Two of the West’s best will go at it on Sunday, April 7, when the Denver Nuggets visit the Portland Trail Blazers at 9 PM ET.
These teams just played last night in Denver, where the home team got the best of the visitors, 119-110. Paul Millsap had a game-high 25 points while potential All-NBA center, Nikola Jokic was one assist shy of a triple-double, putting up 22 points, 13 rebounds and 9 assists.
Enes Kanter has stepped up for Portland after Jusuf Nurkic suffered a brutal, season-ending leg injury against Brooklyn last week. Since stepping in as the starting center, Kanter has averaged 18.7 points per game and 10.3 rebounds, proving to be a huge pickup for Portland after riding the bench for the tanking New York Knicks earlier this year.
CJ McCollum continues to miss time with a knee injury, but luckily for Portland, another trade deadline addition in Rodney Hood has made his mark. As a starter for the past three games, Hood is averaging 15.7 points per game on an efficient almost-56-percent shooting.
Both Kanter and Hood are responsible for the Blazers not waving the white flag after losing two of their starters, but will have to continue their impressive play into the postseason if the Blazers want to win their first playoff game since 2016.
After missing the playoffs last year, Denver has shot up to the top of the West, sitting two games behind the top-seeded Golden State Warriors. Having not made the postseason since 2013, the Nuggets’ new core can show what they can do on an even bigger stage later this month.
Jokic is a full-on phenomenon, poised for an All-NBA selection in his fourth year. Along with a first-time All-Star selection, The Joker has dazzled with his passing, averaging a career-high 7.4 assists, which is also the league-high for the center position and three more assists per game than second-place Marc Gasol (4.4).
Jokic may be the franchise star, but Denver is rounded out with several key players. One of them is Jamal Murray, who’s taken a step forward in his third year with 18.2 points per game, nearly 5 assists and 4.2 rebounds — career-highs in all those categories.
Wings Gary Harris and Will Barton also help with the scoring load, and veteran Paul Millsap holds down the frontcourt alongside Jokic. Monte Morris and Malik Beasley are eye-opening youngsters with the potential to do more damage in the future.
Both Denver and Portland shoot 47 percent from the field, while Portland shoots a hair better from three-point land: 36 percent to Denver’s 35. For the Nuggets, they should focus on slowing down Damian Lillard while emphasizing the battle in the paint. Kanter isn’t the best interior defender, meaning the low-post fight between him and Jokic may be the key matchup.
This is a big game for the Blazers, who are one game ahead of the Utah Jazz in the standings. If Portland drops down any further, they’ll lose home-court advantage for the playoffs. The Nuggets are two games behind first place, and have a 1.5-game cushion in front of the Rockets.
Also 0-3 in the season series against the Nuggets, this is clearly a game more important to Portland.
The last contest between the two was neck and neck — any time one team started to pull away, the other responded. It took a dagger three-pointer by Torrey Craig to keep the Blazers at bay, and seal the win for Denver.
I expect a similar matchup — a high-scoring, offensively-loaded affair that stays close to the wire. This game will be telling of how far Portland’s resiliency goes, and how well they’ll set themselves up for playoff success. A huge game can be in store for Damian Lillard, who can rock the Moda Center crowd with Lillard Time.
It isn’t a back-to-back game, but it sure is a quick turnaround for both teams. With a one-day buffer period for rest and adjustments, both sides will likely come out guns blazing. With that in mind, the Nuggets have more firepower than the injury-riddled Blazers.
I’ll take the Nuggets completing the season sweep and taking tomorrow’s game in Portland.
Preview: Denver Nuggets defeat the Portland Trail Blazers