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Preview: Nuggets fight for playoff lives against Russell Westbrook and the Thunder

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And then the magic number was one.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers won last night. Damian Lillard willed them to victory with 59 points, absolutely decimating the Utah Jazz, who couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean. The Blazers have put the Denver Nuggets in check, and they have just one pawn left to defend themselves.

The Nuggets come into their contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder on the brink of elimination. If they lose, they are out. If Portland wins on Monday, they are out anyway. At this point, all Denver can do is control what they can control, which means trying to figure out a way to limit the aggressive Russell Westbrook and his supporting cast. The Thunder come into the mile high city after a dismantling at the hands of the Phoenix Suns. Westbrook accumulated the assists and rebounds necessary to average a triple double for the entire season, but he was unable to log the 42nd triple double to break Oscar Robertson’s record. It’s safe to say that Russ will be very aggressive against Denver trying to break down the defense and make sure he accumulates the triple double as soon as possible. Hopefully, after he logs it, he’s removed from the game, as the Thunder are locked into the 6 seed and a matchup with the Houston Rockets no matter what they do during the rest of the regular season. If they rest Westbrook, it means a better chance for Denver to win their remaining contests.

However, Denver can’t rely on that, which means they will need to do everything they can to win a matchup against Westbrook, something they have yet to do this season, and since March 19th, 2013. They haven’t won a regular season contest against Russell Westbrook in four years.

The Basics:

Who: Denver Nuggets (38-41) vs Oklahoma City Thunder (45-34)

Where: Pepsi Center, Denver, CO

When: 3:00 PM MST

How to watch: Altitude

Rival Blog: Welcome to Loud City

Position Nuggets Thunder Advantage
PG Jamal Murray Russell Westbrook Lol
SG Gary Harris Victor Oladipo Nuggets
SF Danilo Gallinari Doug McDermott Nuggets
PF Kenneth Faried Taj Gibson Nuggets
C Nikola Jokic Steven Adams Nuggets
Bench Emmanuel Mudiay, Wilson Chandler, Juancho Hernangomez, Mason Plumlee Semaj Christon, Jeremy Grant, Kyle Singler, Domantas Sabonis, Enes Kanter Nuggets

Injury Report: Jameer Nelson - questionable (calf), Will Barton - doubtful (foot), Andre Roberson - unknown (knee)

Matchup to watch: Jamal Murray vs Russell Westbrook

If you noticed in the matchup section of the preview just above, the Nuggets have an advantage at every position and even over the bench based on the current injury situation for both teams. The only position they don’t have an advantage in is the one inhabited by the likely Most Valuable Player in the NBA. Asking a rookie to match up with the Brodie is a tall task, and Gary Harris will likely start on him anyway. That being said, the Nuggets need good production from their point guard today. They get in trouble when the point guard begins to struggle against its matchup, and if Murray struggles today, I have a feeling that Denver will lose. If Murray can generate some offense and force whoever he’s matched up with to miss more shots than they make, then Denver will have a chance. Denver can’t make up a 30 point margin between point guards today, so they will need Murray to do what he does best and get buckets.

Three Questions

Will Danilo Gallinari show up?

In Denver’s biggest game of the season against the Blazers on March 28th, Gallinari went 3/15 from the field and scored just 13 points. This was mostly a blip on the radar, as he has largely been Denver’s most proficient scorer over the past 15-20 games. That being said, Denver’s back is truly against the wall this time. If they lose, they are out. Everyone needs to show up today, but Gallinari is one of the most important pieces to show, simply because the Nuggets need production from the small forward position to balance out the rest of the rotation. Very rarely does Denver’s offense or defense work if a small forward isn’t contributing positively, so Gallo will need to bring his A game on both ends. At the current moment, he’s matched up against Doug McDermott, which is a matchup he needs to win for the Nuggets to stay alive.

Will Nikola Jokic play defense?

I thought Jokic’s defense against the Pelicans was pretty solid overall on Friday, and it led to a better defensive effort from the Nuggets as a team. When Jokic is active in the passing lanes, baiting guards into passes that are easily stolen, that’s when Jokic makes the most impact defensively. He will never be more than an average rim protector in all likelihood though, and he certainly isn’t one now. Westbrook is going to try and get downhill, and my fear is that Jokic will sag underneath the rim, allowing easy jumpers for Russ in the midrange all day. This may be the lesser of two evils, but it’s not exactly a pathway to success if Westbrook makes five of those in a row. Jokic will have to vary his looks, sometimes staying low and sometimes creeping up higher, depending on the situation. So much of this game will depend on if Denver plays a semblance of defense. Last time Westbrook came to Denver, that certainly didn’t happen. It starts with Jokic anchoring down the middle.

Who plays best in the pressure cooker?

As I have mentioned, the margin of error is now zero, and Denver is on its ninth life. The players know this now that Portland has made the magic number just one, so Denver will be going into this game knowing what’s at stake. It will be interesting to see which players elevate their game during these moments and which ones fade. I have my theories as to what will happen, but I’m sure a lot of Nuggets fans are hoping the young guys like Murray, Harris, and Jokic are among those that rise to the occasion. It will be very exciting if those three play well during what amounts to a playoff game against a difficult opponent. Whoever fades will likely be frowned upon as well, and so late in the season, one bad performance may be the kiss of death for a player’s future. Will Denver’s players (and coaches) respond to this pressure well?