The All-Star break is finally over, and games begin again, as the Denver Nuggets head to Sacramento to face the unexpectedly-altered Kings. DeMarcus Cousins has been traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, as every internet-capable NBA fan knows, a fact that will alter the race for that 8th playoff spot that Denver has a tenuous hold on.

But because the deadline isn’t over as of this posting, the header picture could change. Half the roster could change for either team. Black is white, up is down, cats and dogs are living together. Until we know more, here’s what your left with: the Nuggets have a game with the Boogie-less Kings, and if there’s one thing Denver is good at it’s losing games they should win. Plus the Kings are going to come out on a mission to prove they can win the first game without Cousins, so there’s that. This is a game that Denver needs to win in order to keep their playoff momentum; the Pelicans will be nipping at Denver’s heels the rest of the way. Let’s hope the Nuggets view it as a must-win as well.

The Basics

Who: Sacramento Kings (24-33) vs Denver Nuggets (25-31)

When: 8:30 PM MST

Where: Golden 1 Center, Sacramento CA

How to watch: Altitude, AM 950

Rival Blog: Sactown Royalty

Position Nuggets Kings Advantage
PG Jameer Nelson Darren Collison Even
SG Gary Harris Buddy Hield Nuggets
SF Danilo Gallinari Arron Afflalo Nuggets
PF Wilson Chandler Kosta Koufus Nuggets
C Nikola Jokic Not-DeMarcus-Cousins Nuggets
Bench Emmanuel Mudiay, Juancho Hernangomez, Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee Willie Cauley-Stein, Ben McLemore, Langston Galloway, Tyreke Evans, Ty Lawson, Garrett Temple, Anthony Tolliver Even

Injury Report: Kenneth Faried – doubtful (ankle), Darrell Arthur – questionable (illness), Danilo Gallinari – questionable (groin), Emmanuel Mudiay – questionable (back), Rudy Gay – out for season (Achilles) Garrett Temple – out (hamstring), Malachi Richardson – out (hamstring)

Three Things to Watch:

1 – Who’s going to get on the court. There are a lot of injured Nuggets on the report, but all of them except potentially Kenneth Faried are expected to be available. Mudiay has lost his starting job to Jameer Nelson, however, and Mason Plumlee is not expected to play nearly as much with Nikola Jokic with a more healthy lineup available. And that’s just the Nuggets, who may make a deal or two at the deadline.

The Kings have to figure out whether to start Buddy Hield (I’m fairly certain they will, but you never know) and what to do with other players like Langston Galloway and Tyreke Evans. Early word was that Evans might be released, but at this point it hasn’t happened. Both lineups will be in unfamiliar configurations, but at least the Nuggets have all seen each other in practice before. Hopefully Denver’s familiarity with lineup inconsistency helps them adjust quickly.

2 – How Denver’s bench performs. It’s not clear whether Mudiay is being given the reins to the bench unit, or if he’ll have to fight with Jamal Murray for that role. Denver still has bench scorers to offset the non-shooting of Plumlee, but the bench’s scoring output has been fairly poor recently. That’s odd to say for a team that has the third-highest scoring bench unit this year at 41.4 points, but with all of the injuries that unit has underperformed. The Nuggets need that unit to at least hold serve against other teams’ backups, and tonight is a great opportunity to do so.

3 – Whether Denver is ready for Sacramento’s first punch. The Golden 1 Center may rain boos down on its own team in retaliation for the trade of their best player, or they may scream their support for 48 minutes. Buddy Hield is going to come out bombing from distance like it’s a Rising Stars Challenge that he wants the MVP for. Dave Joerger almost certainly has some great speeches prepped calling for players to play with pride and intensity, to show the league that they are not just the flotsam gathered around an All-Star that will drift away without Cousins there.

It’s going to be a weird night. Denver should know all about making runs after trading an All-Star: Gallinari and Chandler led Denver on a 15-4 tear after the All-Star Break once Carmelo was traded. The Nuggets will have to survive the emotions of the first quarter and use the talent margin on their own roster to impose their will. This is the sort of game where Denver has been known to let players like Afflalo and Hield go off for 35 apiece, so the players need to keep their focus.

Prediction: This is where I would normally go with a loss. It’s exactly the kind of game that the Nuggets love to lose. But I’m going to hope that the break was good for the veterans to get them healthy, and was inspiring for the young players who headed to New Orleans. This push for the playoffs is going to be a grind, but tonight it should start off with a win. 115-104, Denver.