Preview: Denver Nuggets continue road trip against Chicago Bulls

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

It would be hard to ask for a better start to the Denver Nuggets’ four-game road trip to end the first half of the schedule than what took place in Oklahoma City on Saturday.

In a 126-96 victory, Denver had five players score in double-figures and the offense was in cruise control, led by Nikola Jokić (19 points, 13 assists), Jamal Murray (26 points), and Michael Porter Jr. (20 points). Denver hit 48.4 percent from beyond the arc and dished out 30 assists in one of the most complete performances of the season.

MORE: Three takeaways from win over OKC

Now the road trip continues in Chicago, where Denver (18-15) will take on a Bulls team that is fighting for playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference. Chicago (15-17) has had a recent surge as of late, going 4-2 in the past six games. Led by first-time All-Star Zach LaVine, the Bulls have had an above-average offense this season, which has helped them stay in position for a playoff spot as we approach the All-Star break.

This will actually be the first meeting between these two teams in over two years, as both matchups scheduled for the 2019-20 season weren’t played due to COVID-19 suspending the season in early March.

Projected starters: Monte Morris, Jamal Murray, Will Barton III, Michael Porter Jr., Nikola Jokić

Injury report:

R.J. HAMPTON – HEALTH AND SAFETY PROTOCOLS. OUT.

PAUL MILLSAP – LEFT KNEE SPRAIN. OUT.

GARY HARRIS – LEFT ADDUCTOR STRAIN. OUT.

JAMYCHAL GREEN – LEFT SHOULDER SPRAIN. OUT.

TUNE IN: 6 p.m. MT, Altitude TV and 92.5FM

Key matchup: Jamal Murray vs. Zach LaVine

One of the key pieces in a trade return for Jimmy Butler during the 2017 offseason, LaVine has steadily grown and developed his game in four seasons in Chicago, culminating in his first All-Star birth this season.

The 25-year-old guard has become one of the deadliest scorers in the league, averaging 28.7 points per game on 52.4/44.2/85.7 percent shooting splits (field-goal, 3-point, and free throw percentage). However, LaVine also adds some playmaking and rebounding to the mix, averaging a career-high five assists per game and 5.2 rebounds per game this season. Chicago’s offense has been 6.5 points per 100 possessions better with LaVine on the floor this season, so Denver’s defense will have to lock in on him to limit the Bulls' offense.

Meanwhile, Murray wrapped up his breakout month of play with 26 points against the Thunder, marking the ninth consecutive game in which the 24-year-old has scored at least 22 points. Simply put, Murray put up All-Star worthy numbers over 12 February contests, averaging 25.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game on a 65.1 true shooting percentage.

Denver would love to see that level of play continue into the All-Star break, and Murray will have a prime matchup on his hands Monday against LaVine.

Capitalize on Chicago’s mistakes

This may sound easy, but Denver’s defense has a prime opportunity to generate some easy offense on Monday against a Bulls team that has struggled mightily to take care of the ball.

On the season, Chicago ranks 28th in the league in turnover percentage, coughing it up on 15.9 percent of its possessions. That number is nearly two percent higher than the league average and is a key reason why Chicago’s offense only ranks 14th in the league, despite posting the seventh-best effective field-goal percentage this season.

On the other end of the floor, although Denver has struggled a bit this season on the defensive end, the Nuggets have actually found success in forcing mistakes, ranking 10th in opponent turnover percentage on the year. Opponents have coughed it up on 14.7 percent of their possessions against Denver’s defense this season, which has helped generate some easy points on offense.

If Denver can get aggressive on defense and force Chicago into mistakes, the Nuggets should be able to find success on the offensive end in Monday’s contest.

Attack the basket

Speaking of finding success on offense, that recipe should focus on attacking the basket. Although that hasn’t been the focus of Denver’s offense this season (the Nuggets rank 21st in the frequency of shot attempts coming within four feet of the rim this season, when they do get there, the Nuggets finish at an elite clip.

Denver’s 67 percent shooting at the basket this season ranks sixth in the league, and this is an area of the floor where Chicago’s defense can be vulnerable.

Opponents have taken 35.2 percent of their shot attempts at the rim against the Bulls this season, which puts Chicago at 20th in the league in that category. Meanwhile, teams have finished at a 63.8 percent clip around the basket against the Bulls this year, which should be music to Denver’s ears as they look to prepare an offensive attack for Monday’s matchup.

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