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Denver Nuggets: Rotational musts for Game 7 matchup

The Denver Nuggets rode a path of unfavorable spurts to their Game 6 demise, and the Portland Trail Blazers extended the series to a sudden death Game 7.

Game 6 was strange for the Denver Nuggets. They seemingly had things in hand early…and then suddenly, they didn’t.

After kicking off the game with a 10-point lead, Denver watched the Portland Trail Blazers utilize a dynamic bench effort to shift the tide in the second quarter.

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Wouldn’t it have been glorious to knock off Portland in six games, and have extra time to rest before the Conference Finals? Where did it all go wrong?

The starters looked decent overall, fighting through poor shooting nights by Jamal Murray and Paul Millsap. Nikola Jokic was amazing once again, producing 29 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists while sinking 10-of-15 from the field.

Despite his dreadful 4-of-15 shooting, Millsap finished with a plus-1 net rating, speaking to his stellar defense. Torrey Craig posted the same rating as Millsap. No Nuggets starter finished worse than minus-5, despite a devastating scoring performance from Portland’s backcourt.

Meanwhile, from the bench, Will Barton finished with a horrendous minus-25 rating. Mason Plumlee went for minus-10, while Monte Morris was minus-7 in just over two minutes of play.

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Of Portland’ starters, nobody exactly killed the Nuggets from a scoreboard perspective. Despite a strong showing, Damian Lillard’s rating was a minus-2. CJ McCollum led the starters with a plus-10 mark, although much of his net positive came while playing against Denver’s second unit.

Portland’s bench was a different story. Rodney Hood led his team with a plus-21 net rating. He torched the Nuggets with 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Seth Curry and Zach Collins weren’t far behind Hood, notching a plus-19 and plus-15 net rating, respectively.

So what does the Nuggets’ coaching staff take from this? Should all five Denver starters play 44-46 minutes per contest? Definitely not on a game-by-game basis.

But perhaps we’re not discussing sustainability. Sunday will provide a hard-fought, guns-blazing, free-swinging melee of a Game 7. This is an opportunity where each squad (fresh off two days rest) will attempt to drop the other with its biggest, baddest knockout punch.

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Not exactly a call to spread minutes across a deep rotation.

Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni has always embodied this rotational theory throughout the postseason, possibly to an extreme. He usually gives six guys heavy minutes, with a seventh seeing decent time. D’Antoni’s style is based on the fact that important games aren’t generally determined by bench depth.

Now facing a Game 7, Denver’s hand has been forced. The bench thoroughly dropped the chickens in Game 6. They will not play enough time to replicate this performance on Sunday.

Jokic played 65 minutes earlier this series, and he ought to be good for at least 45 in Game 7. The same goes for Millsap and Murray. Each has delivered an undeniable impact, and will surely redeem themselves from Thursday’s poor shooting.

Gary Harris will be needed for a strong two-way game. Pencil him in at 42-45 minutes. Craig’s defense alone earns him 30 minutes. If his catch-and-shoot game is clicking, he could approach 40.

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Although Malik Beasley shot poorly on Thursday, his -3 net rating proved the least poisonous among Denver’s bench players, and he’s generally strong on both ends. Assuming this continues, Beasley should lead the second-unit in playing time.

Plumlee should spell Jokic and Millsap for only a short while. The starting frontcourt will likely only rest for a few moments. Barton, too, will play very limited minutes. If he delivers a fast impact, expect his time to increase.

Morris will likely spell Murray for a very brief moment. He has been less effective this postseason, which provides good material in forming an off-season training regimen.

Again, this isn’t about long-term sustainability. This is Game 7, baby. Do-or-die-time. Winner takes the cake.

As the playoffs trend deeper, Denver’s core of Jokic, Murray, Harris and Millsap soldiers on. This group has carried the boulder-sized burden of playoff production past the league’s point of prediction for the so-called “fraudulent” 2-seeded Nuggets. Of the remaining players, Craig has proven himself most helpful on the defensive end.

There is no room for anything but the best in Game 7’s. This is when Denver smacks Portland with the full force of its stellar starting lineup. Time to hit ’em with a Mile High haymaker!

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