The Denver Nuggets host the Detroit Pistons tonight and nearly everything is in the home team’s favor. The Nuggets are the better team, with more to play for, and are 26-10 inside the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center this season. But after another disaster loss, this last time to the Lakers, the Nuggets have shown an unerring ability to play down to the level of their competition when it will hurt them the most. As they are about to embark on a seven-game road series, the Nuggets cannot - CANNOT - afford to drop their only home contest in the next two weeks to a team with a 9-23 road record.
They might try to anyway, though.
Who: Detroit Pistons (30-37) vs Denver Nuggets (37-31)
When: 7:00 PM MST
Where: The Can
How to watch/listen: Altitude and KKSE Altitude Radio AM950
Rival blog: Detroit Bad Boys
John Leuer - out (ankle), Reggie Jackson - out (ankle), Dwight Buycks - questionable (ankle), Reggie Bullock - questionable (sore back from car accident), Tyler Lydon - out (knee), Nuggets fans - questionable (confidence)
Three Things to Watch
Can Denver handle the pressure? The Nuggets get big leads in games. That isn’t the issue. They keep blowing double-digit leads when the other team realizes that Denver will take its foot off the gas and have spent nearly 70 games this year without any clue for how to maintain effectiveness - or even competency - when the starters sit. Mid-third-quarter blowouts turn into mid-fourth-quarter nail-biters with such regularity that Nuggets fans have chewed their fingers to the bone this season. Denver will have a lead in this game, and it will probably be a big one - just as it was in their first loss of the season against the Jazz, and their latest loss to the Lakers. Whether Denver can answer Detroit’s near-certain rally could be the key to the season.
What happens with Griffin? Julius Randle obliterating Paul Millsap in the last game was disheartening, since for better or worse Millsap is essentially Denver’s only reliable positional defender (and I say that despite Mason Plumlee putting in the effort there). Blake Griffin has not been the difference-maker for a beat-up Pistons squad that has lost 8 of its last 10 to plummet out of the playoff race, but he’s averaged 20 / 10 / 5 against Denver for his career with several nuclear games. The Nuggets cannot afford a nuclear game from Griffin - or anyone, let’s be honest. Denver has a habit of giving up career-highs to scrubs, but they especially can’t allow both the scrubs and the stars on the Pistons roster to have good nights.
How much fight is in the dog? As they say it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. The Pistons are missing their starting point guard and several roleplayers, while the Nuggets are missing killer instinct in a Western Conference currently stacked with killers who may never lose again (except occasionally to each other and then only in ways that do not help Denver). Denver has a huge road trip coming up, and if they are going to show the sense of urgency/desperation that this playoff race will require then tonight would be a good time to bury the Pistons right at half-court, complete with Last Rites.
But the Pistons have pride and for the season are top-10 in both three-point percentage and offensive rebounding. Since everyone shoots like Steph Curry against Denver, the Nuggets have to find a way to limit second shots and three point attempts. Detroit can’t keep up in a pace-war with Denver at altitude, not with the way the Nikola Jokic offense moves the ball around at home, but most of Denver’s wounds are self-inflicted. They cannot let that fight show up in the Pistons late after the Nuggets have let them keep it close with turnovers and missed opportunities.
Fight hard, treat this like a playoff game, and send the Pistons packing with another road loss (after the altitude back-to-back from their game in Utah). Otherwise Denver might well be out in the cold in April, looking in on the playoffs from another lottery berth.
Prediction: The Nuggets get it done at home, 115-99, before they hit the road to face the music and attempt to make the postseason dance.