|Familiar foes Nuggets, Blazers tip off season|
A playoff feel for an opening-night game? That seems likely when the Portland Trail Blazers play host to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday.
The last time these teams met (outside of this preseason), the Blazers outlasted the Nuggets 100-96 in Game 7 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals, earning their first trip to the conference finals since 2000.
Portland and Denver have met 10 times since April 29, including the Nuggets' 2-0 edge this preseason. So, the familiarity factor is high. And both teams consider themselves contenders to win the West in 2019-20.
"What better way to start it off," Denver coach Michael Malone told the Denver Post. "National TV, a great atmosphere and a team that has left a bad taste in our mouth most of the summer."
Denver, which went 4-0 in the preseason, returns virtually its entire roster from last season and has added Jerami Grant, who started at power forward for Oklahoma City.
In Portland, the big questions include how the Blazers will adapt to the absence of center Jusuf Nurkic (out indefinitely with a broken leg suffered late last season) and how a batch of newcomers will fit in and complement star guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Hassan Whiteside is expected to be Portland's primary center while Nurkic continues to mend, though Whiteside sprained an ankle in the Blazers' preseason finale vs. the Nuggets. If he's able to go -- he says he will -- Whiteside will start Wednesday on a front line that includes small forward Rodney Hood and power forward Zach Collins, both holdovers from last season.
The Blazers' reserves include guard Kent Bazemore and second-year pro Anfernee Simons, along with forward Mario Hezonja, another offseason addition. Veteran forward Anthony Tolliver likely will be the fourth man off the bench.
Center Skal Labissiere has played his way into a possible spot in the rotation, at least with Pau Gasol (foot injury) still unavailable. Collins, a 7-footer, can slide to the center spot, too.
"We have four or five 7-footers, so we have guys who can protect the rim," Portland coach Terry Stotts said.
Whiteside and Collins are active shot blockers, and Bazemore has upped the Blazers defensively. He had seven steals in 19 minutes in the preseason opener against Denver.
Stotts wants fans to look at the long-term, especially with the Blazers playing 13 of their first 18 games on the road.
"You will evolve over the course of the season and find things that work," Stotts said of a young team. "You have to be patient. You have to incorporate these guys slowly ... but we're going to be a better team in March and April."
The Nuggets' leadership core includes center Nikola Jokic and guard Jamal Murray, both deep threats. Jokic is a returning first-team All-NBA player. Power forward Paul Millsap provides stability and experience up front, and Grant should help Denver space the floor as another frontcourt standout.
Offensive-minded Will Barton has a shot to start at small forward, with Michael Porter Jr. and Torrey Craig -- who brings defense as well as offense -- also in the mix. Gary Harris joins Murray at guard, and Monte Morris and Malik Beasley give the Nuggets a solid 1-2 backcourt backup punch. Mason Plumlee returns as the second-string center.
"We can't sneak up on nobody anymore," Morris said. "They're circling us on the calendar now. We just gotta be ready to go every time because we're solidified now as far as the top teams in the West."
--Field Level Media