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Preview: Denver Nuggets conclude season series against Bulls

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An uneven, season-long seven-game road trip will hit the halfway mark for the Denver Nuggets Monday night in Chicago with a rematch against the Bulls.

Denver (11-11) has gone 2-1 on the trip so far, with an impressive 113-99 victory at Madison Square Garden over the New York Knicks potentially building some momentum for the Mile High squad. Led by Nikola Jokić (32 points and 11 rebounds) and Zeke Nnaji (career-high 21 points), Denver used lights out shooting (20-of-43 from beyond the arc) to cruise to the victory in the second half.

Denver now travels to Chicago to take on a Bulls squad that has won three in a row, including a sweep of both New York teams to close last week. The Bulls (16-8) are one of five teams to rank in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive rating this season, while DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine have continued to produce clutch moments for Chicago.

Chicago won the first meeting between the two teams 114-108 back on Nov. 19, a game in which Jokić didn’t play.

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The battle of Nikolas

Two key absences from the previous meeting back in November came in the frontcourt, with both Jokić and Nikola Vučević missing the matchup in the Mile High City.

Jokić has continued to maintain his MVP level of performance following his return from a wrist injury, while Vučević has found his rhythm as of late, scoring 68 points over his past three games. Both big men are capable of scoring from inside and beyond the arc, but with Chicago adding DeRozan next to LaVine, the ball will often find its way to their hands down the stretches of games, while Jokić continues to be the hub of Denver’s offense.

The presence of the two Nikolas will certainly add a new dynamic to the second meeting between the two teams.

Avoiding fouls

The Bulls' offense has thrived in several areas this season, from limiting turnovers to effectively converting from the mid-range. However, one underrated aspect of Chicago’s offense has been the propensity to get to the charity stripe.

The Bulls rank fifth in free-throw rate (which accounts for the free throws made per 100 field-goal attempts). In the first meeting back in Denver, Chicago got to the line often and made the most of those trips, going 24-of-24 from the charity stripe in the narrow victory.

Denver has been effective in avoiding fouls this season, ranking seventh in opponent free-throw rate. That trend will certainly have to continue when guarding the Bulls Monday night if the Nuggets hope to slow down Chicago’s offense.

Defending inside the arc

Chicago’s offense has bucked the recent trend of prioritizing 3-point attempts over mid-range jumpers, as the Bulls have focused on attacking inside the arc this season.

69 percent of Chicago’s total shot attempts have come from the mid-range or at the rim, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise with the Bulls adding one of the game’s elite mid-range scorers in DeRozan during the offseason, while LaVine is capable of getting inside the paint on a regular basis.

Although Chicago hasn’t shot well around the hoop (61 percent, which ranks 23rd in the league), the Bulls have converted 44.5 percent of those mid-range attempts, which ranks in the top five. Denver’s defense has invited mid-range jumpers as it focuses on limiting attempts from beyond the arc and from inside the paint.

Despite not taking many threes, Chicago has been elite from downtown, ranking fifth in 3-point percentage at 37.5 percent.