Nuggets-Trail Blazers Preview

The Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Denver Nuggets begin a five-game road trip with the most important game of the season thus far Tuesday night, against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center.

Coach Michael Malone hopes his players are more ready to play than they were in a 115-90 drubbing by New Orleans at home on Sunday, a major setback in the Nuggets' bid to make the playoffs.

"An embarrassing loss," Malone said after the game. "We're in a playoff race, and we show up like the game didn't matter. That can't happen. That can't be us."

Denver (35-38) is now in a tie with the Trail Blazers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Portland has won two of three meetings between the teams this season. If the Nuggets prevail Tuesday night, the teams would finish 2-2 against each other this season.

The next tie-breaker is divisional records. Portland is 8-3 against Northwest Division opponents, Denver 5-8. The Blazers have five division games remaining, the Nuggets three. Unless Portland goes 0-5 and Denver 3-0 in those games, the Blazers will finish with the better divisional mark.

So it's a near-certainty the Nuggets will have to finish ahead of Portland in the standings to make the playoffs. And they'll have to play much better than they did against New Orleans on Sunday, when they shot 37.9 percent from the field and trailed by as many as 35 points against a Pelicans team going without star center DeMarcus Cousins.

"We've been playing good basketball," Denver point guard Jameer Nelson said. "We just have to bounce back. We're a good team. We believe in ourselves. We believe in each other. We have to hold ourselves and each other accountable."

Schedule is another problem for the Nuggets, who play seven of their final nine games on the road. Portland plays seven of its remaining nine contests at home.

The Blazers warmed up for the showdown against Denver with a 97-81 win over the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday night at Staples Center, their 11th win in 14 games. At the All-Star break, Portland was 23-33 and sitting in 10th place in the West, two games behind Denver and a game and half out of 13th place.

"We talked then about getting ourselves to this point," said point guard Damian Lillard, who has averaged 30 points since All-Star Weekend. "That it was going to be a lot of hard work if we wanted a meaningful game when it came time."

Portland coach Terry Stotts steered away from calling Tuesday night's game the biggest of the current campaign.

"(It's) just the next game," Stotts said. "It takes on significance when you're playing the team you're tied with, so yes, it's important. But after that one's over, then the next one is going to be important."

The game will have added meaning for Portland center Jusuf Nurkic, who was traded to the Blazers from Denver on Feb. 13 for center Mason Plumlee and a first-round draft choice. Since Nurkic joined the Blazers, they are 12-6. He is averaging 14.0 points and 10.1 rebounds over that stretch.

Nurkic said the game is big because of the playoff implications, but it's not a grudge match for him.

"I have no issue with (the Nuggets)," Nurkic said. "I appreciated what the organization did for me. I'm not a guy to make a drama on that. I'm not focused just about Denver. I want to win every game."

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