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Over a four month layoff, quarantines, a trip to the magical kingdom, three scrimmages with lineups the likes of which have never been seen and far too many q-tips up the nostril to count. That’s all over now (well, probably not the q-tip part). Now they play for real, now the Denver Nuggets set themselves toward the goal of reaching the NBA’s ultimate prize. It starts today with the Miami Heat. It will not be easy, we already know the Nuggets will be without their starting shooting guard and small forward and their starting point guard is questionable. The show will go on, and in the bubble the show is nothing but basketball against the highest quality of opponents.

First on the docket is a team that is vastly overlooked in the East. The Heat are bolstered by an outstanding young big man in Bam Adebayo, they have hard nosed veterans in Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic and Andre Moleguodala and they rounded out their core with young and upcoming talent such as Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. Make no mistake, this is a dangerous and talented team that is very capable of winning this game. The Nuggets will have to lean on superstar Nikola Jokic while hoping some of their other role players step up in the spotlight if they plan on coming away with a victory.

The Essentials

Who: Denver Nuggets (43-22) vs Miami Heat (41-24)

When: 11:30 AM MDT

Where: The Magical Kingdom. Orlando, FL.

How to watch/listen: Denver Stiffs does not condone piracy..unless its the romanticized 18th-century type. ESPN, AltitudeTV where available. League Pass for non-Denver market viewers. Sneak into the bubble with an Adam Silver mask. 92.5 FM KKSE Altitude Sports Radio.

Rival blog: Hot Hot Hoops

Position Denver Nuggets Utah Jazz Advantage
PG Monte Morris Mike Conley Jazz
SG Torrey Craig Donovan Mitchell Jazz
SF Michael Porter Jr. Royce O'Neale Nuggets
PF Paul Millsap Joe Ingles Even
C Nikola Jokic Rudy Gobert Nuggets
Bench PJ Dozier, Keita Bates-Diop, Jerami Grant, Bol Bol, Mason Plumlee Emmanuel Mudiay, Jordan Clarkson, Georges Niang, Tony Bradley Even

Player availability: Jamal Murray – questionable (hamstring), Gary Harris – out (hip), Will Barton – out (knee), Vlatko Cancar – out (foot), KZ Okpala – questionable (achilles)

Key matchup: Bam Adebayo vs Nikola Jokic

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While Bam will technically be playing power forward, it won’t be surprising to see him and Jokic going at each other frequently in the game today. In the only contest these two teams played against one another earlier this season, Jokic had a pedestrian line of 9/5/5 but two things should be noted there. One, the Nuggets were up 20 going into the fourth so Joker only played 23 minutes and two, this was way back at the beginning of the season when he was in his heftier days. Last season Jokic had little trouble with Miami which is a big reason why the Nuggets have not lost to the Heat since way back in 2018 in a double OT affair. Still, Bam is a front runner for Most Improved Player. I expect him to be a handful for Jokic just as much as Jokic will be a handful for him.

Key thing to watch for: who steps up?

If Murray is a no go then Denver’s going to be up river without a paddle and they’re going to need someone to start rowing. Even if Murray plays, the absence of Barton and Harris will put them at a disadvantage. I expect a heavy dose of Torrey Craig on Jimmy Butler so that leaves the other wing to pick up the bulk of the scoring vacated by Denver’s usual starters. The obvious choice here for the guy to carry the scoring load is Michael Porter Jr, but don’t be surprised if Jerami Grant spends a lot of time out at the wings as well. Due to injuries and travel related issues, Grant played the scrimmages almost exclusively on the wings. It…hasn’t been great. However, Jerami was one of Denver’s best outside shooters throughout the season. The Nuggets will need him to recapture his shooting touch today.

Opening thought: it’s go time

No more experimenting with crazy passes, no more worrying about preserving health, no more tinkering with giant lineups. As Drew Lock said “it’s time to ball.” The Heat mark the first obstacle in Denver’s quest for a championship. Make no mistake, the playoffs have started. Call them seeding games if you want but in my eyes its more like the group stage of the World Cup. These games matter, I don’t care what coach Michael Malone says. I’m looking for the Nuggets to set a tone. We’ve seen great basketball from them all season long but we’ve also seen immaturity cost them at times. No more of that. There’s no playoff inexperience narrative to hide behind either. It’s time to put up or shut up and it starts by making a statement right here and right now against the Heat. Damn it’s good to be back.