The Atlanta Hawks roll into town on Friday night to face the Denver Nuggets in a matchup of borderline playoff contenders with a tenuous grasp on how to turn those dreams into a likely reality. Atlanta expected to be better than this, but integrating Dwight Howard into a team is always a struggle. He will miss this game with lingering back issues (of course) which leaves the Hawks vulnerable on the glass and at the rim. Paul Millsap is still great but the lack of Al Horford is being felt in the early going for the ATL.

Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore are not a three-point shooting backcourt especially in Tim Hardaway Jr’s expected absence, and Atlanta’s game is predicated on finishing inside the arc. This looks like a game to dictate the style of the game against a team that struggled going small in a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, but Denver’s first priority is to get its own house in order. If the passing, slashing offense of the last homestand is free to run efficiently, Denver has a good shot at a win.

The Basics

Who: Denver Nuggets (12-17) vs Atlanta Hawks (14-15)

When: 7:00 PM MST

Where: Pepsi Center, Denver CO

How to watch/listen: Altitude TV and Altitude Radio 950 AM

Rival blog: Peach Tree Hoops

Position Hawks Nuggets Advantage
PG Dennis Schroder Emmanuel Mudiay Hawks
SG Kent Bazemore Gary Harris Even
SF Kyle Korver Danilo Gallinari Nuggets
PF Thabo Sefolosha Wilson Chandler Nuggets
C Paul Millsap Nikola Jokic Hawks
Reserves Mike Muscala, Taurean Prince, Mike Scott, Malcolm Delaney, Tim Hardaway Jr. Jameer Nelson, Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Jusuf Nurkic Nuggets

Injury report: Dwight Howard – out (back); Thiago Splitter, out (hamstring); Tim Hardaway Jr – doubtful (groin); Jusuf Nurkic – questionable (doghouse)

Key matchup: Mudiay vs Schroder. Nikola Jokic having to deal with Paul Millsap all game since Dwight Howard is out will also be key, but Denver will have trouble getting out of the blocks if Mudiay can’t hold his own against Schroder. Denver was blown out in both games against the Hawks last year, with balanced scoring dismantling Denver’s defense. The Hawks tend to be patient and Mudiay will need to disrupt Schroder to get Atlanta out of their offensive comfort zone. Denver’s starting lineups were annihilated by the steady pressure of the Hawks last season, and Mudiay cannot afford another poor-shooting performance if Denver wants to avoid that same fate this year.

Key thing to watch for: offensive execution. Atlanta averages 24 assists a game, 5th in the league. Denver has averaged almost 27 over the last 4 games since the starting lineup adjustment. Denver is a weak defensive team at this point and Atlanta likes to run opposing defenses by moving the ball constantly. They pride themselves on their passes, even though sometimes their finishing lets them down. The Nuggets will likely switch everything and try to limit their rotations to cut down on open shooters, but this game will probably come down to offensive execution. Denver will have to outscore the Hawks, especially without Dwight in the middle to alter shots in the paint. Jokic is going to need to be aggressive with both his passing and scoring and Denver should unleash a cut-fest toward the basket.

Opening thought: let’s see a bounceback game. Denver was on tired legs against a far superior team and faceplanted in Los Angeles. The Nuggets have had a couple of days to digest that loss and see how the Clippers made things tough on their newly implemented point-center offense that is so dependent on dribble handoffs and screens/re-screens at the top of the key. I don’t expect Bazemore and Schroder to hound the guards on those plays any less that Chris Paul did, and Millsap is probably the best player on either squad. Denver will need to impose their will on offense in ways that they did not against the Clippers. The Hawks are not a great defensive team but they’re still better than the Nuggets in that regard. Denver can’t afford to dig a hole, so a fast start would make everything easiery.

Prediction: 109-103, Denver. Atlanta could honestly come out angry and take it to Denver, and (since Denver struggles with aggressive teams) letting the Hawks dictate terms would be a mistake. I think the reset button is pretty easy to push off a back-to-back, though, and Atlanta has been struggling to put teams away and displaying Denver’s own habit of having dead quarters that sabotage games. I think the Nuggets take advantage of one such quarter in this game to snag the victory.

Update – Pregame with Michael Malone: