The Raptors travel to the mile-high city to take on Masai’s former team.

WARNING: Skip ahead to the interview if you’re not a fan of LOTR, or very shoddy writing.

Before Masaiah the Savior conquered the Great White North, he lorded over the city of Arabor that sat at the footstep of the Lonely Mountain.

When he first arrived, a daunting task awaited him — in the mountain laid a great big dragon named Smaug the Terrible Carmelo the Disgruntled, who lorded over the lands, pillaging possessions at will and demanding tributes in the form of over-the-hill heroes (Allen Iverson the Inefficient, and Chancey Billups of the MoTown Realm come to mind). However no tribute, no ransom, nor compromise would appease Carmelo, who in like all other creatures, desired star-power over above all else.

Carmelo the Disgruntled hatched himself a plan, and into his plan he poured his malice and his will to dominate all life basketball players. He held the citizens of Arabor as ransom, in exchange for his ultimate request — to be freed from the mountain to form a legion of doom in Mordor New York, a legion so evil that it would mask the entirety of the Middle Earth Basketball Association in darkness.

Aghast, the greater council of Arabor turned to an unlikely hero, an unheardled dwarf from the Northern realm by the name of Masaiah Underhill. Little was known about Underhill — he served as a captain in Bryan “Lord Denathor” Colangelo’s army, and toiled in the wilderness before that — but the council had faith, and their faith was rewarded.

Ujiri staunchly held court with Carmelo and the orcs of Mordor. He baited and bargained, pitting the vanity of the dragon against the blind lust and deep-rooted sense of self-loathing of the Orcs. Alas, after a tiring and well-chronicled battle, terms of reparations were met — the Dragon would free its grasp over Arabor, and in exchange, the Orcs would surrender some seemingly worthless Elvish weapons.

As it turned out, Ujiri made out like a bandit. The armies of Arabor were revived with the influx of new equipment. Danilo the Stallion received the Elvish weapon Glamdring, which gave him unlimited range on his arrows. Armed with Mithril, a chain-mail crafted from the scales of dragons, Timofey the Poster stood bravely in the face of opposing Griffins. Massiah’s deal was so prosperous, that centuries after the deal, the citizens of Arabor still lay claim to the great treasure under the mountain — a 2014, unprotected first round Arkenstone from the floundering Knicks, to which the owner of the stone could control the fortunes of fantastical creatures, from Jabari to Wiggins, from Exum to Embiid.

I’m really sorry you read all that. There’s a preview of the game coming, I promise. Here to kick off that preview is Matt Cianfrone from the ever-excellent Roundball Mining Company blog, who was kind enough to answer some of my questions. Here is our correspondence:

1. Explain to me the thinking behind Denver GM Tim Connelly’s off-season spending spree. He went out and spent 70 million on resigning Mozgov and Andre Miller (we’ll get to him in a sec), and bringing in free-agents NateRob, Arthur, Hickson and PonyFoye. In the process, he’s capped out the team for the foreseeable future and the Nuggets are still starless. So…why? Also, do you miss Masai Ujiri (sorry, not sorry)?

I would explain it but that would mean I understand it. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to what Denver was doing this offseason outside of the bargain price they got Robinson for; and even he wasn’t really needed. Besides Hickson being a terrible player, he basically replicates the skill set of Kenneth Faried without making anywhere near the impact the Manimal brings to games. Arthur has been arguably the best power forward on the roster this year and Foye has brought much needed shooting but those were moves Denver should have taken to get to a next level, not to keep them fighting for an eighth seed. The common refrain is the Nuggets are gearing up for a trade but call me skeptical because I don’t see any above average assets to trade. Especially with Faried’s looming contract extension and stretches of poor play this year. At least Masai had a plan, or something resembling one.

2. How has Kenneth Faried performed this season? There was talk of a potential Manimal-Shumpert trade early in the season because of his supposed inability to fit within Brian Shaw’s schemes. First, was there any validity to that rumor, and second, has he adapted to the coaching change?

I’m not sure how much truth there was in that rumor but I understand Denver wanting to move Faried. He hasn’t fit well in Brian Shaw’s preferred offense where the game runs through the big men, he is a massive defensive liability, and he hasn’t really gotten significantly better since he came in the league. He can impact games in the right place and role but that place and role doesn’t seem to be in the type of game Brian Shaw wants to play. I don’t see him lasting the rest of the year in Denver, especially with the rookie extension coming next season and his supposed desire to be paid big money.

3. Speaking of Shaw, it’s been widely reported that he clashed with veteran guard Andre ”3000” Miller which has left Miller permanently suspended from the team in the aftermath. Since his departure is imminent, where do you see Miller ending up?

I’m not sure. There were rumors of Miller being sent to Sacramento for some combination of Jimmer or Marcus Thornton or Jason Thompson but that seems to be dead now. I think it ultimately becomes a salary dump type of trade where Miller gets traded somewhere for a player that really has no use to them outside of being cheaper or having a contract that expires earlier. I have heard the idea of sending Miller, Wilson Chandler and Faried to the Pistons if they are serious about moving Greg Monroe but I’m not sure that offer beats what the Pistons could get elsewhere. My guess is some contender, or someone that thinks they are a contender, gets hit with an injury and comes and saves Dre from his exile.

4) How will Denver attack Toronto’s defense? Is Shaw still running the “first unit wear them down, second unit run them out” strategy?

