April 9, 2018, 2:09 pm
OPPONENT: Denver Nuggets
RECORD: 45-35 (30-10 at home, 7-3 last 10 games)
MEASUREABLES: 109.9 offensive rating (sixth), 109.1 defensive rating (27th), +0.8 net rating (15th)
WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 9:00 EST, Pepsi Center (Denver), NBC Sports Northwest/Altitude Sports
The Denver Nuggets are already in the playoffs. Well, not quite.
Michael Malone’s team has yet to clinch a postseason berth, and at 45-35 is tied with the Minnesota Timberwolves for eighth in the Western Conference – the same squad it will face on Wednesday, the final night of the regular season. Minnesota hosts the tanking Memphis Grizzlies before meeting Denver; a win for Jimmy Butler and company isn’t a foregone conclusion, but can certainly be expected. The Timberwolves hold the tiebreaker over the Nuggets if the teams finish with the same record, too.
“Must-win game” is a tired trope in sports, but it actually applies to Denver against the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night. The Nuggets would have already been eliminated from the playoffs if not for the quietly dominant play of Nikola Jokic. Since failing to reach double-digits in three straight games to tip off March, Jokic has averaged 23.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists on a true shooting percentage of 65.2. Denver is 10-6 over that timeframe, and has won five straight games – four of which were decided by four points or less – to garner the opportunity of living up to management’s expectations of the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 2013.
The Nuggets’ play of late has been especially impressive considering Gary Harris has been sidelined with a right knee sprain dating back to March 15. He was upgraded to questionable against the Blazers Monday morning, less than 24 hours after being upgraded from out to doubtful. After Harris went through individual on-court work prior to Denver’s key win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, Malone told Gina Mizell of the Denver Post he isn’t hopeful his team’s second-leading scorer and top perimeter defender would return before the playoffs.
“Right now, I’m not expecting Gary Harris back,” Malone said. “We have to continue to find ways to win games and compete at a high level with the players that are available, and Gary’s not on that list right now. He’s working very hard and if that changes, then we’ll be ready to adjust.”
Will Barton will play a key role in Monday’s game regardless. Pressed into action as a starter due to Harris’ absence over the past three weeks, Barton, still a leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, has averaged 18.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. He’s hoisting six 3-point attempts per game in that stretch, too, barely less than sharpshooting lead guard Jamal Murray, whose basic playing profile reminds of Damian Lillard‘s – including early-career problems on defense. He had 38 points on 14-of-19 shooting during Portland’s 104-101 loss at Pepsi Center on January 22, feasting in ball-screen action with Jokic via stop-and-pop jumpers and floating finishes.
It would be remiss to not mention Paul Millsap, whose return to the lineup in late February after missing the previous three months with a broken left wrist both complicated Denver’s emerging offensive comfort and raised its overall ceiling. He’s settled in recently following a relatively rough initial acclimation, scoring 36 points and 26 points, respectively, in narrow victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Milwaukee Bucks on either side of the month. Al-Farouq Aminu will have his hands full with Millsap, especially if he connects on a couple early triples; that potential wrinkle only further opens the floor for Barton, Murray and Jokic to attack.
Jusuf Nurkic could loom larger to his team’s chances of home-court, which the Blazers would clinch with a win in either of their final two games, than any of his teammates. Jokic is among the most difficult covers in basketball for opposing centers, a lumbering, efficient scorer on the block who doubles as one of the game’s most singular playmakers and an ace 3-point shooter. Detractors point to his glaring deficiencies on the other side of the ball, though, where he’s ineffective as a paint-protector, unable to recover with the necessary quickness defending in space and routinely subject to defense-offense substitutions with former Portland big man Mason Plumlee in specific circumstances of time and score.
If Nurkic, who’s maintained his high level of play during the Blazers’ recent struggles, wins his individual matchup with Jokic, the Nuggets will be in trouble. He’ll have help from Ed Davis, a potential x-factor on Monday after missing the previous four games with an ankle sprain; Denver’s defensive rebounding percentage plummets to 74.8 when Jokic is on the bench, per NBA.com/stats.
