Entering their five-game road trip with a record of 14-7, the Denver Nuggets have an opportunity to put the NBA on notice. Winners of four straight already, Denver has accumulated some solid wins, from a hard nosed win on the road at Minnesota, to a beatdown of the Los Angeles Lakers. Michael Malone and company are dishing out a lot of L’s lately, but now, it’s time to play a budding rival.

The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets don’t really like each other, or more aptly, Nuggets fans don’t like Jusuf Nurkic, and Jusuf Nurkic doesn’t like Michael Malone. After moving the petulant big man Northwest, both teams have seesawed each other in both potential and standing. While the Nuggets have one of the strongest foundations of youth and have finally added defense to complement a strong offensive unit, the Blazers have been an enigma. Initially, Nurkic added a major boost to catapult the Blazers back into the playoff picture. However, these past two seasons have been more down than up for Nurkic, and a disheartening showing against Anthony Davis in the playoffs emboldened the idea that he may not be a long term piece of Portland’s future.

Through it all, Damian Lillard has been an assassin, taking over during fourth quarters, hitting crazy three pointers, and carrying the Blazers in times of need. He has hurt the Nuggets in the past, and if Denver is without Gary Harris (questionable) in this game, then look for Lillard and/or CJ McCollum to go ballistic in this contest.

The Basics

Who: Denver Nuggets (14-7) at Portland Trail Blazers (13-8)

When: 8:30 PM MT

Where: Moda Center • Portland, OR

How to watch: ESPN, ESPN App

Rival Blog: Blazer’s Edge

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Injury Report: Gary Harris is questionable with left ankle soreness. The rest is the same. Will Barton, Isaiah Thomas, Michael Porter Jr., and Jarred Vanderbilt are all out.

Three Things to watch for:

How will Nikola Jokic defend in space tonight?

Portland’s game plan should be relatively simple: Lillard-Nurkic high pick and roll or McCollum-Nurkic high pick and roll. The Blazers have other sets to free up shooters off screens around the perimeter, but the high pick and roll is their bread and butter. Lillard torched the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night for 41 points because Nikola Vucevic kept dropping into the paint, leaving an open runway for Lillard to pull up for ten threes on the night.

The Nuggets defend the high pick and roll differently. Nikola Jokic has played even with his defensive partner in the pick and roll (most likely Jamal Murray) for most of the year. Thus far, it has yielded success, but against some of the best ball handlers and passers in the NBA, the scheme can be vulnerable. If the Blazers simply allow the switch to naturally occur, Jokic will be tasked with defending Lillard in space for much of the night. How will he handle that? He did reasonably well on LeBron James on Tuesday, but the speedy and outside shooting Lillard is a different kind of player. If Jokic plays well defensively, generating some steals with Lillard trying to force passes to Nurkic on the roll, Denver will probably win.

Will Gary Harris be back?

Harris has missed the past two games with what is being called left ankle soreness. He looks to have sustained more injuries than just that one though, and it was affecting his play. After sitting for just about a week, Harris may be ready to return. If he can go, it will give Denver a huge boost. Torrey Craig has defended as well as can be asked of him in the starting lineup these past two games, but Harris brings a different skill set offensively. With Lillard and McCollum averaging nearly 48 points per game between them, Denver must match them blow for blow in the starting lineup. Harris gives Denver the best chance to do that, even if he’s still a little banged up.

Can the bench save the day once again?

Denver has three five-man lineups that have played significant minutes this year:

  • The starters plus Craig: 142 minutes, -4.7 Net Rating
  • The starters plus Juancho Hernangomez: 129 minutes, +3.4 Net Rating
  • The bench plus Jamal Murray: 114 minutes, +12.7 Net Rating

The starting units utilized thus far have yet to reach the full level of their potential just yet, partially to do with injuries and shooting slumps, but partially because of fit concerns. The bench, on the other hand, fits perfectly together. A traditional point guard who makes the correct decision every time in Monte Morris and a traditional rim running center with some passing chops in Mason Plumlee bookend a group that has saved Denver’s bacon over and over again. Jamal Murray acts as the first option here. Trey Lyles is a versatile scorer at all three levels. Malik Beasley fills in the gaps on both ends. It’s a great unit, and if the Nuggets want any chance of beating Portland tonight, that unit has to be positive once again. The Blazers are staggering Lillard and McCollum less, meaning Evan Turner is running the bench unit. Denver can take advantage of that by playing elite positional defense and being supremely technical offensively. If Denver’s bench out-executes Portland’s bench, it gives the Nuggets a great opportunity to win.

Whatever happens, this game has the potential to be an excellent one. On ESPN, teams that are both good and have some history, stylistic battles and much to prove. I’m really looking forward to this one. While Denver doesn’t NEED this game, it would go a long way in helping their playoff and seeding chances going forward. Division wins, especially versus teams of a similar caliber on the road, are statement wins. Denver has a big opportunity to declare themselves a threat on National TV. Hopefully, they run with it.