The Denver Nuggets take a short break from facing the best the league has to offer to square off with their old rivals, the Portland Trail Blazers. It’s the first of a rare two-game set where the Nuggets will host both games against the Blazers rather than a home-and-home split. It might be a chance to get a breather and rack up a couple of wins for the banged-up Nuggets, but Portland is on a two-game win streak and are 5-5 in their last 10 as they have improved both their teamwork and execution, so Denver can’t afford to take them lightly. These are the kinds of games that will determine home court – the ones that Denver needs to lock down with or without star Nikola Jokic, who is questionable. With or without him, the Nuggets need to find a way to get it done.

The Essentials

Who: Portland Trail Blazers (15-33) at Denver Nuggets (33-16)

When: 7:00 PM MST

How to watch/listen: Denver Stiffs does not condone piracy….unless it’s the romanticized 18th century type. Altitude. NBA League pass for those not in the Nuggets market. Altitude Radio 950AM.

Rival blog: Blazers Edge

Injury Report: DENVER: Nikola Jokic – questionable (back), Julian Strawther – questionable (knee), Jamal Murray – probable (knee contusion) Peyton Watson – probable (knee contusion), Vlatko Cancar – out (knee), Hunter Tyson – out (G-League), Jalen Pickett – out (G-League); PORTLAND: Moses Brown – out, (wrist fracture),  Shaedon Sharpe – out, (abdominal strain), Robert Williams III – out (knee)

The Three Things

The thing to watch for: The letdown

Denver has been slugging it out with contenders for weeks now in what was a very tough January. Now that February is here, the Nuggets might be inclined to take a breather against the Blazers. But Portland just beat the Milwaukee Bucks and have been dangerous to other contenders even in games they lost. If Nikola Jokic cannot play, Denver will have to find the same intensity they showed against the Thunder despite losing that game. They will need to swarm on defense and hopefully make a few more shots against a less-impressive defensive unit than Oklahoma City. It’s hard to win back-to-back games against the same team – familiarity breeds adjustments. But Denver can’t worry about winning both games unless they win the first one, and that will require focus regardless of who is in the lineup.

The thing to remember: It ain’t Dame Time in Portland any longer

This is Denver’s first up-close look at the new-look Blazers without Dame, and the first of three meeting this month with Portland. Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons are their leading scorers, and each have had big games against Denver in the past. Scoot Henderson is still figuring out life as an NBA point guard, but Malcom Brogdon had a big impact last game against the Bucks and Deandre Ayton is… tall, and available. It’s a squad that Denver is set up to handle as long as the Nuggets deny them their first option. Portland is not an assist team and they take a bunch of two-pointers while being terrible at it. Forcing them into bad shots and limiting their second chance opportunities (they are 6th in the league in offensive rebounds) is key to a win. It’s not a flashy matchup – handle the fundamentals and come out with a W.

The thing to bet: Nuggets second quarter under 29.5 (+102)

Again, without knowing whether Jokic will play it changes what you can expect from all the rest of the Nuggets. But if he plays, then the second unit has half the second quarter to limit Denver’s scoring and if he doesn’t play the starters will be under that much more pressure to make the shots they didn’t make against OKC. 30 points in the second quarter is probably a tough ask for this unit, especially banged up, and it’s a little better than even money.