• OPPONENT: Denver Nuggets

    RECORD: 23-23 (16-6 at home, 4-6 last 10 games)

    MEASURABLES: 106.4 offensive rating (11th), 106.6 defensive rating (20th), -.2 net rating (15th)

    PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP: PG Jamal Murray, SG Gary Harris, SF Wilson Chandler, PF Trey Lyles, C Nikola Jokic

    The Denver Nuggets deserve far more credit for staying afloat without Paul Millsap. The two-month absence of a player his caliber would doom most young teams with hopeful playoff aspirations, especially given that Denver traded Danilo Gallinari to create the cap space needed to sign him. Millsap, glut of Nuggets bigs notwithstanding, was supposed to be one of the most irreplaceable players on this roster.

    There’s a chance that’s still the case, of course, but no one would know it considering how Denver has played since he broke his wrist on November 19. The Nuggets are 14-16 with a -1.1 net rating in the interim, keeping pace with the Portland Trail Blazers and other members of the Western Conference middle class despite missing the only player on their roster with All-Star experience and legitimate two-way acumen.

    Each of the players Malone has called upon to pick up Millsap’s slack warrant praise, but none more so than Trey Lyles. After becoming a punchline early in the season amid a string of DNP-CDs while Donovan Mitchell, the player for whom he was traded on draft night, made it easier and easier for Utah Jazz fans to forget about Gordon Hayward, Lyles has played the best basketball of his career since Malone gave him a chance to shine. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 6.6 rebounds in 26.9 minutes per game dating back to December 1, shooting a sterling 42.9 percent from 3-point range on just over four attempts a night.

    Still, Malone has been slow to make Lyles the primary replacement for Millsap, a coaching choice that’s left many Nuggets fans scratching their heads. The chief justification for that hesitance is defense, but numbers don’t support the notion that playing Plumlee next to Nikola Jokic makes their team worse on that side of the ball. Since Millsap’s injury, Denver has actually allowed six fewer points per 100 possessions with Lyles beside Jokic than it has Plumlee, per NBA.com/stats. One of the Nuggets’ greatest strengths, two-way rebounding, isn’t adversely affected by the presence of Lyles, either, a more perimeter-oriented power forward who’s faced criticism for a lack of physicality in the past.

    Given Portland’s personnel and his increasingly strong play, expect Lyles to get the start over Plumlee on Saturday night, just his third of the season but second in a row. Like Lyles, Jokic is versatile enough offensively to hurt the Blazers from both beyond the arc and in the post. His playmaking prowess is among basketball’s rarest, too, and promotes the kind of quick-hitting, side-to-side ball movement that pushed Denver to the most efficient offense in the league over the second half of last season.

    The Nuggets haven’t been quite so dynamic this season, but through no lack of individual development among their young core. Jamal Murray, entrenched as his team’s point guard of the present and future, has shrugged off an abysmal start shooting the ball to consistently show off the elite shot-making skill, improved finishing ability and burgeoning court sense that makes him a potential star down the line. Gary Harris has maintained his efficiency while upping his 3-point rate and overall usage, and, most importantly, grown more comfortable making plays with the ball in his hands. The fourth-year wing still doesn’t draw enough fouls and probably won’t ever be a primary offensive option, but has almost every skill a team could ask of a supporting scorer – and is only getting better. Will Barton, now a full-fledged backup point guard, is having a career year, too.

    Defense is Denver’s bugaboo, and the side of the ball Millsap was supposed to make his biggest impact. The Nuggets have trouble containing the ball at the point of attack, a deficiency that puts an onus on their big men to stymie ball handlers who turn the corner unencumbered after screens. Jokic isn’t a sieve, but lacks the foot speed to be an effective back-line helper or rim-protector. Plumlee, as Portland fans know all too well, isn’t that type of defender despite his quick-twitch athleticism, either. The result: Denver allows 33.1 percent of opponents’ shot to come at the rim and 65.9 percent shooting on those attempts, seventh-highest and third-worst in the league, respectively, according to Cleaning the Glass.

    Keeping the Nuggets off the offensive glass and making it hard for them to grab clean defensive boards and ignite fast breaks will be of utmost importance to Portland on Saturday night. If Jusuf Nurkic had only one job to do against his old team, that would be it: Making it hard for Denver to grab rebounds on both sides of the floor. But guarding Jokic isn’t anywhere close to that easy, of course, especially for a player who’s spent most of his time patrolling the paint rather than recovering to shooters at the arc. Nurkic must stay engaged against the Nuggets, which should be easy considering the frustrating nature of his diminished role under Malone.

    Portland beat Denver 99-82 on November 13, and the teams will finish the season series with another matchup in Denver on April 9, the Blazers penultimate regular-season game. What a coup it would be for Portland to win this potential tie-breaker now, not just because of playoff ramifications to come, but also because this team finally has a sense of real momentum its lacked all season long.

    Doing so won’t be easy, though. Pepsi Center, at one mile high, is a very difficult place to play, and the Nuggets fully understand big-picture the importance of this mid-January matchup, too.

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