Tuesday, February 20, 2024

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

Five years ago, Portland and Denver played an epic seven-game series in the Western Conference semifinals. Since then, the teams have gone in different directions.

The Trail Blazers won the 2019 postseason matchup with an impressive Game 7 win on the road and went on to the conference finals.

That marked the high point. In the years that followed, Portland has gone from contender to rebuilding, trading away Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic while the Nuggets reached the pinnacle by winning the title last season.

Denver is in contention for its second straight championship while the Blazers are headed for their third straight year of missing the playoffs.

Still, the rivalry is alive and will be rekindled Friday when Portland visits the Nuggets in the first of two games in Denver, with the teams playing again Sunday night in what looks like a playoff format.

While the Blazers are far from contending, they are coming off two straight impressive wins. They beat Philadelphia Monday and Milwaukee Wednesday in Lillard’s first game in Portland since he was traded to the Bucks last summer.

Billups returns to his hometown and a team he played for in two different stints during his career. He now has to try to figure out how to stop a Nuggets team that has played well lately, winning seven of their past 10 despite losing at Oklahoma City Wednesday night.

Denver played without two-time MVP Nikola Jokic against the Thunder but nearly pulled out a win. Jokic should return for Friday’s game after sitting out due to a pain in his lower back.

Jokic’s absence was likely more about him getting a breather than a serious injury. The center leads the team in scoring (26.3), rebounding (12.1) and assists (9.0) and carried the team when guard Jamal Murray was out in November.

The Nuggets can get healthy against Portland in the first of four meetings between the Northwest Division rivals this season. If Jokic can play as expected, he’ll likely be going up against Deandre Ayton, who was acquired over the summer from Phoenix.

Ayton is averaging a career-low 13.6 points a game this season, in part because he’s part of a young roster instead of the experienced one he had with the Suns.

Jokic has shown he can be successful against any defense because of his versatility. If a team tries to take away his court vision, he will look to score, and if he is doubled, he will find an open teammate.

5-Hour Energy

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