10:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Nuggets -6.5, Over/Under: 232
Northwest Division rivals led by MVP candidates traveling in very different directions meet tonight in Mile High, as the resilient Portland Trail Blazers battle the struggling Denver Nuggets from Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado. For the second consecutive season, the Trail Blazers (18-12, 5th in Western Conference) find themselves beset by injuries to a number of key personnel, but just as they have in the past, they’ve found a way to overcome these trials. Then again, Portland is used to playing under these circumstances by now, with (Head Coach) Terry Stotts and his Coaching Staff having performed an admirable job of conditioning their roster as they have had to make good use of the depth on hand. Already without (young Forward) Zach Collins, who has yet to play a single game this season after undergoing multiple surgeries on his ankle, the team was dealt two HUGE blows during a four-day stretch in Mid-January as both (towering Center) Jusuf Nurkic (9.8 PTS, 48.5% FG, 7.7 REB, 2.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.9 BLK, 16.0 PER) and (sharpshooting Guard) C.J. McCollum (26.7 PTS, 47.3% FG, 44.1% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.3 STL, 26.3 PER) suffered significant injuries, with the former lost to a broken wrist and the latter sidelined with a broken foot. It was indeed a shame to see both players go down for prolonged periods of time, particularly given the circumstances of their respective campaigns at that point; Nurkic, who had missed nearly all of the previous season with a serious leg injury, was playing very well after a solid showing within the Bubble, while McCollum was on pace for his first All-Star selection averaging career-highs in a slew of categories including points (26.7), three-point percentage (44.1%), two-point percentage (51.3%), assists (5.0) and steals (1.3). However, rather than crumble under the pressure the Blazers have nonetheless persevered in winning eleven of seventeen games since the duo went down, including a six-game winning streak that helped them climb to Fifth Overall in the loaded Western Conference. As you can imagine, (All-NBA Point Guard) Damian Lillard (29.8 PTS, 44.7% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 7.9 AST, 1.0 STL, 26.9 PER) has played no small part in their success, averaging a robust 32.3 points on 44.7% shooting from the field and 38.9% from beyond the arc, along with 4.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists without his fellow starters, and has scored at least thirty points in six of the last eight outings, highlighted by a pair of clutch, long-range daggers to beat the Dallas Mavericks (121-118) and New Orleans Pelicans (126-124) on their recent three-game road trip. With that said, we’ve come to expect this level of play from the Bubble’s MVP, but it’s been the performance of the supporting cast that has been the big story coming out of the Pacific Northwest. (Veteran Center) Enes Kanter (11.5 PTS, 58.1% FG, 11.3 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.7 BLK, 21.8 PER) has looked comfortable assuming Nurkic’s minutes in his return to Portland via Free Agency after spending a year in Boston, while (ten-time All-Star Forward) Carmelo Anthony (13.0 PTS, 39.1% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 13.2 PER) continues to impress in a variety of roles (including as a makeshift Center, no less) after being rescued by the franchise following a lost 2018-2019 season in which he (unjustly) spent in basketball oblivion. The 36-year old was instrumental in his side’s aforementioned six-game win streak, averaging 17.8 points on 44.8% shooting from the floor, including 44.4% from three. Furthermore, (veteran Swingman) Robert Covington (7.7 PTS, 37.3% FG, 34.0% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 1.8 AST, 1.6 STL, 1.1 BLK, 10.3 PER) has been a boon to them on both ends of the floor, while (young Guards) Gary Trent Jr. (15.2 PTS, 42.6% FG, 43.1% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 13.2 PER) and Anfernee Simons (8.9 PTS, 39.6% FG, 41.0% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 1.2 AST, 11.8 PER) continue to repay the trust that Stotts has placed in them filling the void in the Backcourt left by McCollum. Unfortunately, the Blazers appear to be coming back down to Earth just a bit as they have been lit up in their last two outings, including 118-111 loss at home to the Washington Wizards followed by last night’s 132-100 blowout at Phoenix (which we’ll get into shortly). In these two affairs they’ve been burned on the defensive end, yielding 50.5% shooting from the field, including 37.3% from downtown, with 26.0 assists in comparison to forcing just 12.0 turnovers. On the flipside, they simply haven’t been able to keep pace with those two opponents, shooting a disappointing 39.6% overall with a go-for-broke approach from the perimeter, attempting a season-high FIFTY-FIVE three-pointers against Washington. Then again, this isn’t really out of character for Portland, who certainly have been one of the more prolific teams from long-range in attempting the second-most three-pointers in the league (42.3).
