Nikola Jokić rarely misses a chance to slip in a joke, so it is no surprise that when he was recently asked about being first in the Northwest Division is, he said: “I don’t even know who is in our division.”
Cue the laugh track.
Well, Portland is in the division, and the Nuggets face the Trail Blazers tonight in an early-season showdown at the Moda Center. Portland has been up-and-down this season, and brings a 6-6 record into the game. The Blazers have lost two straight and four of their last six. They are 4-4 at home.
Still, defensively, the Blazers have been one of the best teams in the league.
“If you look at their defensive numbers, the biggest improvement they’ve made is on the defensive end of the floor,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “They are defending at a high level.”
Offensively, however, Portland has been shaky. But the Blazers are the No. 1 rebounding team in the league.
“They have a lot of guys, not just one or two guys, on the glass,” Malone said. “For example, Damian Lillard is averaging just as many offensive rebounds as Jusuf Nurkic. So that means all five guys are crashing the glass.”
What else do the Nuggets need to do to get another division victory? These things…
Win the battle of the benches: The moments when Damian Lillard and/or CJ McCollum come off the court are the stretches in time the Nuggets must win. Portland has one of the least productive benches in the NBA, getting just 28.5 points per night from reserves, which ranks 26th in the league. The Nuggets have one of the NBA’s most productive benches, getting 40.5 points per game from reserves each night, which ranks sixth. Now, the Nuggets may not have Gary Harris (shoulder) for a second straight game, which would put their highest-scoring reserve – Will Barton – in the starting lineup. Still, there is enough firepower for the Nuggets to win that matchup.
Keep Jamal Murray rolling: Jamal Murray is coming off the best scoring game of his young career – 32 points on 11-of-19 shooting, including six 3-pointers. He’s already had a good game at Portland before – 19 points, including five 3-pointers against the Blazers early last season. So, there is precedent. Keeping Murray in an aggressive, confident space is key. Nuggets guards manhandled Orlando’s backcourt on Saturday night. To keep up with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, one of the NBA’s best starting backcourts, another big night from Murray is needed.
Keep Nurkic in check: This season has had its ups and downs already for Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic, but he is always capable of putting a big night on the court if he’s allowed to eat up space and win physical battles. As you would expect, he’s posted up more than anything else this season (24.9 percent of all of his offensive possessions), but he’s shooting just 34 percent on post-ups. Nuggets have to meet the physical challenge and keep hands in his face on shot attempts.
INJURY REPORT: Gary Harris (shoulder) is a game time decision. If he is not able to play, it will be his second-straight missed game.
Christopher Dempsey: firstname.lastname@example.org and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.