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Preview: Nuggets take on Pelicans for first time since Aaron Gordon acquisition

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Denver Nuggets v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets will host the New Orleans Pelicans tonight in their final matchup. Tonight will be the front end of a back-to-back, and the Nuggets, who are still in the thick of a playoff chase, will be asked a lot over the coming weeks. If playoff seeding means anything to Denver, then this is the moment when the schedule becomes the hardest it has ever been this season.

With games against the Pelicans tonight and the Toronto Raptors tomorrow, the Nuggets kick off a brutal stretch of games that includes the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday, the New York Knicks next Wednesday, and then another back-to-back between the Utah Jazz and Brooklyn Nets after that. Those five games might all be impossibly difficult, and for Denver’s shorthanded roster, they might be doubly so.

That places a heavy priority on games before and after the five-game stretch. Denver will need to take care of business during these next two games, as well as pick up some wins on a relatively easy four-game road trip late in the season, if their goal is to be a top four seed or better in the first round of the playoffs.

That means going to get a much-needed win tonight.

The Basics

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (27-34) vs Denver Nuggets (40-21)

Where: Ball Arena, Denver, Colorado

When: 7:00 MDT

How to Watch: Altitude, limited in person seating

Rival Blog: The Bird Writes

Projected Lineups

New Orleans: PG Eric Bledsoe, SG Lonzo Ball, SF Brandon Ingram, PF Zion Williamson, C Willy Hernangomez

Denver: PG Facundo Campazzo, SG PJ Dozier, SF Michael Porter Jr., PF Aaron Gordon, C Nikola Jokić

Injuries: Steven Adams, James Johnson - questionable, Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jamal Murray, Monte Morris, Will Barton - Out

Three Things to Watch

Aaron Gordon v Zion Williamson. The Nuggets started Paul Millsap in each of their previous matchups against the New Orleans Pelicans, and Zion Williamson looked so good that there were moments the Nuggets players looked over to the bench and threw up their hands IN A WIN. Zion still dropped 39 points on 16-of-19 from the field to go with 10 rebounds and five assists. The Nuggets didn’t bring Aaron Gordon in specifically to guard Zion, but that will be his assignment tonight: limit the unstoppable physical force around the rim.He will likely do better than Millsap did, but that remains to be seen at this point.

Nikola Jokić v Pelicans front court. If Steven Adams remains sidelined due to a toe injury (he’s currently questionable) then the most likely starter at center will be Willy Hernangomez, brother of Juancho. Willy (pronounced “Billy”) started for the Pelicans on Monday night in New Orleans’ win over the Los Angeles Clippers sans Kawhi Leonard, and he played pretty well, holding Ivica Zubac to four points and six rebounds in 20 minutes. Jokić isn’t Zubac though, and Denver should feel preeeeetty good about their chances in that matchup.

Can the bench score enough points? The Pelicans like to stagger the minutes of Zion and Ingram so that one of them is on the floor at all times. Zion is the primary option that goes against second units, and he will most likely face JaMychal Green and Paul Millsap extensively (assuming JaVale McGee doesn’t play). It’s unlikely that the Nuggets can slow down the Pelicans bench unit, which means keeping pace with them. Can a bench unit score that features Austin Rivers, Shaquille Harrison, two of Millsap/Green/McGee, and whichever unfortunate starter rotates in with them? We’re going to find out.