After an extended 4-4 homestand against some of the better teams in the league, the Denver Nuggets head east - and face one of the best teams in the Atlantic in the Boston Celtics. Just a year ago that would have been a joke, but the East's lesser teams have been rising to the middle and the Celtics are one of the middle teams (5th in the playoff race currently) looking to take that next step into the East's elite.
The Celtics have won three straight, beatdowns of the 76ers, Bulls and Wizards. They are a deep team without an acknowledged star but with a very heady coach in Brad Stevens who has them all playing centered basketball with a scoring edge. Isaiah Thomas is their best performer putting up nearly 22 points and 7 assists a game and Jae Crowder has turned a lot of heads this year with his career-best in points already this year. They have seven players averaging 9+ points a game, however, and can mix and match against most any team with the size on their bench or the speed in their backcourt.
The Nuggets are looking for a better defensive effort than they've given recently, having surrendered 111 points a game in their last 5 outings. Denver is starting a road-heavy schedule with 8 of their next 10 away from the Pepsi Center, but wins in the Garden have been few and far between. The Nuggets have won in Boston just 3 times since 1990.
|Boston Celtics||Denver Nuggets||Advantage|
|PG||Isaiah Thomas||Emmanuel Mudiay||Boston|
|SG||Avery Bradley||Gary Harris||Boston|
|SF||Jae Crowder||Danilo Gallinari||Even|
|PF||Amir Johnson||Kenneth Faried||Nuggets|
|C||Jared Sullinger||Nikola Jokic||Nuggets|
|Bench||Will Barton, Jusuf Nurkic, Randy Foye, Joffrey Lauvergne, Mike Miller, Darrell Arthur||Celtics|
Three Things to Watch:
The Nuggets need both sides of the ball to win. The Celtics are 6th in the league in scoring, but also give up 100+ points a game. The Nuggets know what it's like to face a team that can score in bunches after having their heads handed to them by the Atlanta Hawks: there can't be dead offensive quarters, and sooner or later you might want to stop someone on defense.
Get tall. Early in January the Celtics dropped 4 straight, to the Knicks, Bulls, Pistons and Grizzlies. What do all those teams have? Players with paint presence. The Celtics got crushed on the boards in a couple of those contests and couldn't stop the big men from scoring at almost any time. Zeller and Olynyk are willing, but they are not interior stoppers. Sullinger is a short 5 and Crowder is a short 3. There is no reason that Gallo, Jokic, Nurkic and Joffrey can't get the looks they want and cause interior trouble for the Celtics at the same time while Faried (if available) can't Manimal inside. The Celtics are a harassing team but limiting their scrappy nature with our length would help immensely.
Memo to Coach Malone: this is the game to deploy 30 minutes of Jokic and allow Nurkic some time in the paint.
Can the Nuggets stop a speedy point guard? Damien Lillard torched the Nuggets earlier in the year for 30 points. Both Eric Bledsoe (30 points) and Brandon Knight (38 points) for the Suns have taken turns eviscerating Denver's defense. And just last game Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder combined for 27 points, 15 assists and 8 rebounds. Emmanuel Mudiay is a big, strong point guard who can play physical defense and even be crafty at times, but he doesn't have the lateral quickness to stay with speedy point guards nor the knowledge of body positioning or a useful, cohesive defense behind him yet.
Enter Isaiah Thomas. Thomas will give up 8 inches of height to Mudiay, but Thomas just finished taking John Wall and the Wizards to school with 23 points and 9 assists in a game that wasn't even as close as the 116-91 final score suggests. Being big isn't going to help Mudiay with either Thomas or Bradley. He's going to need to maintain position, have a good defense behind him, and above all press his size advantage on offense. Mudiay and Harris will need to work together to beat the backcourt of the Celtics on both ends - and this includes solving the physical defense of Marcus Smart - if the Nuggets plan to keep this one close.
Prediction: Boston's bench is more reliable and their guards are a bad matchup for ours in the scoring department. The Nuggets drop the first leg of their road trip 104-96.