A lot of it depends on if Ty Lawson plays or not after missing Denver’s most recent game. When Lawson plays he does almost everything for the Nuggets. He is second in the NBA in drives according to Sports Vu data, fourth in the league in points created per 48 minutes per the same sources and in general has done a ton for the Denver offense. The bench unit is led by a combination of Nate Robinson (who left the game Wednesday with an injury) and Timofey Mozgov. If neither one of those point guards play then Denver is left with Evan Fournier and Randy Foye doing a lot of creating their own shot because they aren’t anywhere near the passers or creaters Lawson and Robinson are. Wilson Chandler will do things but he isn’t a playmaker at all, in fact until semi-recently he has been just a spot-up shooter who almost never attacked the basket.

5) Superbowl prediction?

I’m not a Broncos fan (I’m from Jersey and grew up a Cowboys fan) but I can’t let the other members of the site and our readers down and pick against them especially being a UGA graduate with the only two Dawgs in the game being Champ Bailey and Knowshon Moreno. So I will say Moreno has a huge day and rushes for 2 touchdowns on offense while Bailey comes up with a timely pick or deflected pass and the Broncos win the game by ten. Either way it will be a very entertaining game.

As Matt mentioned, the tides of this game rides on the sore-shoulders of Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson, who is a game-time decision for tonight’s contest. He’s the key to Denver’s fast-paced offense. The diminutive point-guard probes the paint seemingly at will and is a deadly shooter from the outside. If he is unable to play, Toronto’s All-Snub Kyle Lowry will hold a significant advantage in the backcourt.

The fallout from Lawson’s absence is compounded by Nate Robinson’s sprained ACL, which will keep him out of tonight’s contest. With Andre Miller banished from the team for the foreseeable future, this leaves PonyFoye and Evan Fournier to shoulder the bulk of the playmaking duties. Both players are decent shooters and can handle the ball, but they’re below average shot-creators.

Generating offense gets even tougher when you factor in the lack of posting-up from their frontcourt. The Nuggets run a four-man rotation of Faried, Arthur, Mozgov and Hickson, which could pose a serious problem for the thinning Raptors front-line (Amir sprained his ankle, Hansbrough is just returning and Patrick Patterson had his nose displaced, although it sounds like they’ll all be fine).

In an effort to create offense, chances are good that Denver employs two strategies — pushing the pace into overdrive, and putting the ball in the hands of Wilson Chandler. Increasing the pace will present an issue for the Raptors, who will have to contend with the challenge of playing in Denver’s high altitude. Similarly, Chandler is a crafty wing who can create his own shot, and has decent size and quickness at the three.

However, if Lawson is good to go, this Denver team will likely run the Raptors out of the gym. Lawson is the R.Kelly to Denver’s ignition, and his impact on this roster cannot be understated. Lawson is basically Lowry with more scoring prowess and less defense. Come back near game-time for updates on his condition.

Positional Match-ups

Point Guard — At the moment, Lawson is listed as a game-time decision and NateRob is out, so I have to give the edge to Lowry. Foye has the ability to rain threes at a moment’s notice, but Lowry’s all-around excellence should take this one easily. If Derozan returns to the lineup, Greivis Vasquez will return to back-up point guard duties and continue to either infuriate, or enthuse fans will his streaky shooting.

Advantage: Raptors

Wings – Both teams employ an interchangeable assortment of shooting guards and small-forwards, so I’ve decided to amalgamate the two positions into one. Derozan says he’s 90% healthy and he expects to play in tonight’s game, which should significantly bolster the Raptors wing depth. Denver’s wings are very capable of handling the ball and scoring, so the game-plan should be to run them off the three-point line and not gamble for steals. Don’t sleep on Jordan Hamilton.

Advantage: Raptors, if Derozan plays, otherwise Denver.

Frontcourt — Denver’s front-court is a lot like ours — they employ four very capable bigs and offer a wide assortment of looks. Faried is a monster on the glass and he’s an athletic freak, but he’s a bad defender. Mozgov is a good rim-protector, but he is slow and plodding. Hickson also grabs boards, but don’t let his numbers fool you, he’s got a penchant for inflating his totals. Finally, Arthur is the only one who can hit a jumper and he is a good defender, but he’s limited to performing within his role. Think of him as a less polished, more quick Patrick Patterson. Regardless, if the Jonas and Amir from the Orlando game shows up, this one belongs to the Raptors.

Advantage: Raptors, but it’s close

Bench  — The one thing Denver does have is a superb bench. Even without NateRob, Miller, and potentially Lawson, they still have a stable of solid NBA players who can play at high-tempo and score. It’s difficult to predict their rotations because their players are mostly of the same quality, but it’s better than what we have to offer, especially in the back-court.

Advantage: Denver

Vegas Says: Denver is favored to win by 2 points and the over-under on total points scored is 205. There’s something about -110 and +110, and I would explain it, but I’m not a degenerate gambler so I can’t. Have a look for yourself here.

William Says: I agree with Vegas. I’m not digging the fact that so many of our players are banged-up, and it’s tremendously difficult to win in Denver. I think the game will be close, but I’d just be happy to see if Derozan is back and healthy, and to witness the sheer amount of chips on Kyle Lowry’s shoulders. Either way, it should be a fun game in which neither team is out of it until the very end. Final Score: Denver 110, Raptors 106.

INJURY UPDATE!

UPDATE: No Lawson tonight. All the Raptors players are in the lineups.