Portland has mile-high jinx

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.

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