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Preview: Nuggets try to right the ship against the Cavaliers

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The Nuggets have got a chance to find the right formula against a team they should be able to outclass at home - but will they?

Cleveland Cavaliers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

After wilting against the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday, the Denver Nuggets look to rebound - literally and figuratively - against the Cleveland Cavaliers who come to town on a 5 game road losing streak. The Cavs are trying to put the pieces together behind Collin Sexton, who is a scoring machine at 23.6 points per game but whose team doesn’t have the requisite defense to stop other teams from keeping up. Andre Drummond racks up big numbers inside in scoring and rebounding but his impact is nowhere near what Nikola Jokic’s is. The Cavs have Darius Garland as their third scoring piece, while the Nuggets aren’t sure what to make of their scoring situation and have no consistency behind the MVP start that Jokic is putting up.

The Nuggets are a better team than the Cavaliers, but both teams are trying to mix and match thanks to injuries and some roster pieces that have yet to fully integrate and lift up the whole squad. Denver is just hoping that it can find its mojo against an under-.500 opponent of the type they’ve feasted on all year.

The Essentials

Who: Denver Nuggets (12-11, 5-6 home) vs Cleveland Cavaliers (10-15, 3-8 away)

When: 7:00 p.m. MST

Where: Ball Arena, Denver CO

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. Hack the planet. 92.5 FM KKSE Altitude Sports Radio

Rival Blog: Brew Hoop

Injury Report: Kevin Love - out (calf), Larry Nance - out (finger), Matthew Dellavedova - out (concussion after-effects); Gary Harris - out (leg), PJ Dozier - out (different leg), Greg Whittington - out (knee), Facundo Campazzo - probable (knee), Vlatko Cancar - questionable (ankle)

Game Thoughts

  • Denver has to find a way to help Nikola Jokic win games. Right now the roster is battered and stretched due to injury and inefficiency, like butter scraped over too much bread. And much of that push and pull in this game will likely be between Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr, both of whom have had their struggles over the past few weeks for very different reasons.

Murray has had 3 games in his last 15 where he shot over 50% from the field. Porter has had 3 games all year where he attempted more than 12 shots from the field. Jamal Murray is injured, by his own admission, and trying to work through it by limiting his shooting to game days only, which hasn’t worked to keep his normal rhythm. His shot has suffered.

MPJ is taking poorly-thought-out shots when he takes them at all and can’t buy a rhythm to his shooting, either with the starters or the bench in limited attempts. Coach Michael Malone likes to say that defense feeds their offense, but with PJ Dozier and Gary Harris out, and several of Denver’s other guards limited by injury, the defense just isn’t there. MPJ is averaging 8 points a game in three February contests so far, with a Offensive Rating of 90 (terrible) and a Defensive Rating of 120 (also terrible). Not to be outdone, Murray’s two February box scores have him logging an 87 ORTG and a 126 DRTG.

If there was ever a game to let MPJ unclog the pipes and fire off shots until the chamber was empty and he found his offensive groove again, this would be the game. Murray can’t get back on track until he’s healthy, but he can work for open shots and feed MPJ to get him going. With Larry Nance out, Cleveland is limited on its sizable defenders who can cover MPJ on the perimeter, but they do a have speedy point guard in Collin Sexton who will take all of Murray’s energy to stay next to. Without Gary Harris or PJ Dozier available, there aren’t a lot of guard options to attempt to slow Sexton, and if Murray can’t score efficiently enough to keep up on offense then Denver’s offense will have to share that burden.

Nikola Jokic should be able to handle Andre Drummond - Drummond will gobble rebounds but has no real way to slow Jokic’s offensive assault. But he won’t be able to secure the victory without help, and Denver will have to find new and inventive ways to keep their Third Quarter Blues at bay. Speaking of...

  • Avoid the Third Quarter Blues by any means necessary. As Stiffs’ own Ryan Blackburn detailed in this article, third quarters have been the sixth circle of Hell for Nuggets fans, forced to writhe on burning sands while opponents fling fiery missiles with inerrant accuracy. As this chart indicates, Abandon Hope All Ye Who Come Back From Halftime:

The Nuggets have consistently thrown away their hard-earned first half leads, to a startling degree. Whatever worked in the first half with their 2 units falls apart in the third and heading into the fourth, and Denver has been unable to correct the flaw. Cleveland will make a run - no team is afraid to be down to Denver at halftime these days.

It’s up to Denver to find a way to make buckets coming out for the second half. They are the third-best three point shooting team in the Western Conference, but they don’t take many of them. They have weapons from deep that should allow them to halt runs, but don’t. Murray and Barton will have to find the same fuel for the fire that they have in first halves, MPJ will need to remember he’s on the court on both ends, JaMychal Green and Monte Morris will have to bury some daggers - whatever it takes.

They cannot keep putting it all on Jokic, even if he is having one of the great starts to a season that Denver has ever seen. The Nuggets are one game over .500. The rest of the Nuggets need to stop watching and start helping, and against the Cavaliers even a couple of them bringing their lunchpail to work should get it done.

Prediction: Nuggets 115, Cavaliers 104.