson, Nick Young, Larry Nance Jr., Tyler Ennis, Corey Brewer Nuggets

Injury Report

Kenneth Faried - doubtful (back), Wilson Chandler - Questionable (groin), Jameer Nelson - Questionable (hip flexor)

Key Matchup

Rhythm vs. Effort. Denver might be missing Jameer Nelson or Wilson Chandler by the time the game rolls around, so Denver’s league-leading number of different starting lineups could increase. Jamal Murray might get the call, Emmanuel Mudiay might get minutes, pigs could literally fly through the arena. It’s a weird season. Regardless of hovering bacon or extended minutes by 21-and-under guards, Denver has to find a way to mesh its lineups with consistent effort while finding a rhythm even when certain players might not have all played together recently.

It’s been a key all season, but over the last few games Denver’s defensive intensity has picked up, and Mason Plumlee has been finding that rhythm with his new team. It was Plumlee rather than Jameer Nelson or Nikola Jokic who led the team in assists when they downed the Sacramento Kings on Saturday, and that game featured some good dig-deep effort from a Denver team traveling on a back-to-back with some sick and injured players. Those are the sorts of effort Denver will need in all 16 remaining games if they plan to make the playoffs.

One thing to watch

Jamal Murray’s emergence. Coach Michael Malone indicated he would not make any special effort to get Murray time with the starters despite his recent hot play - and then Jameer Nelson came down with a hip flexor injury that could limit his time or keep him out entirely. Murray has double-digit scoring performances in 7 of his last 8 games, beginning to look like the burst-scorer Denver thought he would turn into. His defensive effort has been eye-opening however; his mistakes are made at full-speed and he’s not a fan of backing down to anyone.

If Jameer can’t go tonight, at least Murray has shown the fight Denver will need down the stretch - and this pressure run toward the playoffs will be good for all the young kids, but especially one they are trying to groom as a future leader and lynchpin of this squad. If D’Angelo Russell brings his elusive A-game it will be fun to watch him and Murray go at each other, just as it’s fun when Mudiay gets to do it. The youth need to give Denver a lot of good minutes tonight, and that starts with the Blue Arrow.

Prediction

Denver should be able to handle this. Even if Nelson and Chandler join Kenneth Faried on the DNP-Injury list, they should have the firepower to down a Lakers squad that is trying to tank and is playing a ton of raw players who are not ready to compete as a team. We’ll go 114-102, and hope we might see some bench emptying by the home squad by the end.

Just try not to fumble this game away in the closing minutes, Denver. Take this video as an example of what not to do.