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Preview: Nuggets host Milwaukee Bucks as Giannis sits with injury

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Can the Nuggets get right?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Milwaukee Bucks Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been awhile since the Denver Nuggets looked “good.” They’ve scraped by on several occasions since the All-Star break, and on others, they’ve been blown out by good teams and lost to bad teams. As much as I don’t really care about a loss here or there to a bad team, Denver’s inability to lock in and take care of business has put them in the middle of a West playoff race they should have no part in. Denver has done most of the difficult work getting a high seed in the Western Conference based on beating several other good teams. The problem? They’ve flubbed the easy stuff.

One of the teams against whom they rose to the challenge are these Milwaukee Bucks. On the second night of a back to back on the last day of January, the Nuggets, missing some key players, traveled to Milwaukee, arriving at 4:00 am, and found a way to win a basketball game against the best team in the NBA at basically full strength. Giannis Antetokounmpo was pretty good, but not great, as Jerami Grant rose to the occasion and accumulated seven blocks as the power forward starter. Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez played well. The Nuggets just found a way.

Now, as the Bucks come to Denver, things feel dramatically different. Giannis won’t play, and the Nuggets are likely thankful for that. They desperately need a win,. A 4-4 record since the All-Star break with blowout losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors has left a sour taste in the mouthes of everyone involved. Denver even dropped a game to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday. Michael Porter Jr. hasn’t been a factor since rolling his ankle against these Bucks over a month ago. Can he figure it out on the fly?

The Nuggets have a lot of questions to answer. It’s time to get right.

The Essentials

Who: Milwaukee Bucks (53-11) at Denver Nuggets (42-21)

When: 7:00 PM MST

Where: Pepsi Center; Denver, CO

How to watch/listen: Denver Stiffs does not condone piracy...unless it’s the romanticized 18th century type. TV broadcast on Altitude TV (DirecTV) and league pass (out of market) where available. Radio broadcast can heard on KKSE Altitude Radio 92.5 FM.

Rival blog: Brew Hoop

Projected Matchups

PG: Eric Bledsoe vs Jamal Murray

SG: Wesley Matthews vs Gary Harris

SF: Khris Middleton vs Will Barton

PF: Ersan Ilyasova vs Paul Millsap

C: Brook Lopex vs Nikola Jokic

Bench: George Hill, Donte DiVicenzo, Pat Connaughton, Marvin Williams, Robin Lopez vs Monte Morris, Torrey Craig, Michael Porter Jr., Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee

Injured players: Giannis Antetokounmpo - out (kneecap), Bol Bol - out (foot)

Three things to watch:

Khris Middleton vs Will Barton

With Giannis out tonight, Khris Middleton becomes the de facto first option in Milwaukee’s offensive system. He has been very good with Giannis on the bench, averaging 31.4 points per 36 minutes when Giannis sits vs 21.4 points per 36 minutes when the two share the court. Having the extra gear is essential for a championship duo, and Will Barton will have his hands full trying to stop the 6’7 small forward. Barton will have a number of difficult matchups at small forward in a playoff setting, and this will be a good preview against a team that goes to that matchup early and often.

Nikola Jokic vs Brook Lopez in the paint

As Nuggets fans know, Jokic is one of the best interior scorers in the NBA. What they may not know is that Brook Lopez is one of the best interior defenders. On shots less than six feet from the rim, the average defender in Lopez’s position would allow a 61.2 FG% on the shots players take against the seven-footer. Against Lopez though? He allows a 44.1% FG%, the lowest FG% allowed in the NBA.

MPJ

It took several fouls and some defensive struggles from Torrey Craig for Michael Porter Jr. to enter last game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. In the 16 minutes Porter played, he did reasonably well on both ends, extending his streak of at least one three-pointer made to five games in a row (excluding the DNP). It remains to be seen what his role will be going forward, but the Nuggets clearly have need for an additional scorer if/when Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray aren’t at their best. Barton is good, but not otherworldly as the next offensive option. Things drop off after that. Porter could provide that dynamic in a bench role, but he has to get off the bench to be impactful.