Bulls vs. Nuggets preview: Against Chicago, mental focus on order for Brian Shaw's team

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Despite leading for most of the game at Oklahoma City, the Nuggets ultimately succumbed to a weakness that has haunted them for years - free throws.

Game 11: 2013-14 NBA Season
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6-3 (1-3 away)
Series 0-0
4-6 (3-2 home)
November 21st, 2013
Pepsi Center - Denver, CO
8:30 PM MT
TNT
Derrick Rose PG Ty Lawson
Mike Dunleavy (?) SG Randy Foye
Luol Deng SF Wilson Chandler
Carlos Boozer PF Kenneth Faried
Joakim Noah C J.J. Hickson (?)
Notes
Blog a Bull Blogs You're here!
Derrick Rose (sore right hamstring) is day to day, Jimmy Butler (right toe) is out Injuries Danilo Gallinari (knee) is out, JaVale McGee(leg fracture) is out
Chicago is currently riding a 5-game win streak beginning on November 8th Stat Nuggets missed 18 free throws in a 2 point loss to the Thunder

After reeling off three straight wins, the Nuggets have stumbled in their last two contests against the Rockets and the Thunder. This is clearly a team still finding its identity; Shaw is still solidifying his rotations, and growing pains against teams with superstars like Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant are to be expected.

Yet the most exasperating part of the Nuggets loss to the Thunder (other than the complete non-call on Serge Ibaka holding Timofey Mozgov on the final inbounds) was that they had the game well in hand until the final minute of play, and had they simply had a bit better focus from the free throw line, a tough road victory would never have been in doubt.

The free throw bugaboo seems to haunt the Nuggets year in and year out - in fact, the Nuggets shooting from the line has declined every season since 2009 (77%) to a pitiful 71% from the current squad. You would need to go all the way back to the 1987-1988 Doug Moe coached Nuggets to find a team that hit 8 of 10 of their attempts over the season. At a dreadful 24th in the league in team free throw percentage, the Nuggets simply must get better from the line if they expect to win against the NBA's top teams. It cost them the game against OKC, and if they can't remedy their problems it will continue to cost them games going forward. Lookin' at you, J.J. Hickson (4-8 at OKC), Timofey Mozgov (1-4), Randy Foye (1-3), Wilson Chandler (1-3), and Evan Fournier (2-4).

On the flipside, the Chicago Bulls are shooting an NBA-best 84% from the line, lead by Mike Dunleavy, who has shot a perfect 12-12 on his attempts this year. With the penetrating cuts from Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, the Bulls will make you pay from the stripe if you foul them. Kenneth Faried, after being nearly invisible against Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, will have his hands full against Carlos "AND ONE" Boozer on the glass. I like that Ty Lawson is one of a few NBA players with the speed and quickness to fight off drives by Rose all night, but the Nuggets must stay focused on team defense to avoid giving easy looks to Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah in the paint. The Nuggets will be buoyed with Jimmy Butler missing this game, likely facing the slow-footed Kirk Hinrich and/or Mike Dunleavy filling in at the shooting guard spot.

If the Nuggets can make their free throws and keep their turnovers down, they have a solid chance at beating a road-weary Bulls team. They've had two days of rest to simmer on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at OKC, and I expect this squad to be hungry and come out fighting.

Finding the Vein

When this team is sharing the ball, they are very hard to stop. In their wins this season, the Nuggets have recorded 28, 18, 23 and 28 assists. Ty Lawson has been superb at distributing the ball to this point, and he must continue to find open looks for his teammates by staying aggressive. As Scott Hastings likes to so often point out, when Ty is attacking it creates better looks for the entire team. The injury to Jimmy Butler reduces the depth of a fairly shallow Bulls squad, and the Nuggets high-scoring bench should look to take advantage of the disruption to the Bulls usual lineups.

Clearing the Rocks

Bulls power forward Carlos Boozer is currently posting an average of 16 points and 9 rebounds alongside Joakim Noah and Luol Deng in the frontcourt. While Boozer has never been as effective in Chicago as he once was in Utah, the Bulls still thrive off Boozer's post play and love getting him into mismatches deep in the paint. Meanwhile, Noah, Deng and Gibson are all capable rebounders, and will challenge Faried, Hickson and Mozgov all night for every loose ball. There are likely to be a lot of missed shots between two teams that are ranked 18th (Denver) and 20th (Chicago) in the NBA at team field goal percentage, and every player must make an effort to corral the misses.

Mining the Gold

Over their last 5 games - all wins - the Bulls have not allowed a single team to score over 95 points. The Nuggets are currently averaging 104.4 points per game. The Bulls will attempt to slow the game down, grind out possessions with Boozer, Deng and Rose in the half court, and rely on Noah to protect the paint on defense. The Nuggets must respond by playing their favorite uptempo style at home to generate as many extra possessions as possible to create scoring opportunities, and crash the offensive glass with Faried and Hickson as often as possible. Even if it results in more turnovers than usual, the Nuggets need to attack the Bulls early in the shot clock.

I expect another close game, but Denver to take over and nail the game down in the 4th as they run down a tired Bulls team.

Final Score Prediction: Nuggets 104, Bulls 97

Don't forget - tonight's game will be shown on TNT!

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