Thursday's most important play might have happened Sunday night when LaMarcus Aldridge injured his ankle. Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Portland Trail Blazers (11-12) Vs. Denver Nuggets (14-12)

Way back in antiquity there was a man named Pyrrhus of Epirus. According to Wikipedia (by way of the ancient historian Plutarch) he was a general and a statesmen during the Hellenistic Era of ancient Greece. A thorn in the side of Rome, Pyrrhus (King of both Epirus and Macedonia) suffered insurmountable losses while defeating the Romans at Heraclea in BC 280 and at Asculum in BC 279 during the Pyrrhic War. Although he was successful in these efforts, Pyrrhus lacked the numbers of Rome, and the overall loss of fighters was such that in victory he did more damage to his own war effort than to that of Rome’s.

This phenomenon is known as a “Pyrrhic Victory,” and is defined (once again courtesy of Wikipedia) as “a victory with such a devastating cost that it carries the implication that another such victory will ultimately lead to defeat.” Wikipedia continues to say that, “someone who wins a Pyrrhic victory has been victorious in some way; however, the heavy toll negates any sense of achievement or profit.”

So why the history lesson/Wikipedia paraphrasing? Sunday, the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the New Orleans Hornets for their third straight victory. It wasn’t Portland’s best game, but Damian Lillard’s game-winning three-pointer might have been the highlight of the first quarter of 2012-13, and not letting a double-digit lead go to waste cemented that this current stretch has been the Blazers’ most solid so far. However, with less than a minute to play in the fourth quarter and the game tied, LaMarcus Aldridge rolled his ankle. He walked off the court without assistance, but he was in the training room when Dame hit his game winner, and left the home locker room Sunday night on crutches.

The Blazers pulled themselves to within one game of .500, but at what cost. Many predicted that an injury to LaMarcus would send this team spiraling into obscurity. LA sat out the first of Portland’s semi-disastrous East Coast jag that ended at the beginning of December. He’ll sit out Thursday when the Blazers host the Denver Nuggets.  Portland lost to Brooklyn without LaMarcus, we’ll have to wait until Friday to decide if Sunday’s was in fact a Pyrrich victory.

Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF Luke Babbitt, C J.J. Hickson

Nuggets Starting 5: PG Ty Lawson, SG Andre Igoudala, SF Danilo Gallinari, PF Kenneth Faried, C Kosta Koufus

We’ve already covered the bad news for Portland (they’ll be without their best and most important player). Here’s the good news: the Denver Nuggets have proven to be one of the most inconsistent teams in the league, they’re coming off a big win against the San Antonio Spurs, and they’ve won three games in a row. By the simple law of averages, the Nuggets are primed for a bad game.

How can Portland help Denver play a bad game and extend their winning streak? That’s a tough question. Regardless of how good or bad the Nuggets have played so far, this is a team that the Blazers really don’t match-up well against. Denver is deep, they’ve got shooters, they’re big, and Ty Lawson is the exact kind of point guard Damian Lillard struggles defending.

J.J. Hickson’s play is going to be key. His attacking of the boards was central to both the wins against NOLA and the San Antonio Spurs. He’ll have to work twice as hard Thursday against the Nuggets’ revolving door of bigs that includes Faried (who is motivated by hate to beat up on the Blazers), Koufus, JaVale McGee, and Timofey Mozgov. Relying on Hickson is problematic, but he’s been playing so well lately that it can be forgiven just this once.

Portland’s bench is going to be important too. Losing LaMarcus means many things, but most importantly it means the loss of 21 points per game. Somebody is going to have to pick up the slack, and the way this Blazer team has played it probably means a couple people are going to have to combine to pick up the slack. I’ve penciled in Luke Babbitt as the starting four. He’s played well enough to earn more minutes (back-to-back double-digit scoring nights), should he get them Thursday, I would be a little disappointed if he doesn’t take advantage of them. Luke’s looking more confident each night out, but he needs to keep improving. He’s saved his season. Now he needs to earn his next NBA contract. After Luke, it’s wide open for Portland to find a contributor in the second unit.

What to Watch For

  • Can Portland’s second unit keep the Blazers in the game. I know I just mentioned Luke Babbitt, but bench versus bench is so important Thursday that it needs to be repeated. When Denver traded Carmelo Anthony, they became “the best team without a star” in the NBA. What the Nuggets should be called is “the team in the NBA where every player on the roster is at the same level.” Denver’s second unit could be a starting unit. Portland’s second unit will have its hands full with Andre Miller, the aforementioned JaVale McGee, and Corey Brewer. Miller is probably the one guy Portland should be absolutely terrified of. For my money, he’s probably the best back-up point guard in the league, and really a back-up in name only. He plays a lot of minutes, and he often plays at the same time as Ty Lawson. Ronnie Price is the kind of point guard Andre eats alive, same goes for inexperienced big men like Meyers Leonard, Joel Freeland, and Victor Claver. Everybody in the RG knows what Dre can and can’t do, that doesn’t mean anybody can stop him from doing it.
  • Who plays. LA’s out, Wesley Matthews is questionable, Nicolas Batum is still recovering, Nolan Smith is probably out, Joel Freeland hurt his finger, Sasha Pavlovic has something wrong with him. Lots of question marks. I expect Nic and Wesley to log their usual minutes, maybe a little less for Matthews, but it’s anybody’s guess as to how LA’s minutes shake out.
  • Can Damian have a big night from start to finish. I asked Damian about ticking boxes on his checklist of things to accomplish as a rookie following his game-winning three. He’s close to having reached every major milestone of an up and coming superstar. One thing I’d really like to see from Dame is an outing in which it’s his play, for 48 minutes, that ensures a positive outcome for his team. I’m not asking Damian to win a game all by himself, especially not one against a good team like the Nuggets, but I would like to see him have a consistent night of shooting that dictates the flow and pace of a game. It will be his ability to control a game with his scoring that will make him an All-Star.

@mikeacker | @ripcityproject | [email protected]


Tags: Andre Miller Damian Lillard Denver Nuggets JaVale McGee LaMarcus Aldridge Nicolas Batum Portland Trail Blazers

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