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Preview: Nuggets head to Sacramento to play a gut-check game against the Kings

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After checking out early last night, Nikola Jokic and the rest of the crew should be fired up for tonight.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Last night was embarrassing, but today is a new day.

The Denver Nuggets will head north of Los Angeles to play the Sacramento Kings tonight. After a quality win against the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday night, the Nuggets laid an egg against the Lakers on Sunday, giving up 127 points and losing the game in the second quarter. In that second quarter, Nikola Jokic and Michael Malone took offense to a non-call made by official Rodney Mott, who promptly threw out both player and coach, to Malone’s dismay. Still, neither ejection lost the Nuggets the game. They were already down 52-32 at the 6:20 mark in the second quarter when the exchange happened.

Now, the Nuggets come into Sacramento on the verge of playing their third game in four days off a back-to-back. Historically, this is a game most teams lose, regardless of the opponent. If the game is on the road and the opponent is well-rested, it can be the kiss of death.

The Nuggets don’t have that luxury. They were just embarrassed by the Lakers. Jokic played 12 minutes. Millsap played 13 before leaving the game with a left wrist sprain. He may not be available to play, though it’s good thing the Nuggets have a ton of power forward depth behind him.

These are the Kings. 4-12 on the year, but 3-3 at home and have beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers, and Portland Trail Blazers in their building. Denver could certainly become victim number four in the Golden 1 Center if they don’t be careful. If they are lazy and unfocused like they were against the Lakers, they will lose. Plain and simple.

The Basics

Who: Denver Nuggets (9-7) vs Sacramento Kings (4-12)

When: 8:00 pm MST

Where: Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, CA

How to Watch: Altitude TV

Rival Blog: Sactown Royalty

Likely Starters

Point Guard: Jamal Murray vs De’Aaron Fox

Shooting Guard: Gary Harris vs George Hill

Small Forward: Wilson Chandler vs Garrett Temple

Power Forward: ????? vs Skal Labissiere

Center: Nikola Jokic vs Zach Randolph

Injury Report

Four Keys to the Game

Get Nikola Jokic going early

The Joker is likely pissed with himself for getting kicked out last night, and the best way to hone that anger is to 1) give him the ball, and 2) space, run, and cut like hell. At the beginning of the Lakers game, Jokic caught a ball and threw one of the fastest bullet passes I have ever seen. It led to a wide open Chandler three pointer, and it had a lot to do with the fact that Jokic was frustrated and the Nuggets were actually getting up the floor quickly. Run, pass, cut like hell. Jokic will find you, and if all else fails, he can play bully ball in the low post or shoot 10 three-pointers. Either scenario would make me happy and would likely lead to a team win.

If Paul Millsap cannot play, do not start Will Barton or Mason Plumlee

Both Juancho Hernangomez and Trey Lyles deserve minutes after being the only two players outside of Gary Harris and Wilson Chandler to show up last night. One of them would make an excellent forward to space the floor and get the Nuggets off and running. My instinct is that Denver should start Lyles, who played well last night and will be facing off against a variety of former Kentucky players (his alma mater).

My gut also tells me that Denver will either go small and start Will Barton at the 3, go big and start Mason Plumlee at the 4, or start Kenneth Faried. Faried is a natural fit, and I wouldn’t complain if it meant pairing him with Jokic for at least the first six minutes of each quarter. Still, Denver’s lineup becomes more versatile on both ends with a floor spacing forward, something both Hernangomez and Lyles bring to the table.

Stick to your wing man and just play hard

Denver has a problem with staying with their man at times. Last night, Denver gave up 70 points in the paint, and only 14 of them were via fast break points. Working hard is a skill, and through 16 games, Denver is much improved over last year. In order to keep it that way, they must maintain pressure on the opposing offense. Too much cushion on the perimeter leads to easy baskets, either on jump shots, offensive rebounds, or quick moves to the paint off the dribble. Against a Kings team with a rookie point guard and few creators off the dribble, Denver must make Sacramento uncomfortable. On top of that, just playing hard should make up for some mistakes. It sounds trivial, but pressure occurs when players play hard, and the other team will make mistakes when the pressure’s on.

Take care of the basketball

21 turnovers last night. That’s not gonna cut it. Every player had a hand in the turnovers and just being lackadaisical, even those who weren’t credited with one.

Winning basketball teams look themselves in the mirror after 21 turnovers and recover as soon as the next day. Denver must continue to prove they are ready to take the next step, and a playoff team cleans up those mistakes and executes well the next time around.

We will see where the Nuggets are at as a team tonight.