Game of the Night – Denver at Portland, 10:35 ET, ESPN
These teams are separated by a single game and should vie for the Northwest Division lead all season alongside surging Oklahoma City. Minnesota has won four straight games since resolving the Jimmy Butler saga and Utah figures to get things together, so this first encounter between the Trail Blazers and Nuggets is just the first of many divisional meetings whose importance will increase as we get deeper into the season.
Portland will be in Denver on April 5 and back home two days later to face the Nuggets for the final time this regular season, so these teams will likely remain tied at the hip throughout the season. The presence of Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic, who was selected for the Nuggets by Chicago with the 16th pick in 2014, also keeps these teams tied at the hip since he essentially lost a power struggle with Nikola Jokic since it was deemed too redundant to play them together.
Mason Plumlee, traded to Denver in exchange for Nurkic in February of ‘17, remains a crucial part of the Nuggets bench, while Jokic has become the face of the franchise. The 7-foot European former teammates get along off the court, so there’s no animosity out on the floor, but they do get after it understanding that only one can have the upper hand, a nod to their early days in the league. Nurkic hasn’t shied away from the resentment that head coach Michael Malone ultimately preferred Jokic, but he hasn’t been able to replicate his production from a first meeting where made 12 of 15 shots and finished with 33 points and 15 rebounds.
Nurkic averaged 16.5 points and 9.3 rebounds over the course of last season’s four meetings, three of which ended up being Denver victories. Although the Trail Blazers won the Northwest and the Nuggets failed to make the playoffs despite 46 wins, preseason expectations for ’18-’19 faded Portland. Per the Westgate Superbook, Denver was listed at 60-to-1 to win the Western Conference when the season began, while the Blazers were getting 120-to-1 odds. The Nuggets projected season win total came in at 47.5 and Portland was at just 42. Northwest Division odds favored Utah (8/5) and Oklahoma City (2/1) ahead of Denver (3/1), while the Trail Blazers and Timberwolves each came in at 12/1.
The acquisition of Isaiah Thomas, who has yet to debut this season, was Denver’s biggest offseason move, while the Trail Blazers re-signed Nurkic and returned largely intact. Portland lost popular bench players Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis and Pat Connaughton but added shooters Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry, so they simply dropped off in the eyes of public perception because someone had to in the loaded West and the thought of two undersized guards delivering another division title didn’t seem sustainable.
I wrote that someone has to freefall and was also of the belief Portland was the most likely candidate. At the moment, Houston is fitting the bill, but we’re not even one-third of the way in. As things stand, Damian Lillard has ensured that his Trail Blazers aren’t the ones to falter, averaging over 27 points and six assists through 21 games. He comes off knocking down a franchise-record 10 3-pointers to help turn back Orlando on Wednesday night.
Maurice Harkless has returned from a knee injury and is back in the starting lineup, but he’s 4-for-14 from the field and 0-for-8 from 3-point range, so he’s clearly still rusty. Despite his struggles, the ‘over’ is 5-1 in Portland’s last six games.
Denver is still without swingman Will Barton for a few more weeks and took a major hit when he went down given his playmaking ability and the energy he brought to the table, but Denver has adjusted and can win its fifth straight game here, matching a season-best. The Nuggets have surrendered less than 100 points in three consecutive contests and have seen the ‘under’ prevail in 14 of their first 21 outings.
This is the first leg of a season-long five-game road trip for Denver, which will return home before leaving to face Toronto early next week and will then head down to Orlando, Charlotte and Atlanta. Since the Nuggets have already handily defeated the Magic and Hawks, they’ve got a shot to continue their recent surge if they can close out the month with a win at the Moda Center, where they’ve only won once in their past 10 tries, capturing a 102-85 decision in a game where they didn’t have to deal with Lillard and held the Blazers to 6-for-22 shooting from beyond the arc. They’ll obviously have to account for him here, trusting Gary Harris and Jamal Murray to try and throw him off his rhythm early.
Best of the Rest
Washington at Philadelphia, 7:05 p.m. ET: The Wizards won’t have Dwight Howard to help deal with Joel Embiid, so they’re going to need to attack the paint and hope a big man who doesn’t typically land in foul trouble makes mistakes. Thomas Bryant played 14 scoreless minutes in Howard’s place the other night and the New Orleans rolled to a 125-104 win by controlling the opening half, building a 67-47 lead. If the Wizards don’t get off to a better start, this may be a blowout come fourth-quarter. There have been 124 points scored in each of the last five games involving Washington and at least 117 in each of Philly’s last six.
Chicago at Detroit, 7:05 p.m. ET: The Pistons have won the last four meetings between these Central Division rivals but had to survive a 33-point night from Zach LaVine in a 118-116 road win back on Oct. 20. Blake Griffin shot 5-for-7 from 3-point range but is just 4-for-14 from beyond the arc during Detroit’s current 3-game winning streak. The Pistons have opened 7-3 at home and are looking for their fifth straight win at Little Caesar’s Arena. The Bulls have dropped five straight road games and are 2-8 in opposing arenas.
Utah at Charlotte, 7:05 p.m. ET: The Hornets lead the Southeast Division since they’re the only team currently over .500, but they’re looking for their first three-game winning streak of the season after being denied the first three times they’ve had a chance to win a third in a row this season. The Jazz have a Western Conference-best eight road wins and will feature Donovan Mitchell, who has made it back from his rib injury. Hornets guard Malik Monk was limited in practice on Thursday but is likely to play his usual minutes off the bench behind Jeremy Lamb.
New Orleans at Miami, 8:05 p.m. ET: The Pelicans are just 2-9 outside Smoothie King Center, while Miami’s 3-8 home record ranks among the league’s worst. With Goran Dragic (knee) and Tyler Johnson (hamstring) sidelined, Wayne Ellington should again start, leaving Josh Richardson as the primary facilitator on the first unit. The Pelicans have begun starting Tim Frazier at the point, freeing up Jrue Holiday to play off the ball.
Houston at San Antonio, 8:05 p.m. ET: It’s strange to see these two face off as sub-.500 teams coming in on losing streaks. Chris Paul is considered questionable, so any move on this game must await until a final decision comes down regarding his availability since the Rockets have been lost, without him, coming in 0-5 in games he’s missed despite the dynamic efforts of James Harden.
Dallas at L.A. Lakers, 10:35 p.m. ET: Lonzo Ball shook off an ankle injury to play in Thursday’s win over Indiana, while Josh Hart showed off improved movement as he tries to overcome his own ankle issue, so keep an eye on their availability. The Mavs will be looking to win for the eighth time in nine games and have climbed over .500 for the first time since Oct. 22. These teams played a 114-113 game at Staples on Halloween night, but that final is misleading since it was back when L.A. was completely collapsing down the stretch before acquiring Tyson Chandler.