(Boulder-CO) The shorthanded Nuggets will face their first of two extremely difficult, back-to-back tests of this season when they take on LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight and the defending champion Boston Celtics tomorrow. And as if the order wasn't tall enough, the Denver Nuggets suited only nine players against the Charlotte Bobcats on Tuesday night and will once again have a thin frontcourt due to Chris Andersen (rib), Steven Hunter (knee), and Kenyon Martin (wrist) all doubtful for tonight's game. Oh, and don't forget that Cleveland is a perfect 4-0 so far this season at home!
Since LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were forever joined in the 2003 draft it has been Carmelo who has enjoyed the most head-to-head success while James has experienced more success overall. Since James and Anthony entered the league, Denver has won five straight and eight of the first 10 meetings with Cleveland, including two wins last season by an average of 26.0 points, but that's not the only story line between two players with ties on either team. Of the three Brazilian players currently in the NBA, Denver's Nene and Cleveland's Anderson Varejao are also critical components to their respective clubs. For the Nuggets, Nene comes into tonight's game as Denver's third leading scorer with an average of 15.6 ppg which includes the NBA's best shooting percentage of 67.2%. Big Brazil has also scored 10+ points in six of his first seven appearances this season, marking the first time in his career that he has done so. For the Cavs, Varejao is averaging 8.8 ppg off of the bench while also shooting a blistering 65.1% from the field.
As I mentioned before, the Nuggets are extremely thin right now in the frontcourt. The injuries to Nugget big men has left Denver playing Carmelo Anthony and Renaldo Balkman at the power forward position when Linas Kleiza, J.R. Smith, Dahntay Jones, or Anthony Carter play in any combination with Chauncey Billups. And to this point, it hasn't been a blatant deficiency for Denver, but that might speak more to the teams that the Nuggets have faced up to this point. However, tonight against the Cavaliers it may be a different story. Cleveland, including the super-human LeBron James, has a very big and talented crew of big men. The Cavaliers use the 7'4" Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the bruising Ben Wallace in tandem as starters and then shuttle the 6'11" Varejao in and out as needed. Furthermore, Cleveland plays at a very grinding style of halfcourt basketball which could also stymie the smaller, quicker Nuggets.
The winner of tonight's game is going to be the team that dictates the style of play. The Cleveland Cavaliers, with their size and lack of overall team speed, are going to want to play halfcourt offense while not allowing the Nuggets to start their fast break. On the other hand, Denver will want to push the pace and score as many points as possible in an attempt to run the Cavs ragged. And to do this, Denver will need to rebound the basketball. I have been disappointed in the Nuggets' effort on the boards in their last two games due to the number of offensive rebounds allowed and the overall lack of a sound rebounding scheme. Too often the Nuggets all turn and look for the ball coming off the goal rather than finding the closest man and putting a body on them. As a result, we have seen Denver fall behind in games early, and make things harder then they needed to be on themselves down the stretch. In this regard, and since acquiring Chauncey, it hasn't burned the Nuggets yet, but that's not to say it won't in the future.
My final thought is going to be the inevitable match-up between Renaldo Balkman and LeBron James. Carmelo Anthony may initially draw James on defense, but King James has scored exactly 41 points in three of the last four games Cleveland has played and I believe the onus of guarding LeBron is going to ultimately fall on Balkman. That's not to say Carmelo isn't capable of at least slowing James down (because let's be honest, no one mere mortal can stop him), but if the Nuggets are going to win they will need Anthony more on the offensive end while hoping Renaldo can do a respectable job guarding the most unguardable player in the league today.