It’s not a stretch to say that the Portland Trail Blazers have been one of the best teams in basketball since they acquired Jusuf Nurkic from the Denver Nuggets in mid-February.
Since that deal, which sent Mason Plumlee and a second-round pick to Denver for Nurkic and a first rounder, the Trail Blazers have managed to go 12-6. They’re a top-10 team in offensive and defensive efficiency, and have the NBA’s sixth-best net rating in those 18 games.
Tonight, the two teams will play each other for the first time since the trade, and there’s a lot at stake. The Nuggets and the Trail Blazers, who have identical 35-38 records, are in a battle for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.
If Denver is going finish as the No. 8 seed, it will likely need to have a better record than Portland at season’s end. That’s because Portland already leads the head-to-head battle two games to one and has a huge lead in terms of division record; Portland is 8-3 in the Northwest Division, and Denver is 5-8.
Tuesday’s game in Portland is essentially a must-win for the Nuggets. They play six of their final eight games on the road, while the Trail Blazers play six of their final eight at home. Falling a game behind Portland — which would really be two games because Portland has the tiebreaker all but locked up — with eight games to go would give Denver slim odds at earning a playoff berth. A win would at least give Denver a fighting chance.
Nurkic, who’s averaging 14.0 points (49.3 percent shooting), 10.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists since the trade, should be motivated to face his old team. He’ll likely start the game guarding Nikola Jokic, the big man the Nuggets chose over Nurkic.
Denver could also have a tough time against Damian Lillard. Lillard has averaged 29.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists after Nurkic started suiting up for Portland. He’s playing his best ball of the season.
This game has massive playoff implications and the first-ever Jokic-Nurkic battle. I can’t wait to watch. It starts at 8 p.m and is being broadcast on Altitude TV.
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