TUALATIN, Ore. — Before the Denver Nuggets arrived in Portland, they reminded the Trail Blazers just how necessary transition defense will be in tonight's matchup.
The high-octane Nuggets are coming off a win over the Los Angeles Lakers that looked like a tutorial on the art of the fast break. Denver capitalized off turnovers, stayed on the run and resided near the rim for an NBA season-high 78 points in the paint in a double-digit victory.
Back in Portland, Damian Lillard tuned into the Nuggets-Lakers game and felt as if he was watching the wrong sport.
"It was a track meet," Lillard said after practice on Wednesday afternoon. "The first two times we played them, they played really fast like that. But (Tuesday) night, it was two passes and a dunk. Two passes and a three. They didn't do anything that we haven't seen them do, but it was just crazy to see how fast they really play."
The Blazers (26-30) know all about the tendencies of their Northwest Division rival. The Nuggets (36-22) play fast and free as the highest-scoring fast break team in the league (19.4 points a game) and remained true to that identity in both meetings with Portland.
In December, the Nuggets scored 31 points off the break and assaulted the interior for 74 in the paint — then an NBA season-high mark. In January, when the teams played in Denver, the Blazers forced overtime but could not overcome the Nuggets' transition game that resulted in 22 points off the break and another whooping 68 in the paint.
During the Tuesday session at the practice facility, the Blazers tried to simulate the tempo of the Nuggets.
Also, the team emphasized key matters like taking the ball out of bounds quickly after a Denver score and rushing back on defense to stop the rapid-fire fast break.
"Transition, transition, transition," coach Terry Stotts stressed. "They're an explosive team. Every possession, we can't be on our heels."
They also can't necessarily mimic the Nuggets.
The Blazers matched a season-high with 94 field goals last Friday in Los Angeles — see the trend here, as just about any team can rev up the pace against the Lakers — however, that number was nine more than their average. Though Portland desires to play at a higher pace for the rest of the season, Lillard warns about impersonating the Nuggets.
"We've got to play at our own pace. If we try to beat them at their game, it might not work out for us," Lillard said. "They've won a lot of games doing it. We can play that way, it's not like we won't run at all but if we're playing to their strength, we're just going up and down, running ourselves tired. That's how they play so it'll probably work in their favor."
Hickson, Barton visit students
The scouting report for Denver was not far from J.J. Hickson's mind when he and teammate Will Barton visited Roosevelt High School late Tuesday afternoon.
When asked by a student about what the Blazers need to do to beat the Nuggets, Hickson responded: "Get. Back. On. Defense."
However, Hickson did not visit the school only to provide clues to the game plan. The two players, along with assistant coaches Dale Osbourne, David Vanterpool and Director of Player Programs Hersey Hawkins took part in the school-wide Black History Month assembly that honored some of the brightest Roosevelt students.
Hickson and Barton adorned the 4.0 grade point average students with medals and later during a reception, met with those who had demonstrated excellent writing.
The students fired questions at the players and coaches in a mock press conference and a few budding writers like junior Leroy Brandon shared their work with the captive Blazer crowd.
"It really felt good to read my piece to them… and they listened," Brandon said.
The Blazers rewarded more than 200 tickets to tonight's games to Roosevelt students with cumulative grade point averages of 3.0 or higher.