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Preview: Nuggets enter final stretch, play first of three games with New Orleans

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In the final 10 game gauntlet, Denver will play three contests against the Pelicans, and they are must-wins.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The final ten games of the season are upon us. The Denver Nuggets are through over 85 percent of the season, and the pressure continues to mount as the Portland Trail Blazers continue to battle the Nuggets for control over the 8 seed. Denver currently owns a one game lead, but that can disappear in an instant. While the Blazers play the Los Angeles Lakers on the second night of a back-to-back, the Nuggets host the New Orleans Pelicans team that is just as fundamentally different from the start of the season as Denver.

The last time these two teams played was in the season opener this year. DeMarcus Cousins didn’t suit up for the Pelicans, while Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic started together in the frontcourt. Neither player could stop Davis, who went on to tally 50 points. He was just one block away from a 5x5 game as well, which is some absurd production. Denver pulled out the victory, but now that the Pelicans have added Cousins into the fold, it’s entirely possible for the duo to post 80 points combined on the Nuggets, since Denver has struggled to stop both individually.

This game will be a test of the team’s willpower, as well as Michael Malone’s resolve. There might be a desire to try and match the size of the Pelicans, but in this situation, the Nuggets should look to their speed, versatility, and offensive firepower in a smaller lineup to run the Pelicans out of the arena.

The Basics:

Who: Denver Nuggets (34-37) v.s. New Orleans Pelicans (30-42)

When: 7:00 PM MST

Where: Pepsi Center, Denver, CO

How to watch: Altitude TV

Rival Blog: The Bird Writes

Position Nuggets Pelicans Advantage
PG Jameer Nelson Jrue Holiday Pelicans
SG Gary Harris Tim Frazier Nuggets
SF Danilo Gallinari Solomon Hill Nuggets
PF Wilson Chandler Anthony Davis Pelicans
C Nikola Jokic DeMarcus Cousins Even
Bench Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Juancho Hernangomez, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee E'Twaun Moore, Jordan Crawford, Dante Cunningham, Donatas Motiejunas Nuggets

Injury Report: Kenneth Faried - probable (left shoulder contusion), Danilo Gallinari - probable (left knee bone bruise), Darrell Arthur - probable (knee soreness), DeMarcus Cousins - questionable (right ankle sprain), Omer Asik - out (illness), Quincy Pondexter - out (left knee)

Key Matchup - Frontcourt vs Frontcourt

Was there ever really any doubt? The Pelicans employ two of the most physically dominating tandems in the entire NBA that has the skill to back it up. The Nuggets employ a wide collection of talent among their bigs, and while Nikola Jokic has been dominant lately, Davis and Cousins have the staying power and physicality to rough him up a little. I’m very intrigued at how Jokic will respond to this test; will he play like he’s matching up with the Cleveland Cavaliers or Golden State Warriors, or will it be a personal matchup like his bouts with Karl-Anthony Towns? Jokic is getting good enough that he can make things a bit personal, but the very idea of his stardom is about making games more than just personal agendas. Jokic certainly doesn’t need to score a ton of points for the team to be successful, but the more he touches the ball, the better the team is.

What to watch for - Rotation questions

For the second straight game, the Nuggets will have what amounts to their entire rotation available tonight. Against the Indiana Pacers, the Nuggets struggled to find their footing when the rotations began to occur, and much of that has to do with the varying roles of players throughout the year. With both Mason Plumlee and Kenneth Faried off the bench, one is going to have to sacrifice minutes for the rest of the year. Juancho Hernangomez is barely even on the radar anymore.

That being said, the Nuggets need to settle on a rotation and stick to it, without completely conforming to the opposition. It’s easy to see the Pelicans employing Davis and Cousins and saying that Denver should match up with them. I wholeheartedly disagree. Denver’s identity is slowing forming into a pace and space team surrounding Nikola Jokic as it’s fulcrum. Going away from that was the reason the Balkan Buddy Ball mess happened in the first place. Denver shouldn’t be changing its identity for any team if they want to grow into the playoff team everyone thinks they can be. Unless the entire frontcourt other than Jokic and Plumlee gets injured, I would try to limit the tandem to 5-10 minutes together. Play fast, cause chaos on defense, and don’t change anything offensively.

Opening thought - Don’t look ahead to Portland

The game in Portland on Tuesday is everything to the hopes of this Nuggets team. If they win that game, the magic number of Nuggets wins combined with Blazers losses to earn a playoff spot goes down by two. At this current moment, the magic number is 10, and if the Nuggets win tonight, it will be 9. Denver can’t think about any game beyond the one they are playing next. Yes, the Portland game matters twice as much as this one, but if Denver loses tonight, it may not matter at all. The Nuggets must take care of business in order to earn their playoff spot, starting tonight against the vaunted frontcourt of the Pelicans.