Preview: Nuggets travel to Memphis to face Ja Morant and Grizzlies

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

The Denver Nuggets (8-3) hope to build momentum when they travel to Memphis to face the Grizzlies (5-7) Sunday. 

Although Memphis is in the midst of a rebuild, the team is currently on a three-game win streak, reeling off impressive victories against the Spurs, Hornets and the Jazz. Rookie sensation Ja Morant has been the catalyst, averaging 18.9 points, 6.0 assists and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 47.3 percent from the field. 

Denver comes into Sunday’s game after dominating the Nets in the second half of Thursday’s victory. The Nuggets held one of the best offensive teams in the NBA to just 32 points in the final 24 minutes and saw some improved production from their bench, a group that struggled in the previous games. The key will be avoiding the slow starts that have plagued the team recently. Denver has trailed going into halftime in its last four games. While the team has won three of those four games, the amount of energy and effort needed to turn those results around has led to head coach Michael Malone calling his players the ‘cardiac kids’ on Saturday. 

“We keep on building these double-digit deficits and good teams don't do that,” Malone said. “We have to find ways to get better and play as close to 48 minutes as possible.”
 
TUNE IN INFO: 4 p.m. MT, TV: ALTITUDE RADIO: KKSE 92.5FM/950AM 
 
Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton (questionable), Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić
 
Here’s what to watch for: 
 
Ja vs. Jamal 
 
Over the past week, the Nuggets have gone up against some of the league’s top points in Trae Young and Kyrie Irving. In Sunday’s game, they’ll get their first look at Morant, an early favorite for Rookie of the Year in this campaign. 
 
Murray has struggled to find consistency on offense over the past three games, averaging 12.3 points and shooting just 30.4 percent. However, he continues to show positive strides on defense. Aside from the outlier which was Young’s 42-point performance, Murray posted a defensive rating of 93 against Minnesota and a 95 against Brooklyn according to BasketballReference.com. Continuing that effort could be the difference-maker against Memphis. 
 
Morant is an effective playmaker, but he is turnover-prone. He’s currently averaging 3.8 turnovers per game, which is 11th in the NBA. If Murray and his teammates can force Morant into bad decisions, it could spark easy opportunities for the Nuggets on offense. 
 
Don’t forget about Jaren
 
Jaren Jackson Jr. stats this season read almost identical to the ones he posted in a solid rookie campaign, but he’s been on an offensive tear lately. 
 
The Grizzlies power forward is averaging 18 points, 5.8 rebounds and shooting lights out from downtown at 41.7 percent. Defensively, however, Jackson Jr. has regressed early on in the season. 
 
After having a 103.6 defensive rating last year, he’s currently 114.6 this season with a net rating of -12.1. Defensive ratings can be tricky and they don’t always paint a complete picture of how good a player is or isn’t in that area of the court. Still, the Nuggets could go to their frontcourt power forward tandem in Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant early and often against the sophomore Sunday. Both men are coming off strong performances in the win against Brooklyn on Thursday. 
 
Battle of the Euro bigs 
 
Another frontcourt matchup which should be fun to watch is between Jonas Valančiūnas, who hails from Lithuania, and the Nuggets’ Serbian star in Jokić. 
 
Due to a faster style of play (Memphis is currently 7th in pace), Valančiūnas’ minutes and production have dipped from last season but he is still an effective player on offense for Taylor Jenkins’ team. The 27-year-old is averaging 12.6 points, 9.3 rebounds while shooting 52.5 percent in just 23.2 minutes per game. Valančiūnas hasn’t played against the Nuggets as a member of the Grizzlies, so it will be fascinating to see how he’s utilized Sunday.
 
Considering the Nuggets like to slow opponents down and play more of a halfcourt game, Valančiūnas could be a factor for Memphis. Interestingly enough, the two men faced off against each other twice this summer in exhibitions prior to the FIBA World Cup. In the second game, Jokić had 18, Valančiūnas put up 14. 

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