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Preview: The Denver Nuggets are in New York to visit an old friend

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Will they play down to the level of competition?

NBA: New York Knicks at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

“Clutch” minutes, per NBA.com, are defined as minutes in which the score is within five points in the final five minutes of the game. The Nuggets have played in 41 games that have featured “clutch” minutes this season, the 3rd most of any team in the NBA. They are 28-13 in those games, the 2nd best winning percentage in “clutch” games among all 30 teams.

On the surface, this is a pretty impressive stat. The Nuggets are one of the youngest teams in the NBA and they spent large stretches of the season relying very heavily on the 24-year-old Nikola Jokic and the 22-year-old Jamal Murray so being able to gut out close wins is a sign of maturity and poise beyond the team’s collective years.

But it also hints at another trait that defines the Nuggets: playing to the level of their competition. The Nuggets are a half game behind the Warriors for the best record in the Western Conference but routinely find themselves in close games against some of the league’s worst teams. In the last week, they’ve squeaked out wins against the Wizards and Mavericks, two teams who are tanking and whom Denver should be able to smash.

The Knicks are the worst team in the NBA. They’ve won just 14 games so far this season and have been outscored by an average of nine points per game. Everything is setup for the Nuggets to grab a comfortable win before moving on to the final, most difficult 11-game stretch of their season. But there’s this nagging feeling that the Nuggets will turn a gimme into a dogfight.

The Basics

Who: Denver Nuggets (48-22) at New York Knicks (14-58)
When: 5:30 PM MT
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York.
How to watch: Altitude
Rival blog: Posting and Toasting

Injury report

Dennis Smith Jr. (Out), Michael Porter Jr. (Out).

Three things to watch

Can the Nuggets find their groove?

We are just three weeks away from the end of the regular season and yet it still feels like we haven’t seen 48 minutes of real Nuggets basketball. There have been plenty of flashes. The 4th quarter against the Utah Jazz back in November comes to mind, as does the 2nd half against the Minnesota Timberwolves last week. But we haven’t seen the Nuggets find that perfect rhythm offensively that the team is capable of.

Back in 2016, the Nuggets found that groove on December 15th and sustained it for the next two months. Last season, the Nuggets found that groove over the final seven games and nearly streaked into the post-season. Can tonight be a tuning point that launches the Nuggets toward playing their best basketball of the season to close out the year?

Mudiay’s revenge

I don’t think that the Nuggets coaches, players, or fans really think about Emmanuel Mudiay all too much. The Mudiay era only ended last year near the trade deadline but it feels like it was a lifetime ago so I don’t think that Mudiay’s revenge is on anyone’s mind...except for Emmanuel Mudiay. For all of his flaws, the Congo Kid had a knack for playing well in big moments and even if Nuggets Nation has moved on, there’s few things more satisfying for a scorned player that to play well against his former team.

Nikola Jokic and Mitchell Robinson

One of my favorite rookies this season is Mitchell Robinson, a shot-blocking machine who could hardly be more different than Denver’s Nikola Jokic. For starters, Robinson is long and skinny and blocks nearly every shot he is close enough to contest. He’s especially skilled at blocking jump shots and, as a high school prospect, had one of the best shot blocking rates in EYBL (elite prep hoops) history. Jokic is the all-star and clearly the better player but it will be interesting to see if Jokic approaches this game as a sort of challenge to teach the young up-and-comer a few lessons or if he’ll sleepwalk through the game and allow Robinson to grab some momentum.

Bonus: Will there be some MSG magic like back in 2017?