To this point, the Denver Nuggets have been one of the streakiest teams in the NBA.
The first ten games were almost as great as anyone could have asked for from a win-loss perspective. A 9-1 record, an elite defense crafted from somewhere deep in the bowels of Pepsi Center by head coach Michael Malone and his staff, executed by an energized Paul Millsap, aggressive Gary Harris, surprisingly engaged Nikola Jokic, and the rest of the team. The offense wasn’t hitting its stride, but that was seen as a positive by some. “Imagine what they could do when they start hitting shots?”
Fast forward four games, and the Nuggets are searching for an identity once again after four losses. Gone is the glamour form the start of the season, and questions have arisen in its place. What is going on with Jamal Murray and Gary Harris from behind the three-point line? Why is the offense so deliberate and clunky? Will the Nuggets ever be able to defend an elite primary creator after losses to LeBron James’ Los Angeles, James Harden’s Houston Rockets, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks?
Denver is hoping to bounce back against one of the worst teams in the NBA in the Atlanta, yet the Nuggets should absolutely know not to doubt the Hawks after last year’s home loss. Denver lost 110-97 on their home floor with Jokic going 4/21 from the field and 0/8 from behind the arc. This year, Atlanta is led on the floor by Trae Young, the electric rookie who has yet to find his shooting stroke but still facilitates offense well for others. Averaging 17.2 points and 8.5 assists, containing Young is the key to limiting the Hawks. If they make life difficult on the rookie, this should be an easy Nuggets win.
Who: Atlanta Hawks (3-11) at Denver Nuggets (9-5)
When: 7:00 PM MST
Where: Pepsi Center, Denver, CO
How to watch/listen: Altitude TV, AltitudeNOW.com, the AltitudeNOW app and Altitude Sports Radio 92.5FM
Rival Blog: Peach Tree Hoops
Isaiah Thomas - out (hip), Will Barton - out (groin), Michael Porter Jr - out (back), Jarred Vanderbilt - out (foot), John Collins - doubtful (ankle), Dewayne Dedmon - out (personal), Justin Anderson - out (leg), Alex Len - questionable (ankle)
Three Things to Watch:
The chemistry on offense
The Nuggets have operated at a slow pace during their four losses, and that isn’t necessarily by design. The team likes to hunt for mismatches, but against Houston’s switching defense, Denver took that to another level. Much of the offense was predicated on Nikola Jokic posting up switches against James Harden, as well as Jamal Murray isolating against Clint Capela. The team had moderate success in those instances, but not enough to justify pulling a Houston and hunting for it every time.
Denver’s three-point shooting numbers are down nearly across the board, and while some of that could simply be attributed to players going through cold streaks, there’s something more going on in recent games. The Nuggets are unsure of themselves on the perimeter, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris especially. Look for Denver to run some early sets to get those guys free offensively and start finding a rhythm.
Can the defense bounce back?
During the time frame of Denver’s last five games, the Nuggets are 30th in defensive efficiency. Dead last. That tends to happen when you lose, but Denver has struggled against a spread pick and roll. The Atlanta Hawks like the spread the floor and jack up threes, but they are inefficient in doing so. In addition, Alex Len is no Clint Capela, and Trae Young is no Chris Paul or James Harden. Denver should have more success cutting off that action, but where they will get into trouble is leaving shooters open. Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince are capable shooters, and they will burn the Nuggets if they allow too much space.
Can the bench unit continue to execute?
The Monte Morris-Mason Plumlee pick and roll duo has been excellent this year, allowing for open opportunities for Malik Beasley, Trey Lyles, and one of Murray or Harris. I don’t expect that to change against the Hawks. Morris just had one of his best games as a pro against the Rockets, and he maintains a sterling 8.0 assist to turnover ratio. His steadying hand earned him crunch time minutes last game, and he’s quickly proving to be an important piece for the present and future. This is a game where Morris could end up a plus-25 in the plus-minus department if he continues his solid play, and I expect him to dictate the pace of this game while he’s on the floor.
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