The Denver Nuggets come into Cleveland to face the Cavaliers the night after Nikola Jokic dropped 40 points on the hapless Knicks. The bar is significantly raised as Denver would love to steal this game, but the Cavs are winners of 4 of their last 5 and don’t mind getting into a scoring contest. As the highlights of their recent victory over the Wizards show, they can close out those high-powered offensive games too.

Out-performing the defending champs on offense is going to be tough for a tired Nuggets squad, but as Jokic has shown this team can do some pretty surprising things when they put their minds to it. After last night’s performance Jokic said, “I wanted to show myself that I could play with the best in the league.” Here’s another chance, Nikola. Go have fun.

The Basics

Who: Denver Nuggets (24-29) at Cleveland Cavaliers (36-16)

When: 5:30 PM MST

Where: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland OH

How to watch: Altitude

Rival blog: Fear the Sword

Position Nuggets Cavaliers Advantage
PG Jameer Nelson Kyrie Irving Cavaliers
SG Gary Harris Jordan McRae Nuggets
SF Wilson Chandler LeBron James Nuggets (just kidding)
PF Darrell Arthur Kevin Love Cavaliers
C Nikola Jokic Tristan Thompson Nuggets
Reserves Juancho Hernangomez, Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Jusuf Nurkic Derrick Williams, Kyle Korver, Kay Felder, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye Even

Injury Report: Emmanuel Mudiay – out (back), Kenneth Faried – out (ankle), Danilo Gallinari – out (groin), Wilson Chandler – probable (illness), J.R. Smith – out (thumb), Iman Shumpert – questionable (ankle), DeAndre Liggins – questionable (dental)

Key Matchup: Nuggets vs. fatigue.

The Nuggets are obviously not the better team. They are going to have to come out with a fierce desire to win this game and compete for 48 minutes, as coach Michael Malone would say. Neither team is at full strength, but the top-heavy Cavs have all their key pieces except Smith. The Cavs will come out and try to punch Denver in the face with early scoring.

The Nuggets should be used to being scored all over by now, though, and against the Knicks were completely unphased by being down 12 – as well as by Carmelo Anthony’s unconscious shooting in the fourth. How close this game is should be a matter of will. Will Denver concede the game due to tired legs, chucking distance shots that won’t fall? Or will they drive the hoop, pass and move for the best look, and refuse to be intimidated? We’ll see how content they are with one win on the road trip tonight.

What to watch for: a repeat performance from Jokic

I agree with that statement from Malone: Jokic is already a star. The Serbian Octopus (as Chris Marlowe called him last night) does so many things so well and so easily that many people still don’t recognize his greatness, but even so: greatness isn’t a one-game product. Greatness imposes its will, game after game and season after season. Jokic will only have to look across the court to see the standard-bearer for greatness in Lebron James.

Can Jokic provide the same consistent hop-on-my-back performances that carry his team? He went for 27/ 15/ 9 against Dallas back in December, but the next night against the Clippers its was 9/ 6/ 1 in just a few minutes during a blowout loss. He got his triple-double against Milwaukee, but the next night against the Spurs he played just 15 minutes in another blowout loss.

This whole season has been a learning experience for Jokic, who is discovering that his game holds up against anyone and travels well. His teammates and coaches are calling him a star, and he’s growing into that role more with every game. This is a game where a star comes to fight despite being tired and looking at a very high probability of failure. He may not be ready to carry this team around on his broad shoulders just yet – but if he is, this would be the game to show it.

Prediction: The Nuggets likely don’t have the horses or the health to take a game from Cleveland in The Q, where the Cavs have only lost 5 games all year. I’m not expecting a blowout, however. We’ll say Denver’s bench shows up and the team gets one of those moral victory schedule losses, going down 114-108 to the Cavaliers. I don’t know who plans to slow Kyrie Irving (hint: not Jameer) and Wilson Chandler better not be feeling too sick or Love and LeBron are going to make a mess of Denver, but I’m looking forward to the game anyway. Denver has a star again, and that should make building a contender easier than it looked a year ago. It makes these games much more watchable, too.