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Preview: Denver Nuggets play most important game of the year at the Portland Trailblazers

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The game has finally come

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The words must-win or season defining game get thrown around a lot, but for tonight the importance of the Denver Nuggets contest against the Portland Trail Blazers cannot be understated. Both teams hold a 35-38 record, deadlocked in a tie for the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference playoff bracket. With just nine games remaining in the schedule, and with Portland now having secured the tie breaker, a Nuggets loss tonight would be a crushing blow to their playoff hopes. It will be no simple task to take down the Blazers either who have been playing well as of late, bolstered by their dynamic back court pairing of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and yes, their new starting center Jusuf Nurkic.

The Nuggets meanwhile come off of one of their worst performances of the season, a 115-90 shellacking at home at the hands of a diminished New Orleans Pelicans team. The most disappointing part of the game was the sheer lack of effort or urgency the majority of the team seemed to play with, and now that they are neck and neck with the Blazers there can be no more mental lapses. Indeed, if the Nuggets are to make the playoffs they can not maintain status quo, they will need to execute with consistency like they have never done this season and it will have to start with tonight’s contest.

The Basics

Who: Denver Nuggets (35-38) at Portland Trail Blazers (35-38)

When: 8:00PM MDT

Where: The Moda Center, Portland OR

How to watch/listen: Altitude TV and Altitude Radio AM950

Rival Blog: Blazers Edge

Position Nuggets Blazers Advantage
PG Jameer Nelson Damian Lillard Blazers
SG Gary Harris C.J. McCollum Blazers
SF Danilo Gallinari Maurice Harkless Nuggets
PF Wilson Chandler Noah Vonleh Nuggets
C Nikola Jokic Jusuf Nurkic Nuggets
Bench Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, Juancho Hernangomez Allen Crabbe, Al-Farouq Aminu, Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner Even

Injured players: Festus Ezeli - out (knee), Ed Davis - out (shoulder)

Key Matchup: Nikola Jokic vs Jusuf Nurkic

As if there was any doubt as to what the key match up would be tonight. We all get to bear witness to “Jokic v Nurkic: The Beginning.” After sulking his way out of town Nurkic has risen to become a major factor for the Blazers, putting up 14 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists a game. Only the most die hard of Blazer and Bosnia fans won’t admit that Jokic is unequivocally the better player right now but Juka has never been one to wither in the spotlight or back down when his opponent is of superior talent. Indeed, the Nuggets should expect to get Nurkic’s best tonight. However, this isn’t to say that Nurkic will undoubtedly win the match up, there’s no doubt plenty of motivation in Jokic’s court and again, he has the talent edge. One way or another, we can be sure that the battle in the post tonight is prime time worthy entertainment.

Key thing to watch for: Foul trouble for the big fellas

There is in fact only one thing that could actually quash a metaphorical Balkan basketball brawl and that will be personal fouls. Undoubtedly emotions will be running high for this contest and both Nurkic and Jokic have shown in the past that they can let their emotions get the better of them. The Nuggets in particular need Jokic to not pick up silly fouls early. The Blazers still have Lillard and McCollum so if Nurkic has to ride pine they can survive. However, the Pelicans came was a strong reminder that though Mason Plumlee has certainly been an improvement, the Nuggets still function at a much less effective rate when Nikola is on the bench.

Opening thought: a rivalry could be born tonight

Blazers Edge had an interesting article about who might be the next rival for Portland, one of the suggestions was the Nuggets and I couldn’t agree more. The Nuggets and Blazers have always had a relatively friendly relationship despite being in the same division. It’s been over thirty years since the teams last met in a playoff series, a streak that will continue this season, but the Nurkic/Jokic inevitable rivalry could be a springboard for a full blown rivalry. A blow for blow grudge match tonight that helps determine who gets in and who gets left out of the postseason could be enhanced by a possible playoff series (or multiple playoff series) in the coming seasons. With both teams sporting promising young rosters, we could be watching winner take all types of games between Portland and Denver for years to come.