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Preview: Nuggets fly to New Orleans for a must-win

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The door remains slightly open for the Nuggets into the playoff picture. Can they take advantage?

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers lost last night to the Minnesota Timberwolves, dropping Portland to 38-39 and leaving the door open for the Denver Nuggets ever so slightly.

With Portland’s loss, Denver remains 1.5 games away in the standings at 36-40. Denver has six games left, while the Blazers have just five. The magic number for Portland is just four, meaning that if Portland wins four of their last five games, the Nuggets are eliminated. That being said, with two games remaining against the Utah Jazz and one game left against the San Antonio Spurs, it’s unlikely that Portland wins four games. Again, the probabilities stack greatly against the Nuggets, but they have an opportunity to get in if they take care of business. It’s clearly unlikely, but Denver should be fighting tooth and nail the rest of the way.

Which leads us to New Orleans, a team Denver was utterly embarrassed by just a week ago. In a must-win game at home in front of a passionate home crowd, the Nuggets laid an egg, leading to a three game losing streak and nearly crushing any playoff hopes. Now that Denver has a small opportunity, every game is a must-win, starting with this game against the Pelicans. Last time, the Nuggets couldn’t control Anthony Davis, but the real problem was only scoring 90 points, with terrible performances laced throughout the starting and bench units. Denver will have to play better offensively and with much more urgency this time around.

The Basics:

Who: Denver Nuggets (36-40) vs New Orleans Pelicans (33-44)

Where: Smoothie King Center, New Orleans, LA

When: 6:00 PM MST

How to watch: Altitude

Rival Blog: The Bird Writes

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

Injury Report: Jameer Nelson - out (calf), Will Barton - out (foot), Darrell Arthur - questionable (knee), Anthony Davis - unknown (finger, ankle)

Matchup to Watch: Nikola Jokic vs Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins

The Pelicans employ two of the most dominant big men in basketball, and while Cousins sat out the last matchup against Denver, Davis gave the Nuggets fits, posting an EASY 31 points in about three quarters of play. He really dominated his matchup with Jokic, and in Jokic’s battles with Cousins, the Nuggets star hasn’t fared much better. For Denver to win this game, Jokic has to quell his inner demons when facing either of these players and just play his game. The Nuggets are at their best when he’s properly aggressive in finding his own shot and dishing to others, and they will need that balance to have a hope against a Pelicans team playing well of late.

Key Questions:

Will good Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay show up?

Last game against Miami, Mudiay had a strong performance off the bench, posting 17 points and nine assists while remaining consistently aggressive and mistake free. Murray struggled a little more as the starter, but when it mattered most, he sunk two free throws in clutch time on the road. If both players perform that way, the Nuggets have a great chance of winning; however, being so young, it’s difficult to know what the Nuggets are going to get from their guards. If either of those guys lay an egg, it will be just as difficult to make up the performance as it would if Danilo Gallinari or Wilson Chandler struggled.

Will Gallinari, Chandler, and Faried make a positive impact this time?

The trio combined for 21 points in 69 minutes of largely uninspired play the last time they played the Pelicans, and the Nuggets can’t have such poor production from two starters and a bench player if winning is the end goal. It will come down to simply making shots and closing out on defense. All three players have had an INSANE amount of trouble closing out on perimeter shooters this season, leading to three point outbursts from a variety of teams that don’t deserve them. Denver needs everybody to show up tonight, but the above trio playing well would help justify Malone’s faith in them long term.