A win over the Nuggets would go a long way toward mitigating any lingering effects of Portland’s general malaise over the past two weeks, but certainly won’t come easy. Denver is playing arguably its best basketball of the season at its most crucial point, and hasn’t lost at home since February. The Blazers face another tough test, with major playoff implications again on the line. Here’s hoping Portland fares better under that scrutiny than its played of late.
December 13, 2019, 1:13 amNikola JokicC, Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets to a 114-99 win on Thursday with 20 points on 7-of-14 shooting with 11 rebounds, six assists and two 3-pointers.
Jokic hasn't gone into full Joker mode yet, but tonight is about what you'd expect and want from him. There might still be some impatient owners looking for those juicy triple-doubles and high scoring numbers so a buy-low may be in the cards still.
December 13, 2019, 1:09 amJamal MurrayPG, Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray logged 28 minutes on Thursday, scoring 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting while adding six rebounds, three assists, a steal and two 3-pointers.
Murray was dealing with the funnily named "trunk contusion" but came back and delivered against the Blazers tonight. Deploy him in all of your lineups. Will Barton logged 35 minutes, scoring 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting while adding 11 rebounds, four assists, a steal and two 3-pointers and continues to be one of the most consistent scorers on the Nuggets.
December 13, 2019, 1:07 amPaul MillsapPF, Denver Nuggets
Paul Millsap scored six points 3-of-7 shooting while adding five rebounds and a block on Thursday.
Millsap was dealing with a foot injury and Jerami Grant (20 points, five rebounds, two steals and five triples in 31 minutes) was having a great game so Millsap took extra rest.
December 13, 2019, 1:03 amGary HarrisSG, Denver Nuggets
Gary Harris scored 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting with one rebound, two assists and three triples on Thursday.
Harris is starting to heat up, but we've seen this before this year so there's some skepticism about his season-long value. Feel free to ride him out while he's hot though.
December 13, 2019, 1:02 amHassan WhitesideC, Portland Trail Blazers
Hassan Whiteside hosted another block party, swatting four shots to go with his 33 points on 15-of-21 shooting with 11 boards, two assists and a triple on Thursday.
Whiteside continues to throw up some huge numbers and the situation is just perfect for him. He'll continue to post huge numbers as long as he's healthy and his 12.5 boards and 2.4 blocks a game are propelling him inside the top-10 on the year.
December 13, 2019, 1:00 amDamian LillardPG, Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard struggled shooting in Thursday's outing vs. the Nuggets, scoring 13 points on 5-of-16 shooting while adding two rebounds, 11 assists, one steal and two triples.
Lillard only scored five points in the first half, but had a game-high in assists. Teams continue to send doubles and play over on screens against Lillard as he's one of the few threats on offense for the Blazers. He's still a first-round value play.
December 13, 2019, 12:57 amKent BazemoreSG, Portland Trail Blazers
Kent Bazemore scored nine points on 3-of-7 shooting with three boards, two assists and a 3-pointer on Thursday.
Bazemore won't be the sexiest play, but the Blazers are really hurting and they need him to play big minutes. Anfernee Simons (22 minutes, nine points, one assist and one steal) will also get some extended run with Rodney Hood out for the rest of the season with a torn Achilles.
December 13, 2019, 12:57 amCJ McCollumSG, Portland Trail Blazers
C.J. McCollum scored 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting with two rebounds, two assists and three 3-pointers on Thursday.
McCollum had an off night, but ran into a tough opponent on the road. He'll be better in the next one.
December 13, 2019, 12:53 amCarmelo AnthonyPF, Portland Trail Blazers
Carmelo Anthony had a full line on Thursday, scoring 20 points on 8-of-16 shooting with nine boards, one assist, two steals, two blocks and two treys.
Anthony continues to put up numbers and should be rostered in most leagues due to the the fact that someone has to produce on this Blazers team.
December 13, 2019, 12:19 amCory JosephPG, Sacramento Kings
Cory Joseph is probable for Friday's game against the Knicks despite some lower back soreness.
Joseph has been dealing with this lower back issue for a couple weeks but has generally played through it and will continue to be a deep-league streaming option until De'Aaron Fox returns.
Source: NBA Injury Report