“It went off track in the third quarter, which is an understatement. We always bounce back. That has been a trait of ours. You are going to have some bad losses and it is how you respond to them. That is what matters.”Terry Stotts on the Trail Blazers struggles as they dropped their second straight game following a six-game win streak
When we last saw the Trail Blazers, the bottom apparently fell out in a huge matchup with the Phoenix Suns, who coming into the contest led them by just one full game in the standings out West. This one was all about the Third Quarter, which proved to be a watershed period for the hosts who outscored the visiting side 37-17 on the strength of 14-of-29 shooting from the field (60.9%), including 5-of-8 from beyond the arc (62.5%), assisting on half of their field goals, and committing just one turnover. On the other hand, Portland could muster a miserable 7-of-23 shooting (30.4%) and 1-of-9 from downtown (11.1%), with more turnovers (4) than assists (3). In the end, Stotts will probably just burn the game footage for while his troops weren’t beaten across the board they certainly came close; the Blazers were outscored in both the paint (Minus-16) and in transition (Minus-11), while their inability to take care of the basketball (17 turnovers) was exploited to the tune of twenty-four points turning into a sixteen-point swing in that regard. And it was those extra opportunities that really allowed Phoenix to build such a sizable lead; indeed, the home side shot much better overall (50.5% in comparison to 44.0%), but they were no doubt aided by attempting fifteen more field goals than the visitors. The aforementioned Lillard finished with twenty-four points on 9-of-17 shooting (52.9%), but could knock down only one of his seven attempts from the perimeter and while he dished out seven assists, the five-time All-Star also committed six turnovers. The rest of the Starting Five was little more than an afterthought, with Trent and Covington struggling in particular in totaling a combined seventeen points on 6-of-22 shooting (27.2%), as the former struggled mightily from three (3-of-12). Anthony added ten points , three rebounds, and a pair of assists off the bench, while (fellow reserve) Nassir Little (5.5 PTS, 55.1% FG, 56.0% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 18.6 PER) made the most of his minutes (16:05) which predominantly came in the Second Half. Needless to say, they’ll be looking to move on quickly lest this brief three-game road trip turn into a disaster. With Denver on tap, they’ll be facing their neighbors within the Northwest Division for the first time this season, though they lost three out of their four meetings in 2019-2020.
Meanwhile, it’s been a different situation altogether for the Nuggets (16-14, 7th in Western Conference), who despite enjoying what has been a largely healthy season from a personnel perspective hasn’t translated to the next evolutionary leap that they were expected to take. Even with the unusually quick transition from last season to the present, BIG things were expected out of Denver, who advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in a decade and with a young, talented nucleus returning they figured to be well equipped to build upon that success. However, with the first half of the campaign nearly completed they are simply trying to survive in the always-competitive West, residing just above the fringes of the Playoff field. Currently, Mike Malone’s charges occupy the Seventh Seed within the western hierarchy, but are just a half-game ahead of the Golden State Warriors for Eighth and a full game in front of the Memphis Grizzlies for Ninth Overall. Needless to say, while there is still plenty of basketball left the margin for error moving forward is rather thin for a team that has proven to be wildly inconsistent thus far; a mediocre 5-7 since stringing together a season-high five-game win streak at the end of January, the Nuggets are just one of two teams to have defeated the NBA-best Utah Jazz (128-117) over the last twenty-two games, but have also found themselves bested a number of sides with losing records, including the Sacramento Kings (114-119), Washington Wizards (128-130), and most recently the Atlanta Hawks (we’ll get into this one shortly). This last four-game road trip proved to be particularly disappointing, dropping all but one of those contests in which their play on the defensive end has left a lot to be desired; Denver has allowed 117.0 points on 49.5% shooting from the field, including 38.6% from beyond the arc, along with 29.0 assists in comparison to forcing 15.5 turnovers, while suffering some glaring deficits on the glass (Minus-4.0) and from the free-throw line (Minus-7.7). So what the hell is going on out in Mile High, you ask? Well, their struggles can’t be laid at the feet of (All-Star Center) Nikola Jokic (26.6 PTS, 56.4% FG, 40.4% 3FG, 11.1 REB, 8.5 AST, 1.7 STL, 0.6 BLK, 30.9 PER), who would absolutely find his name on the short list for Midseason MVP. In the best shape of his life, the towering Serbian international has become one of the most unique forces in the Association, leading the club in points (26.6) rebounds (11.1), assists (8.5), and steals (1.7), all of which would be career-highs, with his passing skills lauded as arguably the best by a player of his stature in NBA history. However, there is a building theory that this team simply relies on his playmaking skills too much, which has become evident over that aforementioned twelve-game span; Jokic scored thirty or more points in half of those contests, but was also held below twenty on four occasions, and despite forty-seven points and a dozen rebounds in that previous victory over the Jazz, his side were felled by the Kings despite fifty