Trail Blazers-Nuggets Preview

The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets are both eager to

open the second half of the season after disappointing finishes to

the first.

For the Trail Blazers to come out of the All-Star break on a

positive note, they’ll need to put an end to years of frustration

in Denver.

Playing for the first time in eight days, Portland tries to

avoid losing a seventh straight game at the Pepsi Center on

Wednesday night against a Nuggets team hoping to get back three key

players from injury.

The Trail Blazers (18-16) and Nuggets (18-17) each got off to a

strong start to the season, with Portland winning seven of its

first nine games and Denver owning the Western Conference’s

second-best record at 14-5 on Jan. 27. Both teams stumbled into the

break, however, as the Blazers dropped six of nine before finishing

with an easy win over a San Antonio team resting its stars.

Portland hasn’t won back-to-back games since Jan. 23 and 24,

falling to eighth place in the West – one-half game ahead of the

Nuggets, who’ve lost 12 of 16.

“We’ve got some making up to do. The second half, we’ve got to

lock in and play much better basketball to get ourselves back in

this race,” Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. “The first half, we

know there were a number of games we felt like we could have won,

but we are where we are. We’ve got to lock in this second half and

play better.”

Injuries have been a big factor in Denver’s struggles, with

Danilo Gallinari (left ankle), Ty Lawson (left ankle), Nene (calf)

and Rudy Fernandez (back) missing time.

While Gallinari, who averages a team-best 17.0 points, is still

more than a week away from coming back, the other three seem ready

to return. Lawson is second on the Nuggets at 15.4 points, while

Nene averages 13.4 and a team-best 7.8 rebounds and Fernandez

averages 9.3 points.

“We know we have a lot of guys out and we’re getting guys back,”

Corey Brewer said after Thursday’s 114-99 loss to the Spurs. “We’re

going to be ready to make our second-half run.”

While the Nuggets are hopeful a healthy roster can change their

fortunes, they were close to full strength for the season’s first

two games against the Blazers and lost both. A rematch at the Pepsi

Center, however, could be enough to help Denver win.

The Blazers, who haven’t won three in a row over the Nuggets in

a single season since 1998-99, have been outscored by an average of

15.0 points in losing their last six in Denver, and have just two

victories in their last 23 games there.

All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge is averaging 17.0 points in his last

four games at the Pepsi Center compared to 22.5 in his last four

home games versus the Nuggets. He combined for 42 points on 59.4

percent shooting in the season’s first two meetings.

In the last one Feb. 4, Portland’s Nicolas Batum led the way

with a career-high 33 points on 11-of-19 shooting in a 117-97

win.

Like the Nuggets, the Blazers are also expecting help from a

returning player.

Portland recently signed 7-foot-1 Joel Przybilla to provide

depth at center. The 32-year-old Przybilla, who was a free agent,

spent more than six seasons in Portland averaging 4.8 points and

7.3 rebounds before being traded to Charlotte last season.

“We definitely could use another big,” Aldridge said after

Sunday’s All-Star game. “He knows our system and is a real tough

guy down low. He’s definitely going to make us better.”

Aldridge had four points and a rebound in 10 minutes in his

All-Star debut in the West’s 152-149 win over the East.

The Blazers haven’t played since last Tuesday, when they took

advantage of a Spurs team without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu

Ginobili in a 137-97 victory.