The Denver Nuggets survived a tough early schedule, injuries and COVID-19 cases to sit atop the Western Conference 30 games into the season.

One of their signature road wins came at Portland on Dec. 8 when Jamal Murray hit a 3-pointer with 0.9 seconds left for an unexpected victory. His performance announced that Murray had turned a corner in his progress from a year off.

The Trail Blazers will get a chance for payback when they visit Denver on Friday night to wrap up a six-game road trip.

Murray is expected to play after missing Tuesday’s win over Memphis with knee soreness. Coach Michael Malone held him out as a precaution and inserted rookie Christian Braun into the starting lineup. Braun came through with 13 points and some solid defense on Grizzlies star Ja Morant.

The 105-91 win was significant for the Nuggets because it came against a Memphis team that had occupied the top spot in the Western Conference. The teams are now tied there at 19-11. It was also Denver’s best defensive performance after a stretch of porous showings at that end of the court.

“It’s no secret when we guard we’re a really good team because now you’re adding to an elite offense a capable defense, and that allows you to get out and run,” Malone said.

The Nuggets had six players score in double figures despite not having Michael Porter Jr. available for the 13th consecutive game due to a left heel strain. Porter said after practice on Thursday he is going to play.

Portland is coming off two straight losses at Oklahoma City by a total of five points. The Trail Blazers lost 123-121 Monday, on a night when Damian Lillard became the all-time leading scorer in franchise history, and then 101-98 on Wednesday night.

One emphasis for Portland on Friday night could be getting to the foul line. The Trail Blazers attempted just nine free throws in Wednesday’s loss.

“That really doesn’t happen with us,” coach Chauncey Billups said. “Nine free throws for the whole game. We attack all night. I guess we didn’t get fouled.”

Whenever Portland comes to town, it is a reunion on many levels. Billups grew up in Denver, played at the University of Colorado and had two stints with the Nuggets during his long playing career. It is a return for Jusuf Nurkic, who was acquired by Denver on draft night in 2014 and played two-plus seasons there before being traded to the Trail Blazers.

The decision to trade Nurkic came after a failed experiment of playing him and Nikola Jokic together. The Nuggets bet on Jokic as their man in the middle and the gamble has paid off. He has won the league MVP the past two seasons and is averaging 24.7 points, 11 rebounds and a career-best 9.2 assists per game.

Jokic has six triple-doubles, including each of the last two games and three in the last five. He went for 13 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists against Memphis.

–Field Level Media