points and twelve assists from the 26-year old before getting blown out by the Celtics (112-99) in an affair in which he offered forty-three points. The issue at the moment is twofold; we touched upon their recent defensive struggles which have quite frankly persisted throughout the campaign, but the other is a sudden lack of playmaking skills outside of the seven-footer. This is where the franchise misses the presence of (versatile Forward) Jerami Grant, who after playing what was clearly an understated role in the Nuggets’ postseason run last Summer parlayed that into a lucrative three-year/$60 million contract with the Detroit Pistons in Free Agency, a deal that Denver was never going to match. Of course, his exit was supposed to be made easier by the continued development of (emerging Forward) Michael Porter Jr. (13.9 PTS, 47.9% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.2 BLK, 17.4 PER), who despite logging a career-high 26.9 minutes a night has made just thirteen starts thus far due to injuries and a stretch with COVID-19, while also proving to be well behind the curve on the defensive end of the floor. And speaking of injuries, the current situation in Denver resembles a snowball growing in mass as it rolls down the mountainside. Both Porter and (veteran Guard) Will Barton (11.6 PTS, 43.7% FG, 41.1% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 3.2 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.3 PER) have missed a wealth of time already, while the team was without THREE Forwards in Sunday’s loss at Atlanta with Paul Millsap (10.4 PTS, 52.4% FG, 41.0% 3FG, 5.2 REB, 1.7 AST, 0.8 STL, 17.1 PER), JaMychael Green (9.1 PTS, 44.4% FG, 42.7% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.7 PER), and P.J. Dozier (7.1 PTS, 46.8% FG, 40.5% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.6 BLK, 13.6 PER) along with (Point Guard) Gary Harris (9.7 PTS, 44.2% FG, 32.0% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 1.7 AST, 0.9 STL, 9.4 PER) all out of action with an assortment of ailments.
“It’s a long season. I don’t know how many times you have to explain it. You guys ask about if we lose games… it’s the end of the world. It’s just basketball. Some days you lose. Some days you win. We know we can beat the teams we’re supposed to beat. We know we’ll be in the playoffs and it doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We’re going to give it our best shot.”Jamal Murray after the Nuggets’ 123-115 loss at the Atlanta Hawks which concluded a 1-3 road trip in which they were without four players due to injury
When we last saw the Nuggets, their woes on the road persisted as they dropped the final outing of their four-game road trip, coming up short against the Atlanta Hawks, 123-115. Despite holding a 33-27 advantage at the end of the First Quarter, this contest was turned on it’s head in the second period where the hosts caught fire from the field, shooting a blistering 15-of-22 (68.2%), including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc (50.0%), as they outscored the visiting side 37-23. That was pretty much it for Denver, who only looked more tired as the affair progressed, particularly when you consider that this was the conclusion of a hellish stretch of four games in six days. Atlanta would lead by as many twenty-two at one point, and though Malone’s troops were able to make it look more respectable after a 39-30 Fourth Quarter, it was yet another loss on the road in which they failed to slow down the opposition. In most cases, you would feel good about your chances of winning a basketball game in which you shoot 51.2% from the floor, including 16-of-36 from downtown (44.4%), while posting a solid 25/13 assist/turnover ratio, however the final score will give you an idea on much they struggled on the opposite end of the hardwood. The visitors allowed the home side to shoot 51.9% and 12-of-34 from three (35.3%), with a healthy twenty-nine assists opposed to just eleven turnovers, while owning a commanding advantage from the charity stripe (Plus-14) and manhandling them on the glass (Plus-11), extending their dubious profile to 1-10 in games in which they’ve relinquished 119 or more points. A game after posting a career-high fifty points against the Cleveland Cavaliers, (sharpshooting Guard) Jamal Murray (20.9 PTS, 47.7% FG, 38.3% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 4.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 17.7 PER) led the way with thirty points on 11-of-20 shooting (55.0%), including 3-of-8 from the perimeter (37.5%), and four rebounds and assists apiece, while Jokic posted his NBA-best twenty-seventh Double-Double with fifteen points and ten rebounds to go along with six assists and three steals. Barton would go on to add fifteen points, while the Bench was well represented by (Point Guard) Monte Morris (10.8 PTS, 48.4% FG, 37.2% 3FG, 2.2 REB, 3.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.6 PER) and (Argentina international) Facundo Campazzo (5.5 PTS. 41.7% FG, 40.5% 3FG, 0.9 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 12.5 PER), who totaled fifteen and sixteen points respectively. Furthermore, all ten of Porter’s point total came in the First Quarter, though he would only participate for a little more than eleven minutes in the rest of the game. As far as the injury situation is concerned, the aforementioned Green is nursing maladies to both shoulders and is not expected to be active for tonight’s meeting with the Blazers, while both Millsap (knee) and Dozier (hamstring) are considered Day-to-Day with their issues, with Harris looking to be more of a long-term out thanks to a strained left adductor muscle which appeared to be reaggravated after he returned to action against the Wizards last Wednesday night.