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Preview: Nuggets face Oklahoma City Thunder to open final road trip before All-Star break

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Can the Nuggets get back on track?

Oklahoma City Thunder v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

It’s getting close to time for the Denver Nuggets to prove they are better than their win-loss record says they are.

A number of factors have worked against them to start the season. First JaMychal Green went out, then Michael Porter Jr. went out, then PJ Dozier, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap went out in succession. Now, Green is out again, Will Barton and Monte Morris have looked battered at times, and the team has yet to develop a true sense of stability. Some of it is their own doing, as Thursday’s game against the Washington Wizards would suggest; however, it’s important to be objective. This season has taken a toll on absolutely everyone.

But the facts remain. The Nuggets are 5-7 in the month of February while Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray have combined to average 53.1 points per game during that stretch. The team as a whole ranks 10th and 21st in offensive and defensive rating respectively during the month, and while the offense has certainly taken a small step back overall, it’s clearly the defense that is holding them back from success.

Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Nuggets are going to have to put their foot down. Oklahoma City ranks 28th in offense in February and 4th in defense. This will be a good test for Denver. Can they finally get some stops against an awful offensive team? Can they maintain their high level of scoring against such a defense? They should be able to, but should and will are completely different. Let’s talk about it.

The Essentials

Who: Denver Nuggets (17-15) at Oklahoma City Thunder (14-19)

When: 6:00 PM MST

Where: Chesapeake Arena | Oklahoma City, OK

How to watch/listen: Denver Stiffs does not condone piracy...unless its the romanticized 18th-century type. Altitude TV where available, League Pass for non-Denver market viewers. Go to Ball Arena in shorts and sandals to help shovel snow and hope someone takes pity on you and let’s you inside. 92.5 FM KKSE Altitude Sports Radio.

Rival Blog: Welcome to Loud City

Projected Matchups

Starters

DEN: Monte Morris, Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr., Nikola Jokić

OKC: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Theo Maledon, Luguentz Dort, Darius Bazley, Al Horford

Player availability: PJ Dozier - questionable (hamstring), Paul Millsap - out (knee), Gary Harris - out (adductor), JaMychal Green - out (shoulder); Hamidou Diallo - doubtful (groin), Trevor Ariza - out (gonna be traded), George Hill - out (thumb).

Three Things to watch for

Washington Wizards v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Key matchup: Nikola Jokić vs. Al Horford

Nikola Jokić scored zero points in the fourth quarter of Denver’s two-point loss to the Washington Wizards. Frankly, it was one of his worse performances of the season despite a three-point barrage in the third quarter, but when Robin Lopez guarded Jokić, Denver found little success scoring down low.

Al Horford, though he isn’t as big and strong as Lopez, has the veteran savvy and intuition needed to make things difficult for the Serbian center. Where Horford might struggle on one end though, he will pay Denver back on the other end as a pick and pop threat for threes. If Horford gets going, that could open up the rest of OKC’s offense and free up guards like SGA and Lu Dort to find driving lanes.

Key point: Is the chemistry okay?

There was a lot of blame being thrown around by the Nuggets in the final play against the Wizards before Denver’s buzzer-beating loss. Some said Jamal Murray should have driven harder to the rim. Some said Michael Porter Jr. should have filled the lane and cut to the basket. There are potentially other guilty parties, namely the fact that Denver put themselves in that position due to the first 46 minutes of the game going the way they did.

Whatever the case, it certainly didn’t feel like a unified front, and that’s not a great sign for things to come. The season is long, and the playoffs are still over two months away. Denver’s nearing the halfway point and still has a lot of work to do, especially in the standings. Discontent amongst the group is normal after a tough loss, but too much of it, especially too much of it publicly, the things could go south in a hurry. The Nuggets better have each other’s backs, because even the thought of a fractured locker room is something the Nuggets have never experienced before under Michael Malone. That could turn into something different.

Opening thought: Finish Strong

Four games. Four measly road games. Well, the opponents will be tough, but that doesn’t matter. The Nuggets are 2-4 in their last six games. I posited that Denver would be okay if they survived at .500 during that stretch, an even 5-5.

Well, Denver’s one game away from hitting that total for losses, and any more beyond that could result in some major changes beyond the normal “we just need to get healthy” mantra. If the Nuggets lose too much ground, there’s only so much the returning players can add to the group. A little bit of defense, veteran leadership, and stability never hurt anyone, and maybe that’s the key with these returns, but there should be tangible concerns about simply reaching that point. CAN Denver survive?