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Preview: Nuggets take on the Trail Blazers in final home game of the season

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Do or die.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

You know the significance. You know the ramifications. If the Denver Nuggets win, they stay alive. If the Nuggets lose, there’s a chance they will be eliminated before Wednesday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

If the Nuggets lose, and all of the playoff teams (left side) win, the Nuggets will be eliminated...so no pressure.

Coming to town are none other than the Portland Trail Blazers, self-proclaimed rivals after the Blazers effectively eliminated the Nuggets last year. Damian Lillard is an MVP candidate (though he won’t win), C.J. McCollum has some truly excellent moments, and Jusuf Nurkic...well, you know the Nurkic story.

The Nuggets will have to conquer their demons in order to win this game. Strong guard play is their weakness, especially from the elite ball handlers around the NBA. Lillard, aside from James Harden and LeBron James, has been the very best primary ball handler in the NBA this year. He’s a nightmare to defend for the Nuggets in isolation and in the pick and roll. He will get his, that’s for sure.

The Blazers also possess a top 10 defensive rating this year, primarily because of the contributions of Jusuf Nurkic and Al-Farouq Aminu. Nurkic is featured in five of the six best two-man defensive ratings (min. 500 minutes) on the Blazers, all of which are below 103, which is excellent.

This will be a dogfight tonight, and the Nuggets have to be ready to hit back when the Blazers come at them.

The Basics

Who: Denver Nuggets vs Portland Trail Blazers

When: 7:00 PM MST

Where: Pepsi Center, Denver, CO

How to Watch/Listen: Altitude TV, KKSE Altitude Radio AM950

Rival Blog: Blazers Edge

Position Blazers Nuggets Advantage
Point Guard Damian Lillard Jamal Murray Blazers
Shooting Guard C.J. McCollum Will Barton Blazers
Small Forward Evan Turner Wilson Chandler Nuggets
Power Forward Al-Farouq Aminu Paul Millsap Nuggets
Center Jusuf Nurkic Nikola Jokic Nuggets
Bench Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton, Ed Davis, Zach Collins Devin Harris, Torrey Craig, Trey Lyles, Mason Plumlee Even

Injuries: Gary Harris - knee (questionable), Tyler Lydon - knee (out), Maurice Harkless - knee (out)

Three Things to Watch

Nikola Jokic vs Jusuf Nurkic: Individually, Jokic is the better, more impactful player than Nurkic. I don’t think anyone, Nuggets, Blazers, or NBA fans alike, would question that. However, something weird happens when you throw Damian Lillard into the mix. Nurkic begins to play better, play harder, and with the confidence of the brash 20-year-old Nuggets fans first grew fond of in his rookie year. Jokic must rise to the occasion and not only match, but go beyond what Nurkic provides tonight. Denver has matchups all over the floor that could go the Blazers’ way, but the one thing they have to rely on is Jokic being special. He has proven over the last month that he can be that guy. Can the Nuggets go to the well once again and get a special game from their star player?

Jamal Murray and Will Barton vs Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum: The bread and butter of Portland’s lineups comes from their excellent foundation at the guard spots. Lillard is incredible. He makes play after play in big moments, especially this year. That won’t stop because he gets a little tired in Denver and has a nagging ankle injury. The same thing goes for C.J. McCollum. He has killed Denver before, especially when Dame is on the floor to take most of the attention. If he goes off for 30 points, the Nuggets are probably toast.

How Murray and Barton respond to this star-studded backcourt is key. It’s possible that both guys may feel the pressure. Murray is just 21, and while he’s had big moments against Lillard before, this situation is different. Barton is going against his former teammates once again. In his career against the Blazers, Barton has shot under 42% from the field and under 32% from behind the arc. Can he get the monkey off his back and provide an impactful performance tonight? The Nuggets will need him to help keep pace with Portland’s guards. If Murray and Barton can make up at least 80% of what Lillard and McCollum provide tonight, the Nuggets will be in a good place.

Who’s going to be the king of the moment? Right now, Lillard is king. Lillard Time is real, and the Nuggets have experienced it before. Without Gary Harris to slow him down, it’s unlikely that the Nuggets have a guy who can truly hinder him from going where he wants to go. Torrey Craig might be able to, but then again, it’s extremely unlikely.

Because of that, the Nuggets need their own guy (or guys) to step up and become the king of this moment. Jokic has done it this year at times. Millsap has done it for the last half decade. Barton has made huge plays. Murray is growing into the Lillard role.

If I had to put money on it, I’m putting my chips on Jamal Murray-Nikola Jokic pick and rolls in the clutch tonight. Murray has been excellent in fourth quarters this year, but the team truly needs its young stars to be the go-to guys. They start turning the wheel for everyone else, and I’m okay with putting it all on the line by putting the ball in the hands of the two guys with the brightest future.

It’s important that they don’t try and play hero ball unless its necessary though. What makes this Denver team so good is the decision making, captained by their young point center. Going away from that and asking one or two guys to face down the entire opposing team isn’t the way to win this game. The Nuggets must be themselves for 48 minutes by running, cutting, making the extra pass, and finding Jokic, who will make the right decision.

Because if they do, they get to live to fight another day.

***EDITOR’S NOTE***

Gary Harris has been upgraded from doubtful to questionable, per the team’s official injury report this morning.