The first 29 games of the regular season for the Denver Nuggets have been...up and down. A 16-13 record underscores what has been a mostly underwhelming season for Denver. They have struggled to find consistency, to replace Jerami Grant with Michael Porter Jr., and to rediscover their identity as a basketball team. The resilient group that fought in the regular season and playoffs over the last two seasons is probably still in there somewhere, but the Nuggets are having a difficult time tapping into that side of themselves lately.
Still, a strong performance on Friday from Jamal Murray and the rest of the roster against the Cleveland Cavaliers helped ease some of those underlying concerns. Murray scored the second most efficient 50 points in NBA history, Nikola Jokić had as easy triple-double on his birthday, and Porter scored 21 points in the first half alone, showing a level of consistent performance he had been missing for most of the year. Sure, it was the Cavs, but don’t tell the Nuggets that. It was one of their most encouraging performances all season, and it came with great vibes from the team after the game.
The question, can Denver maintain those good vibes heading into the last game of their road trip? The Atlanta Hawks have struggled lately, but that will make them hungry for a win, and they have a formula to make the Nuggets squirm.
Who: Denver Nuggets (16-13, 8-7 away) vs Atlanta Hawks (12-17, 6-9 home)
When: 5:30 p.m. MST
Where: State Farm Arena; Atlanta, Georgia
How to watch/listen: Denver Stiffs does not condone piracy..unless it’s the romanticized 18th-century type. AltitudeTV where available. League Pass for non-Denver market viewers. Convert an election polling machine. 92.5 FM KKSE Altitude Sports Radio
Rival Blog: Peachtree Hoops
Expected Starting Lineups:
ATL: PG Trae Young, SG Kevin Huerter, SF Cam Reddish, PF John Collins, C Clint Capela
DEN: PG Monte Morris, PG Jamal Murray, SF Will Barton, PF Michael Porter Jr., C Nikola Jokic
Injuries: P.J. Dozier, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, JaMychal Green, Greg Whittington, De’Andre Hunter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kris Dunn
Three Things to Watch
The Trae Young — John Collins/Clint Capela pick and roll
One of the reasons the Nuggets traded Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, and Jarred Vanderbilt to the Minnesota Timberwolves had nothing to do with the players received in the deal. By facilitating the trade of Robert Covington to the Houston Rockets, the Rockets decided to go with super small ball and traded Clint Capela to Atlanta. Now, a Harden lookalike in Trae Young has Capela as his primary pick and roll partner, and the two form the third most prolific assist combo in the NBA.
The second most? Trae Young and power forward John Collins.
This game will be a lesson in playing perfect pick and roll defense. The Nuggets are going to be put in difficult situations with the way the Hawks attack in the pick and roll. Jokić and Porter will be forced to play high on ball screens, leaving the middle of the floor open. If they don’t, Young is capable of raining hellfire from three. Can Denver solve this riddle shorthanded? We will see.
Can Jamal Murray keep the pressure on the Hawks?
It’s hard to follow up one of the most efficient 50-point performances ever put on, but Jamal Murray is certainly going to try. Averaging over 31.0 points per game in his last five performances, Murray has quickly turned his season around from “average season for Jamal Murray” to “suddenly averaging career highs for Jamal Murray.” 20.6 points per game and a 58.0 TS% are both career highs in the regular season and represent the growth Nuggets fans were hoping for.
I have no idea who’s going to guard Murray on the Atlanta Hawks, but it won’t be a good defender in all likelihood. Maybe Cam Reddish slides up a position to guard Murray, but that shouldn’t scare anyone, least of all Murray. He’s locked in right now and should have additional space to make plays while operating next to another facilitator. Murray is at his best when he’s hunting scoring opportunities, and he should have plenty against the Hawks.
Michael Porter Jr. at power forward
Another way the Nuggets created space for Murray was playing Michael Porter Jr. almost exclusively at power forward for the duration of the Cavs game. After Green injured his shoulder in the first minute of play, Porter, Jokic, and three guards generally shared the floor the duration of the starters minutes, and it created some great opportunities offensively.
According to PBP Stats, the Jokić-Porter lineups that don’t feature any other bigs have played just 80 minutes, but they have a +16.4 net rating and a 122.3 offensive rating during that stretch. That’s not an insignificant sample size, even if a large portion of it came against an undermanned Cavs team.
Denver will be forced to go back to that configuration tonight with both Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green out. There might be some extra Zeke Nnaji or Isaiah Hartenstein minutes in there, maybe both, but playing Porter at power forward allows Denver to fall into their best form with the players they have right now. Adding one of Monte Morris or Facundo Campazzo to a lineup that features Murray, Will Barton, Porter, and Jokić keeps the talent level high and helps Denver maximize execution offensively. It will be difficult to defend with that group out there, and Porter will be challenged. Against his former AAU teammate in Trae Young though, Porter may be in line for a big performance either way.