One of these two former Blazers will be in the Rose Garden tonight. The other is obviously Steve Blake. Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Game 24 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets

Blazers: 13-10 (4th Northwest Division)

Nuggets: 15-8 (2nd Northwest Division)

Game Details: Rose Garden Arena, Portland, OR. 7:00 PM. TV: KGW. Radio: 750 AM (KXTG)

Projected Blazers Starting Lineup: PG Raymond Felton (#5, 6’1’’, North Carolina), SG Wesley Matthews (#2, 6’5’’, Marquette), SF Gerald Wallace (#3, 6’7’’, Alabama), PF LaMarcus Aldridge (#12, 6’11’’, Texas), C Marcus Camby (#23, 6’11’’, Massachusetts)

Projected Nuggets Starting Lineup: PG Ty Lawson (#3, 5’11’’, North Carolina), SG Aaron Afflalo (#6, 6’5’’, UCLA), SF Danilo Gallinari (#8, 6’10’’, Milan, Italy), PF Al Harrington (#7, 6’9’’, St. Patrick’s High School), C Nene (#31, 6’11’’, Sao Carlos, Brazil)

I know that I wrote this at some point last year, but I feel like it might be something that comes up every season until this Blazer team gets to the point where they are either consistently good on consistently not good. We have come to a crossroads. Or if not a crossroads then a junction.

Portland has proven to be a pretty fantastic home team, winning their last two home games by a combined 1 million points, and a down right lousy road team, losing their last game outside of Portland to the very lowly Sacramento Kings. We know this.

Where we are now, and why Saturday’s match-up at the Rose Garden against the Denver Nuggets is so pivotal, is a situation in which losing at home basically counts double. This team cannot be expected to win on the road against top teams in the Western Conference—I say that knowing full well that they will win a road game against a good Western Conference opponent at some point and that when that happens we can reevaluate their road-ability status—so losing at home is no longer an option. Especially when your opponent is a conference rival and hasn’t fallen out of the top four spots in the conference since first week of the 2011-12 season.

That puts a lot of pressure on Saturday’s game. And I for one don’t think that’s altogether a bad thing. In the run up to this season, one of the things that got kicked around a lot was the sheer insanity of the schedule. Lots of games in a lot of nights. Here’s the other thing, this season isn’t going to last that much longer. In a regular year, problems that continue to arise 24 games in can be corrected for before it’s too late. There are only 42 games left before this season is over. Issues need to be addressed immediately or they will never get solved. So add a little pressure to the mix, and maybe that will speed up the development process.

The Blazers have beaten the Nuggets at home once already this season, and they tend to play them well at home. Portland will have a bit of an advantage since Denver lost Timofey Mozgov Friday night against the Lakers, but he isn’t much of a threat on offense, and a winning game plan for the Blazers will have to be built around defense.

The pundits, and coach George Karl, love to point out that Denver is not only a team without superstars, but a team that gave away TWO superstars at the same time and has thrived in the aftermath. Superstars they do not have, but they do have scorers. Ty Lawson, Nene, Danilo Gallinari, and dare I say it Rudy Fernandez are all guys that can put up big numbers. Portland will not be able to outscore Denver. What they will be able to do is defend the perimeter and try to limit the damage there.

The Blazers will also do themselves a big favor by making the Nuggets play a little bit of defense themselves. If Portland can limit Denver’s offensive rebounding, and get them into a game where they have to defend a few possessions in a row without scoring, they should be in good shape.

Game planning on that level—such as deciding to move the ball on the perimeter on offense and contest all long jumpers and crash the boards on defense-comes down to execution. If Portland executes their game plan against Denver, they’ve got a better than good shot at getting a win.

But Saturday is about more than game planning and execution. Following Thursday’s loss to Sacramento, LaMarcus Aldridge tweeted that he was frustrated. It’s interesting that two 30+ point wins can ultimately lead to frustration. The Blazers have their backs against the wall now. They’ve put themselves in a situation where a home win is expected and also needed. For better or for worse, Portland now must defend their home court at all costs. If there’s one thing we know for sure it’s that it will be nigh on impossible for this team to make up any lost ground at home with wins on the road.

I will be watching this game—although it will probably not be until tomorrow—so here’s what I’ll be looking for:

  • How Nicolas Batum looks: Nicolas will be making his return on Saturday after missing the last two games with a bone contusion. Nic has been on of Portland’s best players all season, and one of the more consistent road performers. I don’t imagine that the injury will slow him down too much—he’s always come back strong in the past—my one worry is that he might be a bit reluctant to attack the rim. Denver has one good shot blocker in Chris Andersen, but he and the rest of Portland’s wings will have a chance to go at the hoop. Nicolas goes through phases where he falls in love with his jump shot. It was looking nice prior to his going down injured, but he still needs to develop his offensive breadth. That’s where driving to the basket comes in.
  • The play of Rudy Fernandez: In Portland’s first match-up with the Nuggets, a few fans got their pictures taken with Rudy pre-game, then the Rose Garden gave him full throated boos when he checked into the game for the first time. The bi-polarity of the crowd might have thrown Rudy for a loop, because he had himself a horrible game. Since that night, though, he’s gotten a lot better. Don’t expect Rudy to be surprised by the treatment he receives from his former home crowd, and maybe expect him to have a big night.
  • How badly does Portland want to take care of home: I’m sure these Blazers realize the implications of losing on the road to Sacramento. We’ll see, though, how it affects their demeanor in Portland. Beating the Suns and the Bobcats is no big feat. Denver isn’t going to fold after a single quarter. The Blazers are going to have to put together a solid full-team effort to get this one. Whether or not they bring that effort will be a good indicator of how well they understand the importance of winning at home.

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Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject

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