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Preview: Nuggets take on Phoenix Suns again

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In the second game of a home-and-home series, the Nuggets face the Phoenix Suns without Nikola Jokic.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday night, the Denver Nuggets squeaked out a victory against the Phoenix Suns. Denver didn’t play very well as a unit, but with the high scoring performances of Nikola Jokic and Danilo Gallinari, along with some more clutch play from Jameer Nelson, the Nuggets escaped the Suns. In the process, Jokic went down with what was later determined as a left hip flexor strain and is day-to-day. He won’t play in this game, nor will Emmanuel Mudiay due to a troublesome back, so more players will have to step up for the Nuggets to beat the Suns again.

As was seem on Thursday, the Suns have some explosive players of their own offensively. Eric Bledsoe led the way with 28 points, but the four of Bledsoe, Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, and Brandon Knight combined for 90 points as well. All are considered perimeter players, and the four above truly eviscerated Denver’s perimeter defense on every possession. Gary Harris was probably the least culpable, but that’s not saying much in this game. Every Nugget guard and wing should be ashamed of their defensive performance on Thursday. Hopefully it will lead to a better defensive effort tonight.

With that in mind, here are the match ups and keys to win on the second game of this home-and-home series:

The Basics:

Who: Denver Nuggets (20-25) vs Phoenix Suns (15-31)

When: 7:00 PM MT

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ

How to watch: Altitude

Rival blog: Bright Side of the Sun

Position Denver Phoenix Advantage
PG Jameer Nelson Eric Bledsoe Suns
SG Gary Harris Devin Booker Suns
SF Danilo Gallinari T.J. Warren Nuggets
PF Kenneth Faried Marquese Chriss Nuggets
C Jusuf Nurkic Tyson Chandler Even
Bench Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, Juancho Hernangomez, Darrell Arthur Brandon Knight, Leandro Barbosa, P.J. Tucker, Jared Dudley, Alex Len, Alan Williams Nuggets

Injury Report: Nikola Jokic - out (hip flexor), Emmanuel Mudiay - out (back), Kenneth Faried - probable (hamstring), Wilson Chandler - probable (neck)

Key Matchup: Devin Booker versus Gary Harris

Last game, Devin Booker clearly won this matchup, and the more times he wins the matchup over Gary Harris, the more he separates himself as a player. In his last five games, Harris is averaging just 11.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 2.4 assists, and he’s gone long stretches of the game being invisible. Last game, he shot just 2/9 from the field and had three turnovers. Harris needs to bounce back offensively and defensively if the Nuggets want to win this game, as Booker has averaged over 25 points in the month of January. If this matchup is greatly skewed in Booker’s favor tonight, then the odds of Phoenix winning skyrocket.

Key thing to watch for: Jusuf Nurkic’s playing time

Last game, Nurkic received another DNP-CD in favor of Darrell Arthur playing center off the bench. Arthur had an average game, but Nurkic has the ability to be a game changer down low. Now, he will surely be pressed into service given the injury to Nikola Jokic. With 48 minutes at center, there will be a lot of playing time to go around, and this is the perfect opportunity for Nurkic to take advantage. Tyson Chandler and Alex Len were basically non-factors last game facing Jokic, and Nurkic should be able to accomplish the same thing defensively. Offensively, he’s bigger and stronger than the guys across from him, and it would be prudent for Nuggets guards to find him on dribble-drives and dump-offs in the flow of the offense.

It will be really telling how Nurkic is viewed by the coaching staff if he receives anywhere less than 20 minutes tonight. In my opinion, he should be in line for close to 30.

Opening thought: Replacing an alpha

Nikola Jokic has taken over as the alpha dog for this Denver Nuggets team, as many of the players (including veterans) have relayed. This team changed drastically with Jokic as the focal point of the offense, and it repeatedly changes when he goes back to the bench. His affect on the way the team plays is gargantuan, so I’m interested in seeing how the group responds without the ability to fall back on him. Will Jusuf Nurkic start and try to fill that role? Will Jameer Nelson and Danilo Gallinari try to shoulder more of the burden? Will other players (Jamal Murray) step up and play better when given an opportunity?

There are so many questions to answer tonight. Home-and-home series are hard to sweep, and given that the Nuggets won the first matchup, it would be easy to make an excuse for why they could lose tonight. A good team doesn’t lose this game though. They rise to the occasion and perform well with what they have. We will see if the momentum the Nuggets have built can keep going or will be extinguished.