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Preview: Nuggets go to Chicago to face the Bulls

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Can the Nuggets right the ship against Jimmy Butler and a weird Chicago Bulls team on the road?

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The story of this Denver Nuggets season has been one of many streaks. To start the season, the Nuggets played eight games of the Nikola Jokic-Jusuf Nurkic combination, to no avail. For the next 17 games, the team played mostly bad basketball and lost a variety of games they should have won. After that, on December 15th, the lineup changed again, and for the next 21 games, Denver went 12-9. The Nuggets looked like they had discovered something new that would fuel them for the rest of the season.

Since January 28th, exactly a month ago, the team has been unable to string together two victories in a row. Momentum is killed as soon as it begins, and the Nuggets have been unable to play well enough to win for 96 straight minutes in the last month. This was evident against the Memphis Grizzlies last game.

The good news is that the Nuggets play a back-to-back on the road before playing seven of their next eight games at Pepsi Center. By winning at least one of the games on this short road trip, the Nuggets would set themselves up nicely to separate from other teams in the playoff race.

Up first is the Chicago Bulls and Jimmy Butler. The Bulls are weird. Right now, they have Michael Carter-Williams, Jerian Grant, Cameron Payne, Rajon Rondo, Isaiah Canaan, Dwyane Wade, Denzel Valentine, and eventually Anthony Morrow competing for time at the guard positions. Their biggest three point threat is Nikola Mirotic, a guy who shoots 30.7 percent. They basically have the spacing on the floor of a Twenty One Pilots concert, but in spite of that, they still have a winning record. They have won four in a row against the Toronto Raptors, the Boston Celtics, the Phoenix Suns in overtime, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Somehow, they are making things work, and it’s up to the Nuggets to cool them off.

The Basics

Who: Chicago Bulls (30-29) vs Denver Nuggets (26-33)

When: 6:00 PM MST

Where: United Center, Chicago, IL

How to watch/listen: Altitude, AM 950

Rival Blog: Blog A Bull

Position Denver Chicago Advantage
PG Jameer Nelson Jerian Grant Nuggets
SG Gary Harris Dwyane Wade Even
SF Danilo Gallinari Jimmy Butler Bulls
PF Wilson Chandler Bobby Portis Nuggets
C Nikola Jokic Robin Lopez Nuggets
Bench Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Darrell Arthur, Mason Plumlee, Emmanuel Mudiay Cameron Payne, Rajon Rondo, Denzel Valentine, Nikola Mirotic, Christiano Felicio Nuggets

Injury Report: Kenneth Faried - questionable (back spasms), Michael Carter-Williams - questionable (patellar tendinitis)

Three things to Watch

The Bench Mob

I’ve been very unimpressed with the bench play in each of the last three games. During the Sacramento Kings loss, the bench lost control in the second quarter, and the starters couldn’t stem the tide. During the Brooklyn Nets victory, there were good individual performances and a couple egregious ones. During the Memphis Grizzlies loss, the bench completely let down the starters, losing momentum during both of its main stretches. I’m curious to see how Will Barton responds. He’s been a poor decision maker of late, and one of the reasons I want to see the offense run through Mason Plumlee as a distributor. Barton should face Rajon Rondo or Denzel Valentine for the majority of his minutes, so he should have a major advantage. Hopefully, he can be the catalyst off the bench the team needs him to be.

Rotation questions

During the Memphis game, I tweeted out this about a key rotation decision:

Harris had only played 24 minutes through three quarters, but I thought the best strategy would be to hold him out to start the fourth quarter and then insert him whenever Mike Conley returned. Instead, Harris started the fourth quarter, then sat down as soon as Conley returned. Conley eventually closed out the victory because neither Nelson nor Jamal Murray could stay in front of him, and by the time Harris came back in, the damage was done.

These are key factors that Michael Malone has to consider this late in the season. To this point, Malone’s decisions have been rigid: starters until 5 minutes left in the quarter unless foul trouble, sixth man comes in, rest of subs file in until the end of the quarter, Harris starts the next quarter, subs out for other starters, and then comes back in at the four minute mark to close. Malone has to be willing to adapt from game to game and understand what the other coach is doing to gain an advantage. Memphis head coach David Fitzdale won the game for the Grizzlies with his decision making, and in order to make the playoffs, Malone is going to have to win some games for Denver too.

Nikola Jokic versus himself

Robin Lopez can’t stop Nikola Jokic. Sure, Marc Gasol made life difficult for him, but Jokic played fine during the Memphis game. Jokic’s biggest issue of late has been a complete lack of aggression the last few games. Sometimes, he makes up for it with great passing and solid defense when he wants to play defense, but other times, having a player who’s unwilling to shoot when open kills the flow of the offense. This forces others to take a larger burden (hint: Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler).

For the Nuggets to win this game, they need Nikola Jokic to regain some aggression. Lopez is a solid player on both ends, but Jokic has to win his matchup. The only player preventing him from doing so is himself, because Lopez certainly won’t. Take the midrange jumpers off the pick and pop with Jameer Nelson. Post-up and make a move to score the basketball. If pressured at the top of the key, drive to the rim. Jokic is smart enough to make the right read when those things happen, and they don’t always have to end in a Jokic field goal attempt, but that’s what makes Jokic such a special player. He will make the right decision, but first, he must call his own number.