Preview: Denver Nuggets kick off homestand with first matchup against Cavaliers

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Following the team’s longest road trip of the season, the Denver Nuggets return home and begin a three-game homestand with their first meeting against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday.

Denver is coming off perhaps its most impressive win over the season when they defeated the Dallas Mavericks on the road on Wednesday. Nikola Jokić continued his dominant scoring run with 33 points in the win, including the go-ahead basket with under eight seconds remaining. The Nuggets then closed the victory with incredible team defense on Dallas’ final possession.

The focus for the Nuggets continues to be on the defensive end, as they have slipped on that end of the floor in recent weeks. While Denver’s offense has ranked second in the league over the past two weeks, the defense has ranked 30th. A matchup with Cleveland’s 26th-ranked offense could be key in turning things around on the defensive end.

Cleveland has been mired in turmoil and rumors surrounding Kevin Love’s future with the team, as the rebuilding Cavaliers have struggled to an 11-27 start this season. The Cavaliers snapped a five-game losing streak with an overtime victory against the Detroit Pistons on Thursday.

Here are the keys to Saturday’s game:

Attack the basket early and often

Cleveland’s 29th-ranked defense has struggled in several areas this season, as opponents have shot lights out against the Cavaliers while Cleveland struggles to generate turnovers. However, when looking at the shot distribution against the Cavaliers’ defense, it’s clear protecting the rim has been a significant struggle for the Cavaliers.

Cleveland ranks 26th in the league in its opponent’s frequency of shots coming around the rim at 38.4 percent, while opponents have converted on 64.1 percent of those shots, which ranks 24th in the league. The Nuggets rank 17th in the frequency of shots coming around the rim, but Saturday would be a prime opportunity to capitalize against Cleveland’s defensive weakness.

The battle on the boards will be key

Cleveland is obviously not a team competing for the playoffs this season and as a result, they struggle mightily on both ends of the floor. However, the Cavaliers present a difficult challenge on the glass, as Cleveland ranks first in the league in offensive-rebound percentage and 13th in the league in defensive-rebound percentage (also known as opponent offensive rebound percentage).

The Cavaliers start a formidable duo on the boards in Love and Tristan Thompson, as both players grab over 10 rebounds per game this season. While the Nuggets are no slouch on the boards themselves (ranking fifth in offensive rebound percentage and 12th in defensive rebound percentage), they must be up to the task of limiting Cleveland’s second-chance opportunities if they hope to begin the homestand with a win.

Can Jokić continue his dominant scoring run?

Throughout the month of January, Jokić has averaged 29 points per game on 55.7 percent shooting from the field. Over the past two games alone, the Serbian big man has dropped 80 points and knocked down 8-of-14 from beyond the arc.

“That’s what he (Jokić) does,” Will Barton III said, following Jokić’s 47-point performance against the Hawks. “He just wants to win and play winning basketball. But when he’s dominant down there we’re just a different team. Any time he’s aggressive, that’s always the game plan. We want to play through him.”

Jokić didn’t put up eye-opening numbers against Cleveland last year (11.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game as he averaged 25 minutes per contest), but both games were comfortable victories for Denver. With Jokić in the zone that he has been in recently and Cleveland’s struggles defending the paint, look for another impressive game from Denver’s All-Star big man.

Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton III, Jerami Grant, Nikola Jokić

Saturday’s game will tip at 7 p.m. MT and will air on Altitude (Radio: 92.5FM).

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