The Denver Nuggets are suffering a litany of illnesses and injuries and it couldn’t be coming at a worse time. As Kenneth Faried, Nikola Jokic and Danilo Gallinari struggle to stay healthy, the Portland Trail Blazers sit just a half-game behind Denver for the eighth seed after winnings their last four games. A Nuggets loss tonight would put Jusuf Nurkic and co. in the final playoff spot, and would subsequently put Denver even more on its heels despite playing four of its next five games at home.

First up for the Nuggets is a tall task in Isaiah Thomas and the Boston Celtics, who are hoping to continue their strong play on the road after handing Golden State just its fourth loss at home this season. Thomas, who made his second All-Star appearance this year, has Boston in the second spot in the East and within striking distance of the Cavaliers. Last time the Nuggets and Celtics played, Denver surprisingly stole a victory fueled by Emmanuel Mudiay’s 24-point first quarter. With Mudiay pretty much out of the rotation, and with Denver likely missing three starters again, will anyone be able to step up again or will the inconsistent play at Pepsi Center continue?

The Basics

Who: Boston Celtics (41-24) at Denver Nuggets (29-35)

When: 7:00 PM MST

Where: Pepsi Center, Denver CO

How to watch: Altitude

Rival blog: Celtics Blog

Position Nuggets Celtics Advantage
PG Jameer Nelson Isaiah Thomas Celtics
SG Gary Harris Avery Bradley Even
SF Juancho Hernangomez Jae Crowder Celtics
PF Wilson Chandler Al Horford Even
C Mason Plumlee Amir Johnson Even
Bench Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Kelly Olynyk, Terry Rozier Even

Injury Report: Danilo Gallinari – questionable (vertigo); Nikola Jokic – questionable (illness); Kenneth Faried – doubtful (back)

Key Matchup: Jameer Nelson vs. Isaiah Thomas

It’s no secret that Denver’s perimeter defense is awful, and it’s no secret that IT is the driving force behind Boston’s success. Thomas is averaging a whopping 29.4 points on the year and he put up 30 in his previous meeting with the Nuggets last November. He can score and he’s especially deadly in the fourth quarter. In all likelihood he will be a 5’9 nightmare to guard for Jameer, who will undoubtedly be vulnerable in this matchup. However, this does present another opportunity for Jamal Murray to step up as well (see below).

Key thing to watch for: More playing time for Murray?

As reported by Christopher Dempsey, Coach Malone will be looking to get Jamal Murray more minutes following a solid second half against Washington in which Murray scored 17 points. “With 18 games to go, I want to find more and more ways to put him out there,” Malone said. “It’s important for his development and maturation. And it’s only going to speed up his development as a player.” With many key players likely out again, tonight would be a great time to start giving Murray more burn and giving him the green light to shoot, as well as go toe-to-toe against Thomas on defense.

Opening thought: Show up or shut up

This is the point of the season when saying “the next few games will make or break the Nuggets’ season” actually means that the next few games will make or break the Nuggets’ season. A win against a good team like Boston is difficult enough but without guys like Jokic or Gallo it will be even more so. But that doesn’t mean its impossible. When the Nuggets actually try on defense or play together on offense they can be really good, but far too often they come slow out of the gate and never catch up. For a team that talks a lot about making the playoffs (and I’m speaking in generalizations here), they sure don’t play enough like they want to make the postseason. We’re 64 games in and it’s impossible to tell which Nuggets team will take the court: the one that’s unified and plays with pride, or the one where everyone is just cashing a paycheck. It’s frustrating.